Street Harassment: social network tantrum or violence against women?
(original title: Street Harassment: social network “mimimi” or violence against women?)
De tarde, por volta das 15h, eu e uma amiga andávamos na região centro-sul de Belo Horizonte, perto da Praça
Saúde Plena listens to men and women on the controversial topic. Research that interviewed almost 8 thousand Brazilian women online has its validity questioned, but provoked intense debate amongst couples, friends, specialists and bloggers. Are harassment and flirting synonyms? Are women victims? Are men the bad guys?
By: Letícia Orlandi and Valéria Mendes
Mid afternoon, around 3 o’clock, me and a friend were walking down South Central Belo Horizonte, near Liberty Square, when I noticed that a man walked behind us. As it was daytime, the place was crowded and it looked like a usual situation, I followed my path. Suddenly, I am slapped/squeezed tightly on the buttock, followed by those disgusting whispers to the ear, saying “how deliiiiicious…”. The perpetrator walked in the same step, as if nothing extraordinary had occurred and he was in his right. I felt like punching, screaming, scratching, but all I did was nothing, shocked.
This is one of the stories heard by Saúde Plena when we questioned men and women about street harassment. Common fact incorporated to our daily routine, this behavior has rewarded a more intense discussion after the results of the study called “Chega de Fiu Fiu” (“Enough whistling”, in free translation), were released last week. Past the commotion caused by the numbers in the social media — which motivated a war between blog posts, anonymous and famous timelines — we sought the opinion of experts in the fields of sociology, political sciences and law — plus men, of course — about the situations faced by women throughout the globe, every day, be they in greater or lesser gravity.
The research has gotten several challenges regarding its validity and method, as you will well read on the next pages, but in the end: is street harassment a normal thing? Is it violence? Is it attached to a wider scenario of prejudice?
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Part 1: Know the harassment stories and learn the details of the study that has set fire to the debate
Internet researches have grown in importance, but the “Enough whistling/cat calling” campaign cannot be considered a portrait of real life. Understand
The testimony that opens this article is of Barbara Lage, a 27 year old fashion teacher who states: “every day, no matter the hour, wardrobe or frowned face, we women are subject to harassment”. JFV, also 27 and a Letters student, confirms that she has also been exposed to such a situation many times. “From ‘hoooot stuff’ whispered to the ear to graver accounts. When I was around 16 years old a man, who was in the middle of a group, groped my ass as I was walking with a friend in the avenue where I lived. I looked back and everybody laughed. I was extremely embarrassed” says J. who’d rather not be identified.
She also recalls another occasion, when she even found herself in doubt whether she’d been harassed or not. “It was three years ago, I was in Búzios with my mother. During a boat trip, one of the tour guides had offered to give me scuba diving lessons. I was suspicious, but eventually said yes — with my mother’s incentive, without her knowing the man’s real intent. Already underwater, he started touching my breasts. I was baffled: not knowing if, by accepting to dive, I was okay with that too. At a first moment I did not react, but the feeling was too discomforting. I took his hand off and backed away. We came back to the boat, and he apologized”, tells the student. To Juliana Gonzaga Jaime, a teacher at the Social Sciences Program and the graduation in Social Sciences and Advertisement at PUC Minas University, sexual harassment and abuse victims are, many times — and by the very women — transformed from victims to responsible for the situation they were put through. “It’s not unusual to hear sentences like ‘what were you doing there the first place?’ or ‘but you provoke men with those clothes’”, she explains.
According to journalist Juliana de Faria, owner of thinkolga.com — the website that hosted and divulged the “Enough whistling” questionnaire on social media (and then revealed its results) — sexual harassment in public places is treated as a non-issue. “It’s an invisible monster, without studies, researches, articles or reports on the fact. It is impossible to fight a problem if we have no information whatsoever about it. That is why I’ve created the “Enough whistling” campaign, to give a face and size to sexual harassment. The first phase comprised of releasing illustrations by designer Gabriela Shigihara”, she explains.
Juliana’s next step was creating a space where readers’ testimonies would be exposed. The goals were three:
- To show it is a collective and not individual issue, that is, every woman suffers with harassment and has similar stories. And if it is so generalized, she who has suffered it has no fault for it;
- To allow women to exchange experiences on how to deal with it, from immediate response techniques to how they processed what happened afterwards;
- To create empathy in people who still believe sexual harassment doesn’t exist or is a foolish matter. One thing is to address the rape culture in general terms. Another is having examples of every awkward situation your mother, sister, cousin, friend or girlfriend has witnessed.
