“It could have been worse”: the danger zone of sexual harassment

"If we dismiss women who feel threatened by ‘minor’ incidents, we are training women to invalidate their feelings when worse things happen." Anna Robinson discusses society's approach to catcalling.

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TW: sexual harassment

There is a street outside my student flat that we call the ‘danger zone’. 

The appellation was created over a pot of linguine on another ordinary university night in. We were sitting in our kitchen giving accounts of our respective days. I mentioned that on the way home someone had shouted out of their car a vulgar comment about how my body looked in my jeans. This was greeted by a chorus of knowing scoffs: “Yeah, it seems particularly bad there”. This prompted my friends to relate their experiences on this particular stretch of road – a road we have to walk down every day to get to our college. A couple of days before someone had shouted something about my friend’s legs, apparently on display for his enjoyment rather than because it was a hot day. Although we felt uncomfortable, we all laughed about it; she quipped that to salivate over her legs was ridiculously out of date: “Legs aren’t even in these days.” If you’re going to objectify a part of my body, at least choose something currently in fashion. 

Laughing at these men felt like a way to subvert the feelings of powerlessness and littleness inherent in being the recipient of verbal harassment. None of us actually found it funny.

Whenever we got cat-called we would add another chapter to these ‘danger zone’ chronicles. One day a car was waiting for me a few hundred yards outside college. In broad daylight he drove slowly behind me, repeatedly crooning for me to ‘get in’. I told him to leave me alone: he called me a ‘bitch’. 

I’ve been catcalled since I was fourteen. When I was younger my friends and I used to find it hilarious when it happened to a group of us. I can see now that we were using humour to try and expunge uncomfortable implications. It was as if being found attractive by strangers driving past us on our way to a friend’s house was some perversely thrilling initiation into womanhood. We had grown up on a culture that teaches women to be grateful when they are found attractive by men. 

When I was seventeen I went to Romania to volunteer in a school with a group of girls from my sixth form. We were advised to take taxis rather than walk anywhere in the evenings. The local volunteers would sometimes get into the cars with us and translate what had been said on the drive. One day there were four of us squashed in the back: I could see our faces in the driver’s mirror like a line-up. I watched the driver point me out to our local friend and say things that made her roll her eyes. When we got out she raised an eyebrow – “Jesus, he really liked YOU, Anna.” A lot of the drivers did things like this; the girls made a kind of competition out of it, seeing who would receive the most attention. Despite the intense discomfort these interactions left me with, I remember being slightly envious of the girl who seemed to have ‘won’ in the end. She was very pretty.

When I was eighteen I went travelling with some friends. In typical sentimental fashion we compiled a number of lists to remember our times together –funny things that had happened, the best sights, our favourite places to eat. We had another list – one ranking the ‘creepiest’ places, informed by a tally of car horns, catcalls, or inappropriate comments made – as if the predatory behaviour of its male inhabitants was cemented in the city; as much a part of its landscape as its churches and riverside cafes. Making a list out of it was our way of trying to control it, extracting statistics from the situation rather than a deep sense of unease. But always the question remained: if we hadn’t been in a group of four, would that man have said or done more than he did? 

The following summer I worked in a small deli on the seafront. Most of the customers were lovely. But some – men – thought because I worked there they could say anything to me and I had to be nice about it. Dealing with inappropriate comments about my appearance was as much a part of the job as potting up olives and washing floors.

University seems to only spotlight such issues. We stopped even attempting to make light of the ‘danger zone’ after my friends were grabbed by a man waiting outside our student accommodation. We felt furious and powerless when a man filmed up my flatmate’s skirt for four minutes on her way to a lecture. He was eventually forcefully interrupted by a passer-by who saw what was happening. Despite his protests that it was the first time he’d ever done something like that, the police found dozens of recordings of other girls on his phone. This was just the first time he’d been caught. He begged my friend not to go to the police; he had a wife and kids. How could she ruin his life? The notion that he was responsible for his actions did not occur to him. Blame is displaced onto the woman; it is her fault for wearing a certain item of clothing, for looking at someone the wrong way, for being pretty, for having a body. 

He pleaded guilty. With so much evidence there could hardly be any dispute. He was sentenced to 19 days of unpaid work. In five years’ time they will remove his name from the Sex Offenders Register.

It might be easy for some to regard instances of catcalling as mere ‘harmless flirting’. But they are the product of this same fucked up ideology: the belief that a woman’s body is there for a man’s pleasure. But if I complain I am just being hysterical; I am just another woman who cannot take what you call a ‘compliment’.

