On Saturday night, Caroline Criado-Perez tweeted about hearing men hissing at women on the platform – a kind of street harassment she hadn’t experienced before. Yesterday, I joined in the conversation, saying that the hissing thing was not something I had had happen to me (knowingly) but was something I had heard from other women. I mentioned that in terms of ‘noises’ as harassment, there had been a phase where men would click their tongues against their teeth, or make squelchy kissing sounds as I walked by.
Our conversation was then rudely interrupted by someone who called himself ‘radical’ but clearly held some deeply conservative views about men and women. He wrote:
‘I don’t believe for a fucking minute you’ve had guys making kissing noises at you’.
(this guy’s twitter feed also reveals he doesn’t know the difference between ‘empathising’ and ‘emphasising’ so I wouldn’t give too much credence to what he says).
So anyway, at the same time this happened, Vanessa Feltz disclosed publicly that Rolf Harris had assaulted her live on the Big Breakfast. Tweeters everywhere decided not to believe her. They called her a liar, and one person even said she was trying to ruin the life of ‘an innocent man’ (in spite of the fact Harris was found guilty on twelve counts and has been sentenced to jail as a result).
Obviously the awful assault committed against Feltz is far, far more severe than men making kissing noises on the street. But what both these episodes illustrate clearly is just how willing our society is to disbelieve women when we talk about male aggression committed against us.
The charming man on Twitter, who responded to my comments about men harassing me on the street with rude disbelief, is not so far away from the people refusing to believe Feltz. And neither of them are very far away at all from the many, many people – some in authority, some friends, some family members – who refuse to believe women and girls when they speak out about the violence committed against them.
It’s so common. So common. And it starts with a conversation like the one Caroline and I had. I talked about an (very mild) act of aggression committed by men against me. Man pipes up, refusing to believe me. He calls me a liar.
Feltz talks about an assault committed against her by Rolf Harris, a man convicted of indecent assault. Men pipe up and call her a liar. They refuse to believe her.
Susie arrives at a police station in Rochdale. She reports multiple rapes and sexual exploitation. The police call her ‘unreliable’. They refuse to believe her.
Girls tell their head teachers that Savile abused them. They get called liars. No one believes them. He continues to abuse women, girls and boys until he dies.
A woman goes to the police to report she has been raped by a taxi driver. The police don’t believe her. He rapes an estimated 100 women.
I could go on.
Every single one of these incidences has one key thing in common – the refusal to believe women when they disclose the violence committed against them.
Of course, I am in no way saying that men harassing me on the street is anywhere near as serious or painful or awful as the rape and abuse experienced by women and girls in those examples. I cannot emphasise that enough. What I am saying is that over and over again, when women disclose male aggression – no matter how severe or mild – they are disbelieved. And that disbelief allows the abuse to continue.
This refusal to believe even the most minor story props up rape culture. It is this that prevents justice for victims and survivors of male violence. It is this that allows the men who rape and abuse women and girls to get away with it, over and over again.
In the face of such terrifying levels of disbelief, in the face of a concerted effort to refuse to hear women, is it any wonder women don’t report the men who abuse them? Is it any wonder women don’t speak out? Do you think a woman or girl could look at the shit thrown at Vanessa Feltz yesterday, and think it’s worth accusing her abuser? When bravely raising your voice risks you being hurt further? Risks you being disbelieved, mocked or worse?
We need to start believing women. We need to start hearing women. When women raise our voices to say what has happened to us, all of us need to believe her. Because when you start believing women, you can start tackling violence. As long as you disbelieve women, you are aiding the abusers. You are allowing them to carry on. You are covering for them, and you are giving them permission to abuse.
There was another angle to the tweet sent to me, and to a lot of the nasty comments directed at Vanessa Feltz. And that was the implication that I was too unattractive to “attract” harassment on the street, and that Vanessa Feltz was “too unattractive” to be assaulted.
Man, even writing that sentence feels so, so ugly. But that was certainly what was happening – as this Storify testifies to.
Now, say what you like about how I look (and believe me, people online have never been afraid of that!), but whether tweeters think I’m hot or not has very little bearing on whether I get harassed or not. Because harassment, like all examples of male violence against women, is not about sexiness. It isn’t about being fancied. Street harassment is about power.
Men don’t shout crap at you on the street or make hissing and kissing noises at you because they fancy you. Street harassment is a way of reminding women in public space that the space does not belong to them. It is a way of asserting male power. It is a way of reducing women. It’s the man or men explaining to you, in the most demeaning way possible, that this is their space, and that they have more of a right to be in it than you do.
There is an implicit victim-blaming going on when men try to tell you that you can’t be harassed because you’re not pretty enough. It suggests that women who do get harassed are only harassed because they’re pretty. It suggests that these women are going out there, with their pretty faces and pretty outfits, and they get harassed as a result. It removes the agency of the perpetrator and puts all the focus on the women’s behaviour – and that behaviour is ‘daring to leave the house with a female body’.
The only reason any woman gets harassed on the street is because a man or group of men chooses to harass her. It’s not because she’s so gorgeous ‘they just can’t help themselves.’ It’s because they want to exercise power. It’s because they want to remind us that we don’t belong in public space.
Fundamentally, across the spectrum, all male violence is about power. It is not about sexual attraction. No matter what people on Twitter think. No matter what Judges in court rooms think. Men don’t harass or abuse or rape women because they are ‘overcome’ and ‘lose control’. The men who harass or abuse or rape women do it because they make a deliberate choice to. To write online that Feltz is lying because she is too ugly to be assaulted is to deliberately ignore why the men who choose to abuse women do so. To write online that I am lying about men harassing me on the street because I am too ugly to “attract” that kind of “attention” is to deliberately ignore why the men who choose to harass women do so.
It’s awfully hard for women to speak out. It’s hard because we know what’s coming. We know we will be met with disbelief and victim blaming. We know it is our behaviour that will be criticised, that will be censured. We know it is us who will be told to change. We know it is our experience that will be undermined and minimised and brushed off. We know the men who rape and abuse and harass will continue with a free pass.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. It can be different. We can all choose to start believing women. You can make that choice today.