The third step was releasing the study, which was not designed within the context of an academic research, with scientific method. According to Juliana, the questionnaire was created by the also journalist Karin Hueck, who cooperated with the campaign. The form was available on Think Olga for two weeks, whit a total of 7762 responses. “I have been harassed from age eleven. At that age, as I walked back from the bakery a car drove past me and the driver shouted such lewd words I dare not repeat. So much that at the very moment I started to cry, embarrassed. Verbal aggressions also hurt and traumatize. Fear becomes something so ordinary we don’t even notice we stop doing things because of it — be it wearing a skirt, or choosing a path that goes by a bar. But no one should be scared only because they were born a woman”, advocates the journalist.
Check out the main results of the research prepared by the journalists:
The blogger sustains the numbers are revolting. “More than that, they are frightening. But, unfortunately, they are no surprise for women. It proves we feel unsafe even during mundane acts, such as walking on the street. Besides, aggressions are seen as natural. But women have shown their weariness and desire to change this scenery. Only five hours after the research was launched, its results were shared by over 10 thousand people”, she celebrates.
Questioned about real actions that might at least assuage such a reality, the journalist adds that recognizing the problem and debating it are the first steps. “That’s what we are doing with the campaign”, she finishes.
Doctor in political sciences and a professor at PUC Minas University, Malco Camargos says internet studies have been constantly growing in importance. However, in the particular case of the “Enough whistling” campaign, the researcher gives merit for it pointing the need for more researches on the topic. “Its results signal something, without quantifying or giving it any metric. A further investigation on the subject is necessary” he states.
For him, the result could very well represent the thinking of the blog’s readers, but it doesn’t. “One of the pre-requisites for a study to have scientific value is that it doesn’t interfere with whoever participates in it, guaranteeing its randomness. When it’s voluntary, there is no control over the profile of the person answering it. As for the randomness, it can be guaranteed with a lottery that selects those who will respond the questionnaire”. The conclusion being that the research cannot be generalized to fit the entire female universe.
To react or not to react?
When it comes to reacting to an awkward situation on the street, Bárbara says she has cursed back and pushed, by impulse. “Normally, I make a frown and ignore them. I don’t know if the ideal is to react with a more energetic posture (despite that being my will), because I’ve seen several cases with a very sad ending simply for the fact that a girl has turned her face. Sadly, this is our reality. Most hits I get are lighter, a whistle, “gorgeus”, “doll”, “princess”. But there are heavier ones, and those are invasive, aggressive, disgusting. No matter the type, I think something needs to be done for it to stop. On the other hand, I have hope that, in case I reacted, I would have the solidarity of passers-by, because I notice such a behavior (helping the victim) has been growing”, says the fashion teacher.
The discomfort is so much that Bárbara has decided to research for legislation that might support her case. On the other hand, she clearly differentiates flirting from harassment. “Now, if you say no to the other party and is not respected, that is, when there is insistence, regardless of where it happens, flirting may become harassment”, she explains. According to the 27 year old teacher, street harassment is not only awkward, but a discomfort that leads to anger and daily bad mood. “Harassment brings anguish, for the fear of fighting back, other than anxiety to get rid of an insecure situation”, she describes.
JFV says that, on many occasions, there isn’t even time for a response or a reaction when a guy whispers a lewd sentence in your ear. “They do it in the middle of the street and go about their way. There’s no time to contain it or react, exposing him to ridicule. I think it would be ridiculous for the person who’s uttered the ‘pearl’ if I revealed to people around him what he’s just said to me”, believes the student.
On the possibility of filing a report, J points the difficulty of taking a witness to the police station, and suspects the repercussions such an action would have. “We don’t even have ways to point towards the culprit. I react only with stares, but I think that I would feel safer to be more energetic if necessary, or if I had more time. I hope a passer-by will be sympathetic with me, depending on the situation”, she claims.
The student points an even crueler aspect to the whole discussion. “As if awkwardness and humiliation weren’t enough, it seems complaining about it is nitpicking, something a “poorly fucked feminist” would do. I can’t see in any way how someone calling me hottie or complimenting me on my butt would make me feel proud of myself and/or my body. I think such a male behavior makes us more ashamed and self-conscious, rather than simply ‘being’. Than walking on the street, regardless of time, working, going to gyms, clubs, etcetera. If a woman is vain, it doesn’t mean she likes or expects to hear lewd comments or lines even more invasive from other people, in general, other men”, she resumes.
