By: Delia Harrington, Massachusetts, USA, Former SSH Correspondent
“What were you wearing?”
It’s one of the most common questions people ask me after I tell a story of experiencing street harassment. Some people seem to genuinely believe that there is a combination of precautions that will protect us from street harassment. Go out at the correct time of day, in the right part of town, wearing certain clothes, taking specific modes of transportation, and accompanied by the precise number and gender of companions, and all will be well. They see my stories as parable, and want to know how they can avoid a similar fate. If we focus on the clothing of the person who was harassed, it makes the solution seem simple: don’t wear that skirt/tight clothes/short hemlines/pants/leggings as pants/fill in the blank, and you will be safe.
Unfortunately, this common line of thought (even amongst otherwise-progressive, well-meaning people) excuses the bad behavior of the harasser, unfairly labels men as incapable of resisting the allure of certain articles of clothing, puts the responsibility to stop street harassment on the victim, and ignores the reality of the situation. It shouldn’t matter what any of us wear, we still have the right to move through public spaces safely and in peace. We shouldn’t spend time on the regressive excuse that “boys will be boys.” Men and boys are capable of being kind and respectful individuals, but this logic assumes that’s not true when it expects so little of them. Changing what we wear is an individual solution for a collective problem. It may keep you from being hollered at, but will it help anyone else? And how safe do you really feel when you see someone else harassed, even if you are left alone? Finally, as many of you who have been harassed in a variety of outfits know, street harassment happens no matter what we wear, so why should we attempt to conform to an ever-moving standard of what clothing is the kind that will keep us safe.
In Boston it has been extremely cold this winter, and the Polar Vortex has brought snow not just to us, but to Washington DC, Texas, Alabama, and many other areas that do not generally experience such a harsh winter. With this bitter cold, many of us have taken to wearing big puffy hats, long coats that resemble sleeping bags with arms, fluffy scarves, and other cold weather gear. It’s not uncommon to see people walking around with not much skin showing other than a little red nose. How then do we explain street harassment in cold weather? Surely there is nothing suggestive about my utilitarian boots and shapeless coat.
If street harassment were really a product of what we wear and how sexually appealing our clothing is, winter in New England would be a harassment-free zone. No one would ever bother me when I’m sick and wearing ratty sweats, and I wouldn’t hear so many stories of people wearing work-appropriate outfits or jeans and t-shirts when they were harassed. But the posts over at Hollaback! Boston (as well as NYC and Chicago) show that even cold winters, when people are bundled from head to toe, are not immune to street harassment. Women wearing abayas, niqabs, hijabs and burqas are victims of street harassment and even assault. How much looser could their clothing have been? How much more covered could they be? The only plausible answer is that they could have simply never left the house. If you listen to people who attempt to police women’s clothing in the guise of concern for their safety and well-being, you will soon realize that no article of clothing will ever be modest enough, because the real goal of street harassment is to exercise power. Power to make women and LGBTQ folks conform to the desires of the harasser, feel unsafe, and feel like disappearing from public spaces is the only safe option.
Unfortunately, it is simply not that easy to escape street harassment. We cannot simply check off the right boxes and proceed to walk around without bother. It is important that we continue to speak up when we hear this faulty logic, and remind our communities that people are harassed in all kinds of outfits, at all times of day or night, by all kinds of people, all over the world.
The next time someone asks you what you were wearing when you were harassed, ask them why that matters. Remind them that people are subject to street harassment no matter what they wear, and that harassers are the only people responsible for their behavior.
Delia Harrington is a recent graduate of Northeastern University and calls Boston home. In recent years, she has found herself studying, working, and volunteering in Egypt, Cuba, France, Benin, the Dominican Republic, Turkey, Germany, and Greece. You can read more of her writing on her blog, or follow her on Facebook and Twitter, @deliamary.Share on Facebook