The stereotypical whistling builder is the standard starting point for any discussion about gender based street harasment, which usually ends in someone telling a feminist to ‘relax, love’. But, campaigners say, street harassment is a real issue with real life consequences for women’s lives.
The international campaign group Stop Street Harassment defines gender-based street harassment as unwanted comments, gestures, and actions forced on a stranger in a public place without their consent, which is directed at them because of their actual or perceived sex, gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation.
The organisation began life in 2008 as a blog recording instances of street harassment in the US, but is now incorporated as an NGO fighting the issue which, it believes, constitutes a real barrier to women’s equality.
“Because street harassment is often an invisible problem (especially to people in power) and it is dismissed as being a “minor annoyance,” a “joke,” or the fault of the harassed person, our primary focus right now is simply to document the problem and demonstrate why it’s a human rights violation that must be addressed,” says its website.
19 year old Grace Gageby is SSH’s Irish correspondent and has recorded instances of street harassment among her social circle for the organisation.
“I would say street harassment is a very widespread problem for me and my female friends, as well as for members of the LGBT community in particular. Unfortunately it is considered a normal part of being a woman. When I wrote for Stop Street Harassment, I attempted to highlight how women generally begin to experience it at a very young age, particularly from much older men,” she explains.
“There was one instance where I reported a man to Gardai when I was fifteen. The man in question, in his mid thirties, lived in my area and repeatedly followed up my road, into local shops, onto my bus on one occasion, asking me if I had a boyfriend, commenting on my appearance, offering me alcohol, and making sexual remarks. I reported it to Gardaí and gave a statement. What they could do was limited as I had not been assaulted, but they took it seriously as I was a minor I think. I think he may have been cautioned as he hasn’t approached me since.”
Liselle Nic Giollabháin has been experiencing harassment from strange men since a very young age.
“I genuinely can’t remember the first time something that I would consider as street harassment happened but it was definitely a fairly common occurrence by the time I was in my late teens. I was an early developer so probably as early as eleven or twelve to be honest.
“Everything from creepy old lads on the bus leering while telling me I have ‘lovely… assets there’ to kids ten years my junior following me down Shop Street in Galway at three in the morning demanding to know whether or not I enjoy anal sex.”
She reported to police an attempted sexual assault which took place in France after a man followed her home from the Metro, and was met with a shrug, and a ‘what do you expect’ look.
Although it has been a constant part of her life since her teens, she believes it’s become more aggressive.
“Over the last few years I’ve gained weight and also decided I really don’t care to have other people tell me what I should look like so I generally forego makeup and so on unless I particularly feel like it.
“I still get strangers commenting on my appearance but now it’s in much more overtly negative ways… for example during last year’s referendum I was out and about campaigning a fair bit and at least half a dozen times I had a bloke, or group of blokes, take time out of their busy schedules to tell me that I really shouldn’t be bothering, since it wasn’t like anyone would ever want to get me pregnant.”
Student Nicole Ryan and her friend were followed home after a recent night out in Cork city, prompting her to contact local radio station Cork’s 96fm in order to warn other women living in the Barrack Street area of a man engaging in suspicious behaviour.
After following them from the pub they’d gone to for one drink, he waited for the girls to split to go to their respective homes, and unaware Nicole was still watching him, made to run after her friend.
“I could see him starting to run so I started running as well but by the time I got to the top she had luckily got her keys out of her bag and got in the door.
“He was at the entrance of her house. I didn’t know what he was going to do but when I got to the top of the road then he was running down into Deer Park. It was frightening, very frightening.”
When Nicole’s friend phoned Gardai at the city’s main station, Anglesea Street, they were told the Gardai were aware of the man’s activities in the area but that they were powerless to act unless he did something to them physically.
The next day when she phoned again, there was no record of the call the night before, and although she visited the station to make a statement there has been no follow up.
Leonie Hilliard runs along the Grand Canal and records her regular encounters with aggressive youths on her Facebook page. She has reported repeatedly to Gardai but has never had any follow up action taken against people who have hit her, run her off the narrow path with dirt-bikes, and shouted and catcalled at her.
“I phone the gardai when the guys on the scramblers play ‘chicken’ (I ignore them and give them a wide berth if they don’t), and I reported the gang who hit me. The gardai do nothing. I’ve begged the gardai on a number of occasions to patrol the area more often, to deter these groups, but I’ve not noticed any increased presence. I wear small earphones, and hide them from view, so people don’t realise I’m listening to podcasts or music.
“I brought a dog with me last time I ran along the canal. It made me feel a lot safer. With the men who shout from their cars, I just roll my eyes, and continue on doing what I’m doing.”
The Garda press office did not reply when furnished with details of reports Hilliard had made that she said were not acted upon.
“A recent study showed that the majority of women have experienced street harassment,” says Leonie. “Unfortunately, when we speak up about it, we’re told to shut up, pipe down, be thankful that men are paying attention, be grateful it wasn’t something ‘serious’, and understand that it’s ‘not all men’.
“Whether it’s whistling/jeering from a van, or playing ‘chicken’ with a scrambler, I don’t know the intentions of the person infringing on my space. They may think they’re being nice or flirting. They may want to harm me.
To me, they all represent a risk.”
“From this perspective, it’s also a societal issue. We, as a society, have made it acceptable for boys and men to behave this way. There are no consequences for boys/men who partake in street harassment. All too often, when women complain, they’re told they’re overreacting, attention seeking, or even lying. This needs to change,” she says.
“Literally every single woman I’ve spoken with about this has had multiple experiences ranging from minor nuisances to situations where they were genuinely scared for their safety.”
Catherine O’Sullivan, a law lecturer at UCC and author of Criminal Law in Ireland says the Irish law on this issue is more easily applied than in other jurisdictions where repeated incidents are required in order for the offence of harassment to be committed.
Many of the incidents described by Nic Giollabhain and Hilliard would be covered under public order offences and, even in the face of apparent Garda inaction, she advises reporting.
“If there is continuous or repeated reporting of problematic behaviour in a particular region, maybe additional resources can be deployed, maybe to step up policing in a particular area for a time period to try and prevent any escalation of that behaviour,” says O’Sullivan.
Harassment, however, is included in the Non Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997. Other jurisdictions have difficult-to-fulfil requirements of ‘a course of conduct’, but the Irish situation is relatively clear cut. In DPP v Lynch in 2010, the Irish courts interpreted the law creatively so that a single prolonged offence can fulfil the requirement of ‘persistence’.
“This was in 2010, and I don’t know how seriously street harassment has been taken up to this point,” says O’Sullivan. “But in the context of #MeToo and and all that, women’s experiences of this are beginning to be taken seriously.”
Published in the Sunday Business Post