Harassment on the streets is not a Brazilian exclusivity
The non-governmental organization “Stop harassment on the street” (www.stopstreetharassment.org), founded in the United States and with offices in several countries around the world, also tries to combat not only embarrassment but lack of data on the problem.
Using the internet, Ong conducted two online and anonymous surveys as part of a master’s degree paper presented at George Washington University in 2007; and to publish a book in 2008. Adding the two surveys, there were 1,141 respondents, a small percentage of men in the first study. Almost all female respondents had suffered street harassment at least once. The survey does not include harassment at work or nightclubs and specifies situations considered as “harassment,” see:
Male power and female subordination are learned behaviors
Researcher Juliana Gonzaga Jayme states that the term “line” can’t be applied to situations in which the woman is embarrassed by words, looks or gestures. “It is sexual harassment, it’s obvious it disturbs and, more than that, it frightens and oppresses.
The researcher affirms that Brazilian and north-American studies only corroborate with the literature of gender studies and feminist studies that discuss and rediscuss gender violence. “Although we can’t deny there are advancements regarding gender equality, male power — and female subordination — are still manifested. And that is learned. Studies on masculinity show how there is an ideal called hegemonic manhood that, among other characteristics, is associated to violence and may be manifested through physical aggressions and threats, such as sexual harassment and awkwardness in public or even domestic spaces”, she states.
To her, men have complete knowledge that such behaviors are of a violent and oppressive nature. “They are aware of the absurdity of it, so much that it is uncommon for them to have such an attitude in situations where they hold less power”, she analyzes.
Men’s point of view of sexual harassment: are the clothes to blaim?
Men also say their word about public harassment and the research data. Specialists reflect over the load of prejudice imbued in the awkward cries of women out on the streets
“I am very frightened of how much the culture of ‘she’s a whore cause she wears sexy clothes’ or even worse, the paradoxical phrase that I’ve heard a million times and have revolted in every one of them: ‘she’s a whore cause she didn’t want to fool around with me’. Guys, seriously. Support alone isn’t enough. We need to start thinking A LOT about our attitudes, and change them ASAP”. Vinícius Chagas is 28, and a Game Designer. After the results of the Enough Whistling study came out, he decided to give his opinion in is Facebook Profile, and has gotten the support of male and female friends on the social network.
Vinicius doesn’t add up to his “many friends” that, according to him, usually observe women way too aggressively, with loud comments as if they weren’t speaking about them or even making the so-called “compliments”. “I am very much against comments harassing people on the street, of any kind”, he says.
The Game Designer believes that there are other ways to approach a girl. “This customary line seems to me as more of a sport. Of course the guy doesn’t expect it to reward him a telephone number, but I believe that, ensured by the fact he’s stronger than her and, mainly, when he’s in the safety of a group of friends, he feels confident do harass”, he observes. To him, men don’t feel the weight of harassment because it is a rare thing. “I have been harassed by an older woman and have seen friends become enraged over being harassed by homosexuals, believing it to be a totally different situation in comparison to a cheesy line to a woman. To me, it’s the very same thing”, he says.
The game designer believes the practice has become the norm in times where women seem to have gained more confidence to wear sexy outfits on the streets. “I, in fact, love to observe the figure of a beautiful woman, and think it is great that they feel comfortable to wear such clothes. Logically speaking, if we men act with such disrespect towards them, we are bullying them into never wearing provocative clothes again. In my head that seems pretty obvious”, he concludes.
The father of all prejudice
Vinicius ends up hitting the nail in the head, when it comes to the matter of public harassment: clothing. According to Dierle Nunes, a lawyer, doctor in civil procedural law and teacher in the Law School of UFMG and PUC Minas’ post grad Masters Degree, the father of all prejudice is that against women. “There is a cultural construct, reproduced by the very women in their raising, that turns the individual of the female sex into an object”, alerts the teacher. “But it so happens that women have the fundamental right to dress as she pleases, and to manifest themselves. When the discussion begins by questioning their dress code, it hurts any legal discussion over equality”, he reports.
Such right is reflected, even, in the many Slut Marches that have happened in many countries. “The march has its origin in the declaration of a Canadian officer, which attributed the number of rapes to the way women dressed themselves, as if they where sluts. It so happens that a cleavage or a mini-skirt doesn’t give anyone the right to molest someone else. It shows a mistake and a gross lack of knowledge over fundamental rights”.
