There, on a bustling street in Brussels, dotted with bars and restaurants packed with people, walk Zoë and her friends. “Wait!” Zoë hears, and she turns around to see a man point at her behind and say, “there’s something falling out of your back pocket.” “What is it,” she urges the man while she reaches for her pockets. Her friends push for her to come along and ignore the man. As he approaches, still pointing at her behind, Zoë spots the man’s friend laughing and before she can connect the dots, the man grabs her ass.
As a reflex, she lashes out at him and yells: “Fuck off!”
“It felt like a violation of my body,” said Zoë (21), a London resident. Besides the fury and adrenaline she felt, she had been angry at herself for trusting the stranger on the street and disregarding her friends’ warning. “Ideally, we should be in a world where I shouldn’t ‘have known’.”
After the eruption of #MeToo one year ago – showing the magnitude of sexual intimidation and harassment – several European cities such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Paris have introduced legislation in response. The offender can be fined at an average of 190 euros in the Netherlands and up to 750 euros in France. According to a 2018 report by IOS, a statistics bureau, most of this intimidation includes whistling, catcalling, being followed, and physical harassment.
These newly enforced legislations also follow a call by UN Women and their Dutch division for municipalities to start saying #HereToo. This in the name of ‘Safe Streets’, a recent Dutch initiative to counter street intimidation, for the over 80% of women who have experienced sexual intimidation in public.
While Zoë’s example of physical harassment is gripping, it isn’t extraordinary. Many women have different experiences with street intimidation. It happens so often, Zoë said, that she’s “gotten used to it, in a sad way.”
Making her way home alone on a dark recent Tuesday night, Sophie (21), a student in Rotterdam, didn’t expect to bump into anyone in the quiet residential area where she lives. Making her way down the main road her neck hairs stood right up when she heard heavy footsteps that did not match hers. “Maybe it is just a man going home,” she thought, as she strayed off the main road to reassure herself that it was her imagination. He turned the corner with her. In the ten-minute walk that followed, she quickened her pace as the man narrowed the distance between them. Taken over by anger and fear she turned around, looked him in the eye and shouted at him to leave her alone. He bolted.
She tries not to walk home alone anymore.
Two months ago, during her stay in the US, Josien (20), an exchange student in Phoenix, Arizona, was walking around with a cart in a supermarket. She was leaning on it as she scanned the shelves. She was strolling through an aisle full of people, when, all of a sudden, a man in his sixties whistled at her and looked her up and down. She stood still and felt aware of her body. Perplexed she thought: “Are you really doing this?” She debated whether she should say something but decided to walk on.
Speaking to The Stand, neither Josien, Sophie nor Zoë were certain what they’d done to provoke the intimidation, or how they could have avoided it.
But it’s not just these explicit accounts of intimidation that jar these women. ‘The look’ that they receive every day makes you feel “like someone is undressing you with his eyes.” It is a look that makes you feel “objectified”, said Josien. It happens during the most mundane moments of daily life, such as walking home or going to class, and “you’re no longer the woman going from A to B,” but the man has taken charge of your feelings. Josien said, “I hate that that’s possible.”
The few men that agreed to speak to The Stand for this article seemed unaware that grabbing, following and catcalling cause fear.
“In your mind, you’re doing nothing wrong” said Stefano (26), a landscaper, while remembering the times he and his friends catcalled women. Driving in a car, they’d try to capture the attention of women passing by, shouting “pussy”, “mamma mia” or just making a loud noise, before driving away, laughing. It seemed like a game to them without the “intention to be offensive,” according to Stefano. They never thought about what the women felt in that moment. He said: “We always see things from a male point of view.”
Other men in Groningen expressed similar views. Hudayfah (23), a student, told The Stand he finds it hard to see the harm in whistling at a girl, although he can imagine that a girl would feel unsafe when that happens.
“I’m not permanently afraid or something,” Josien says. Each incident lasts only for a moment but it happens so often that it affects her. “You see all of the scenarios in your head.” Which is why she doesn’t engage whenever it happens, as she fears that it might get worse if she does.
Some men have started to pay attention to women’s feelings on the matter too. Stefano said this is what changed his behaviour. His girlfriend made him realize how being catcalled in the street makes girls feel and how it affects them, such as having to change their clothes, posture and behaviour when leaving the house. Now, he no longer finds catcalling funny. However, he can still understand the male perspective. He feels that as long as men don’t bring women down and treat them “like an object,” they can joke around with their friends.
Catcalling and other forms of street intimidation are also a way for men to prove themselves to other men, thinks Stefano. When feeling insecure about themselves, men “try to bring out a kind of bravery, manpower, trying to not treat the woman as an equal but as an instrument, to be equal to other men.”
Both Zoë and Josien can see how male street intimidation can be a result of vulnerability. Whether it’s an inability to communicate sexual attraction to women, or to assert some kind of power and, as Josien says, to feel like “a real haantje” (a classic alpha male).
In the end, Stefano doesn’t think that “people that catcall ever get the girl.”