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Opinion Street harassment influences how women experience the world

In terms of social geography, street harassment changes the way women experience and use public spaces – it is made smaller, it is limited.

THE VIRAL Hollaback! video charting the street harassment of a woman in New York over 10 hours has attracted media attention and public discussion of this social issue. Also, an article from staff at demonstrates that this is not a problem that is limited to the US. The contributions to that article and the comments section highlight the worrying reality of street harassment in Irish society.

As a geographer, I see a particular spatial dimension to street harassment. Geography, a discipline associated primarily with mountains, rivers and capital cities, offers a way of understanding this issue and what it means for individuals and society. Social geography considers how people experience public spaces and how we shape these spaces. In particular, the everyday lives of people – how do they move through the world? Where do people go and do not go, and why? Who controls behaviours in different places? – are of interest. Reading the articles and comments surrounding street harassment show how this is an everyday reality for so many people, especially women.

Street harassment influences how women experience the world. In a modern society, everyone should be allowed to move through the streets freely. The values of equality and respect, of law and order, tell us that we as citizens of a republic have the right to this liberty. However, there are barriers, both real and perceived, to these ideals. Can everyone roam freely? The redirecting of a traffic flow makes a road unsafe for children to play; an elderly person walks the long way around to avoid a group of teenagers; a busker is moved along; a deaf person does not go to the cinema because of a lack of subtitles. All these show how space is used, misused and controlled by people, groups, ideas and institutions.

Street harassment is one such barrier. It is the unwanted attention of a stranger commenting on your appearance and body (no matter how ‘complimentary’ it was meant to be), it is the invasion of privacy that is touching another person’s body without permission, it is the intimidation of following somebody down the street. Each of these examples influences how women experience public space. Streets, bars and public transport are given negative associations which have impacts on future behaviour. Women avoid certain streets, they wait for friends or even stay at home. These are the real effects of street harassment.

In terms of social geography, we see how street harassment changes the way women experience and use public spaces. Open free streets are replaced by no-go zones or dubious spots it is better to avoid. Public space for women is made smaller, it is limited. Their geographies are controlled.

While gender-based street harassment is the main point here, the same sorts of things are experienced by others based on social factors such as ethnicity or sexual orientation. However, to describe it as a gender or ethnic issue may limited the reality and the responsibility: it is a social issue.

Social geography shows us how we shape the world. We each have a role in making the social world in which we live. We set the tone and decide what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. We have a responsibility to challenge and counteract street harassment. This is not call to vigilantism, but it is a call to reflect on how you behave, it is a call to complain to management, it is a call to tell your friends when they are out of line, and it is a call to teach your children about respecting themselves and others.

Street harassment is not banter, or flirting or having a laugh; it is harassment. It is controlling and it has real negative impacts. A search through Twitter for #StreetHarrassment will get a barrage of results that indicate the unpleasantness, aggravation and abuse that women suffer on a daily basis. These are real examples of what women have to experience. It is in all out interests to counteract and challenge these behaviours. While there are fantastic movements, such as Hollaback! and Stop Street Harassment, these are issues are of relevance to us all. They shape how we experience public spaces, and how we want others to experience public spaces. We each have role in shaping society. We decide our social geographies.

Richard Scriven is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography, UCC and an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholar. Follow him on Twitter @CorkGeog

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