Hollaback! Edinburgh recently published an interview with researcher Fiona Elvines on Street Harassment. Fiona’s research studies what she terms ‘male stranger intrusion’, and I had an experience this weekend which proved just how vital Fiona’s work is.
Before I treat you all to the exciting adventures of my life (ha!), lets first clarify what is meant by ‘male stranger intrusion’. Well, it’s just that – it’s when someone you don’t know intrudes your personal space in public to the extent that you feel in anyway unsafe, uncomfortable, or threatened. To anyone who has never experienced MSI, the thought of deeming an ambiguous personal space invasion – in which, as many women in Fiona’s research stated, ‘nothing really happens’ – as a threatening example of street harassment, could be seen as an overreaction. But to the people who contributed to Fiona’s research, and to anyone who has experienced those moments of MSI, we know it is not. Perhaps it is that guy who sits behind you on the bus, and leans forward just close enough for you to feel him breathing, but not close enough for you to feel like you can justifiably say something. Or perhaps it is the one who sits opposite you on the train and stares at you for the duration of your journey. In these instances, you could say ‘but nothing really happened’. There was no customary ‘hey baby’, there was no physical or verbal engagement of any kind. But it still leaves you feel uneasy, often to the point of fear. For survivors of sexual violence, this fear can be increasingly heightened by their experiences, and the seemingly innocuous instance in which ‘nothing happened’ can lead to survivors feeling that they live in an ever increasingly dangerous world, in which they can be held back in their recovery for the fear of violence at every turn. And in some ways, these instances are the hardest for us to Hollaback to; because how do you reclaim your power when you’re not really sure how to pinpoint or name the way in which it is being threatened in the first place?
My weekend dose of MSI came during my shift at work. Due to the wonders of the recession, I have found myself blessed with the load of two jobs, and I spend my Saturdays working in retail. This Saturday, as I was peacefully shelving in a more secluded spot in the store, I felt a presence suddenly next to me. He was so close that I instinctively thought he must be a colleague, and I jumped back asking ‘you alright?’ (the go-to phrase for Northeners looking to suss the situation out, closely followed by ‘whats the craic?’). He nodded, and smiled enthusiastically. In my head, my subconscious had already brought up an extensive check list which women living in a culture of street harassment automatically and un-intentionally compile over the years. When an instance of potential harassment comes along, we start ticking off points on our check list to assess the safety of the situation and its potential outcomes without even realising we’re doing it. Isolated spot? Check. Nobody else around? Check. Holding my gaze a bit too long? Check. I made a precautionary move away, already feeling my shoulders tightening defensively, my eyes focused on the large pile of books on the floor. Somehow, I’d gone from feeling comfortable in my place of work, to feeling that I had to still carry out my job in a potentially threatening environment. The plot thickened, for wherever I went, he seemed to follow – not quickly enough for me to feel I could reasonably say he was intentionally following me, but still predictable enough that I knew if I turned around he’d be there. And every time I looked up, he was. And he was smiling at me.
Screw the shelving, I went and stood behind the till. I hate to feel threatened in my place of work, and I felt powerless in the fact that I’d had to leave my task in order to not feel intimidated by this guy who wasn’t really ‘doing’ anything. I mean, how do you complain about somebody just for smiling? When I told my colleague about it, they understood my nervousness straight away, and went to check it out. But the customer had immediately vanished. So, 10 minutes later I went back. What do you know, guess who shows up? ‘Excuse me, can you help me find something?’ The stranger was back, and this time he meant business – the problem was, it was my business, and he was asking me to effectively do my job. You can’t really say no on the grounds of ‘creepy vibes’. So I did help him. And every time I bent down to check the bottom shelves for his request, he stood just a little bit too close, smiling. And that was the worst part, as if the fact that I was on my knees and he was stood above me wasn’t enough, nor that he’d made me feel increasingly shaky over the course of the past 20 minutes, but the way he looked at me, the way he smiled at me.
I’ve been a proud Hollabacker for years. When guys have whacked my behind in the street, I’ve told them exactly what I think of them and their actions. But in this case I didn’t feel I could – both because I was in a service position, and because you could say that he hadn’t really ‘done’ anything that I could argue against. On paper, all he’d done was browse the store and ask for my help, but in reality, it was much more than that. Reading about Fiona Elvines’ research made me feel like I wasn’t alone. It gave me the hope that, if we become more vocal about the street harassment we experience, including instances in which ‘nothing really happens’, then people will start to listen up. People will share their own stories, and soon these instances in which ‘nothing happened’ will be recognised as harassment, and we’ll feel more able to say: ‘No, actually, something did happen, and here’s what I’m going to do about’. Because we’ll know that as we’re speaking out, others have got our back.