The thing is: I love compliments. But the comments made to me and my friends on the street are not compliments. No one has ever applauded my brilliant work ethic on my way to a lecture; it is always how my body looks as I am walking there. I never get catcalled when I am walking with a man, and it occurs mostly when I am alone – surely this suggests that there is an inherent predatory nature to such comments: perceived vulnerability makes me an attractive target.

Implicit in every catcall is a recognition that my existence in your world is limited to how much voyeuristic pleasure you can derive from my body. You are reminding me that by leaving my home I am apparently consenting to being sexualised by total strangers. It is symptomatic of a wider culture whereby female existence can be seen as a medium for male gratification.

It is easy to dismiss the persistence of this culture. But the experience of so many women is a testament that it is alive and thriving. It is why students are cautioned against walking home alone. It is why we need consent workshops in Freshers’ Week, where we are told that one in seven university-age women experience serious sexual or physical assault during their time as a student. Given that harassment is likely to be underreported, given that this is only speaking of a short period of a woman’s life, and given all the whispered confidences of friends, this statistic feels like an understatement.

Normalising, accepting, dismissing smaller incidents like catcalling as just a minor inconvenience, an unfortunate part of life, is a dangerous evasion. If you can comment freely on my body from a car window, you can objectify me in other ways. If I am there for you to look at, then I am there for you to touch. Strangers do not need to touch my lower back to move past me in a club. Pinching me from behind is harassment: the fact that you do it in ‘ATIK’ should not disguise it. Consent is not determined by location.

Many of us have been conditioned by these ‘minor’, but frequent, incidents into a complicity of silence – a belief that ‘it’s just what happens’, ‘it’s not that big of a deal’. To complain is to risk being seen as over-sensitive, maybe even attention-seeking.

When a man twice my age told me I was a ‘slut’ in Sainsbury’s because I was wearing a skirt, I felt stupid for feeling so shaken by it. It was three in the afternoon and I was trying to pick up some groceries. I left with only half my shopping. I have not worn that skirt since. 

There is a popular food place that I used to go to with my friends after a night out. One time a security guard, much older and bigger than me, came and sat with me while I waited alone for the others. He started asking me explicit questions about my sex life, and I went quiet, feeling that familiar deep discomfort spread across my skin – a skin which suddenly felt all wrong for being exposed. As I was leaving he whispered something to his colleague, who then came up to me: “He wants your number”. We go to a different place for our chips now. 

There is a list in my head of places I no longer feel comfortable going to. I know my friends have similar lists. Oxford is scattered with landmarks – not just pretty buildings, but places where things have happened. We all follow the same geographical map but an emotional map is different for everyone. Every time I pass the window of my first year room I tell myself not to look up.

These kinds of incidents are just a minute proportion of the stories millions of women accumulate throughout their lives. There are other stories, too. Many are too painful to speak of. And many of them risk being dismissed or disputed if they are uttered. If we dismiss women who feel threatened by ‘minor’ incidents, we are training women to invalidate their feelings when worse things happen. If we teach girls that things like catcalling are compliments rather than symptoms of a system that harms, distorts and diminishes the problems women face, we are failing to protect them. We are even teaching them to be grateful for it. We are only making it easier for far more serious incidents to be diminished. 

Inside the college community, incidents of harassment and assault face a microclimate of conditions which often inadvertently benefit the offender. Addressing the inappropriate, or predatory, behaviour of students can feel uncomfortable for those in the group. Accountability is often sacrificed for the sake of avoiding awkwardness. 

For the most part I have focused on experiences with men deemed ‘strangers’. But be under no illusion; harassment is not limited to these anonymous individuals. For many, talking about experiences inside college is just even harder. You face not only sexual politics, but the politics of a friendship group, of a college community. There is a silent pressure to ‘smooth things over’, to avoid ‘overreacting’.

So many of us have heard our friends say: ‘It could have been worse’. As if it is our responsibility to calibrate correctly our own sense of fury onto a scale that is always moving, and never on our side. The sentence is perhaps an effort to rationalise intense and uncontrollable feelings. But I can’t help but feel it is a product of a society that refuses to admit there is something wrong with the way it treats the people is has a duty to protect. In September 2019, The Guardian reported that ‘Rape complainants who come forward to the police have less of a chance of seeing their case pursued and their attacker convicted in court than they did 10 years ago’. In Hampshire, for example, in 2019 for every 62 recorded rapes there was one conviction.

With problems at all levels of response – from the justice system to our closer personal communities, that ‘one in seven’ statistic we hear about in our Freshers’ workshop becomes less of a statistic, and more of a prophecy.