The professor ponders that modernity has brought, to the western world, a need for standardization. Whoever doesn’t fit the mold, is subjected to prejudice. “This is why the prejudice against women is the father of all others. This standardization has led us to pursuit the false ideal of happiness — to marry, have children, be heterosexual — that goes against the multilayered and plural characteristic of being human”, reflects Dierle Nunes. “Even though I am part of the minority accepted as standard, it does not give me the right to prejudice. Breaking standards is what makes human existence that much richer. The deconstruction of such norms — a men’s man will provoke women on the street — is what might lead us to a less solitary and prejudiced living”.
Nunes doesn’t bet in the criminalization as a tool for change in behavior. “There is a grave issue amongst women throughout the world — 7 in 10 will suffer some form of violence through their lives. And graver still is that, even though it is characterized as a crime, the system that controls physical violence against women is ineffective. In the cases of violence that doesn’t materializes itself physically, we have to rely mainly in the shift of behavior and more effective public policies”, points out the lawyer.
No consent amongst the silent
Sociologist and a professor at PUC Minas, Juracy Costa Amaral points out that the Brazilian Cultural Formation is constructed over a patriarchal model. “Women were an object of propriety, much like an animal, and has existed for a long time in a condition of merchandise”. To him, Brasil has not conquered modernity and an example of that is the male centered advertisement business that puts, to this day, the female body as an object. “This is a speech reproduced systematically by the media”, he says.
To make matters worse, the professor points out men’s constant need to publicly prove their masculinity. “It’s a classic issue in the Brazilian culture: men that don’t flirt are considered effeminate”, he states. Juracy Amaral says that in the sense of common living, it’s a scenery of decadence. “Harassment becomes the norm and the rule of thumb becomes ‘those who are bothered must leave’. Why don’t the whistlers leave? How many judges don’t rule in favor of men? We have the example of an Italian magister that, in his sentencing, affirmed that the cause of rape was the woman was wearing jeans”, he points.
To him, the general vision is that the clothing is making that woman be harassed. “But we might as well be living in a nude camp without anyone being harassed. The Sluts March suggested that notion to rebuke that thought. A woman that shows her body isn’t considered someone of respect. That’s a cultural value”, he signs.
A rape happens every three seconds in Brazil, and fear is the main reason why women don’t react to verbal or gestural violence proffered over their bodies. Again, Juracy Amaral seeks explanation in the culture’s formation to ponder over the theme. ”Women’s condition in society is one of submission, of shutting up even without giving consent, of being quiet to avoid aggression, of not making a fuss, of being docile and not talking back. Fear was constructed along history: one is shut over fear of the worse and no, there is no consent amongst the silent”, he suggests.
Juracy reports a case he witnessed in Amazonas Avenue, Downtown Belo Horizonte, during a civil worker’s strike. “A woman walked by and heard ‘hey hot stuff’, ‘you’re making me horny’. To which she answered, loud and clear: ‘give your a*hole that it’ll pass’. The flirter left the demonstration, showered by the laughter of his peers. Is that a way to correct this evil?” he questions. To him, the fact is that women weren’t raised to it, but to succumb to men’s order. “They suffer much more, losing even their freedom of speech. Men to that as a way to show that this is the way women should be treated. Its barbaric, an uncivilized culture behavior, from the primordial times of civilization”, he sentences.
To the sociologist, sexual harassment is value by men of every social class or educational level. “All of those who are over 30 think that way, and live in the culture of ‘flaunting butchness’. Whoever doesn’t show it is displaying ‘faggyness’”, he says. Juracy believes new generations question some of these models, which were reproduced in time within the family bosom.
“What puts me out of hope is the reproduction of this behavior as a value. The man who seduces, who grabs, is admired. This is the evil thing”, says Juracy Amaral. To him, a person’s character is not something that changes, but the media has a fundamental role in creating values that provoke a change in customs. “Women must also react. The public reaction creates awkwardness in the harasser”, he hopes.
Juracy Amaral glimpses change. “Rules of living must be reinforced as a whole. Family, school, factory, State, religion must review their values. However, the religious aspect is a great impediment to such an advance. It’s a biblical matter, this machismo”, he ponders.
Is there a solution?
To Barbara, which has been a victim of violent harassment in the street, there are indeed solutions. “Medium term, I believe more information, researches and campaigns might help. An official campaign about the topic should happen and air on open TV, newspaper and other media. To be widely spread and not circulate only on the internet. On the long term, my bet is on education, to form a conscience over the matter at an early age”.
