The Great Problems are in the Streets. We interview Fiona Elvines, researcher on street harassment.

Fiona Elvines is Operations Co-ordinator at Rape Crisis South London, and develops and delivers prevention work in schools with young people, focused on unpicking issues of consent. She is a frontline support worker for women and girls who have experienced rape and/or childhood sexual abuse and is currently in the final year of her PhD research at the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit into women and girls’ experiences of street harassment.

Her research is called The Great Problems are in the Streets:Women’s Experiences of Male Stranger Intrusion

 What led you to this research?

I came to this research initially through my work at Rape Crisis and thinking about how the impact of the routine intrusions women encounter from men on the street make it incredibly difficult to feel like you can move past an experience of criminalised sexual violence like rape. I wanted to know more about what women who have experiences along the continuum of sexual violence feel about intrusion from male strangers in public space, and how we strategise or make sense of ourselves through it. I was also really frustrated by the victim blaming I encounter in working in rape prevention and wanted to develop an evidence base for the numerous ways in which women already limit and adapt our daily movements based on men’s intrusive practices.

 Why do you think this is under-researched?

I think that the study of all forms of male violence against women is still really young and that feminists have worked hard to capture the evidence needed for policy change on issues like rape, domestic abuse and childhood sexual abuse. As much as I think this focus has been and is necessary, I feel it’s resulted in a loss of interest in the routine aspects of men’s intrusive practices, missing a crucial aspect of women’s everyday experience. I also think male stranger intrusion is normalised, minimised and trivialised, and that the sheer frequency of intrusive encounters means forgetting is brought in as a natural coping strategy. The women I’ve spoken with have told me how, when they have spoken out about what they’ve experienced be it to friends or parents or a partner, they have been met with a response that minimises their experience of it, reframes the intrusion as complimentary, or simply tells her it’s just part of growing up. All of this has resulted in a lack of understanding in terms of the scale of the problem and the impact it has on women’s daily decision making, sense of safety and relationship to our bodies and our self. This is starting to change, particularly with the rise of blogs such as Hollaback and Everyday Sexism, which have meant that we are starting to get a sense of the extent to which women are negotiating men’s intrusion in public space and beginning to hear experiences that might help to validate our own.

What kind of response did you get when you put the call out for participants?

The response was amazing. I received over 150 emails from women within 2 hours of my call being tweeted.

Were you surprised by the response? 

Completely. I really wasn’t expecting to speak to more than 20 women. I ended up with 51 participants who completed an initial conversation with me and then kept a diary of their experiences from 2 weeks to 2 months before talking to me again or sending through feedback about their findings and any changes or discoveries they had made during the course of the research. I feel the response itself demonstrates the extent to which women experience such encounters as meaningful in particular ways, and illustrates how spaces for us to talk about the meaning they have for us are difficult to find.

You talked about “nothing really happened” being quite a common response, could you say a bit more on that?

A lot of times during the course of the research process women would either begin or end a description of an experience of male stranger intrusion with the caveat that ‘nothing really happened.’ Even if what they had just described was an attempted or actual sexual assault, being followed or flashed, or an encounter resulting in significant limitations on their freedom. It seems difficult to use our own measurement of what counts as ‘something’, and as such we rely on criminal categories and minimise or discount experiences that fall in some way outside of them.

Why do you think people say that?

I think there’s a couple of things going on but a big part of it is the messages we get when we’re young. Minimisation and normalisation seem to be regular responses to young girl’s disclosures of both routine and non-routine intrusions from men. These first experiences are before women ‘see’ the continuum of sexual violence, and before we use it to make sense of men’s practices and strategise safety. Responses such as this indicate to young women that behaviour initially experienced as aberrant is in fact typical and that our initial reaction of fear or distress needs to be adjusted. The resulting feeling is one of disorientation, that we aren’t able to define the situation properly, that nothing really happened. This is an adjustment that has substantial implications for a girl’s ability to make sense of later sexually violent experiences in her life. When women start to make sense of low level intrusions as connected to criminalised forms of sexual violence, these early experiences of negation encourage women’s doubt over their ability to define a situation as intrusive or not. We learn to negate our own experiential reality and instead to read our experiences through what we’ve been told counts or doesn’t count as violence.

What would you say to people who have been street harassed?

The most important message to get out there I believe has to do with countering these early responses. You get to decide what does and doesn’t count as violence or intrusion or harassment. Your experience of it is valid and you get to choose the meaning that it has. I would also say that no one can tell you how you should, or if you should, respond, react or manage each encounter. Everyone I spoke with does some version of an escalation calculation to strategise their response based on perceived safety and personal contextual factors such as history, mood or simply tiredness. We can only benefit from an increase in women talking about experiences the whole way along the continuum of sexual violence. Hopefully moving us towards a more complete understanding of the complexity, impact and motivations behind men’s intrusive practices, and women’s resistance and resilience in the face of them.

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