A 27 year old student that doesn’t want to be identified, J.F.V. agrees and adds that, on the medium term, if women start responding to harassment with vigor — which includes denouncing it formally — there might be a reduction. “Another possibility to resolve this reality is through education. That the new generation might be instructed in a way that is different, when it comes to respecting people. We must create a different notion on how to approach someone, without invading their privacy or making them awkward by not allowing such an approach” defends the student.
On the possibility of change, Nunes points out a multidimensional path. “Besides formal education, there must be reflection within the families, which have become arrangements less and less towards a ‘margerine comercial’ and evermore complex; and also within public policies that go beyond violence control”, she adds.
When harassment becomes a police affair: poor ladies or voiceless women?
Jurists debate victimization and the need for public policies regarding women’s right to consider factors beyond violence
From the legal standpoint, the Law course coordinator in Universidade Fumec and specialist in Penal Law, Silvana Lobo, states that you can’t mix the public space harassment to that which occurs in the work environment. “Sexual harassment crime in the work relations is foreseen in Article 216 A of the Penal Code, and it factors in a relationship of superiority between the harasser and its victim”, she explains. The lawyer says the approach that demands favors, embarrasses the woman or makes her fearful of unemployment is a grave behavior, worthy of punishment.
If you walk down the street and is called “gorgeous” or “hot stuff”, the misdemeanor is deemed disturbance of the public order, and is depicted in Article 65 of the Law of Penal Misdemeanors. “The penalty is of simple arrest of 15 days up to 2 months”, the specialist declares. There are also factored within this article cases of co-workers — without a relation of superiority — which embarrass the woman with expressions, behaviors and bantering that might upset her.
“To grope a woman is, in thesis, no crime at all. Now, to grab or try to forcibly kiss her is a rape crime, Article 213 of the Penal Code. In these cases, the woman must call the police and file a complaint”, she recommends. Silvana Lobo stresses out that, in cases such as these, it is important to have a proof of witness, since such violent behavior — common in big shows, nightclubs and the carnival — does not usually leave traces. Another tip from the specialist is to ask for a copy of the close circuit feed of night club cameras, for instance.
In case the woman has ingested alcohol beverages, the same act is aggravated: rape of a vulnerable, Article 217 of the Penal Code. Now, if the “fiddle” happens within a bus, we are back to the misdemeanor called disturbance of peace. “Only if the man grabs her to grope her it is considered rape by the Penal Code”, she details.
If instead of being called “beautiful”, the woman hears lewd words, that offend her honor, dignity and humiliates her, it is considered another crime: that of insult. If the words are proffered by children or adolescents, it’s considered corruption of minors.
All these peculiarities in the law serve to explicit the solution does not go through punishment, although there is a predicted crime in the Penal Code for every abuse committed against women. The most constructive approach to the matter lies within the guarantee of fundamental rights towards human beings, regardless of their gender, without the assumption of superiority of man towards woman, without the objectification of the female body and through mutual respect.
For Juliana Jayme, change will come through learning: “as the north-american philosopher Judith Butler would say, gender is learned. As such, it is possible to learn and teach gender relations — but not only, also those of race, class, sexual orientation — based on equality. And that is acquired (and taught) within the family, in school, but there must be a commitment from the State, in a way that does not disqualify the denouncement of a public harassment, for instance.”
Dierle Nunes calls out to the need of a public policy of whole implementation of women’s rights, one that goes beyond the criminal matter. “Public policies nowadays worry only with the criminal law, framing the day to day behavior of harassment as something natural. It may be very common, but natural, it is not” he defends.
Another point of view to which the lawyer calls out for is that the very women feed their status as objects when they call someone a slut or disqualify one that dresses like this or the other. “It induces a manly behavior and reinforces the triviality of violence against women. The very women, often times, do not notice they are victims of a huge network of prejudices. They end up policing themselves by not doing many things which are their right. And when such a perception is well disseminated, there will be a bigger chance to change it”, observes the professor.
But, what about the victimization of women in this whole story? “Look, I can tell you even as a teacher, because I see that women have much more chances of professional success, by being more committed. Wage injustices in the workforce notwithstanding, but it is an example that the woman is not some poor girl, and is perfectly able to get what she wants. To say a woman is a poor little thing is to throw to dirt years of the fight in the feminist movement”, he defines.
“Victimization must be fought, yes, but in this case it is a matter of approach. The Maria Da Penha Law has been a target of questioning over excessive victimization. The approach mustn’t be on the viewpoint of the poor little woman, but by the fundamental right to express oneself, to let one be heard and to oppose to awkward behaviors, for the right of not being the target of prejudice. One cannot pretend nothing is happening before harassment, if so things will remain exactly as they are”, he finishes.