It's a warm spring morning and I'm walking back from the shops, dressed in the widow's weeds I normally wear for a day at my desk, daydreaming happily about whatever it is I'm about to write. Just a few doors away from home, I hear a whistle from a balcony above.
I ignore this, but the noise sounds again. At this juncture, a guy passing me on the street, clearly unconnected to the men above, grabs my arm and admonishes me, "Hey, stop, they're fucking trying to get your attention," pointing up at three men standing on the balcony. Two more men have stopped across the street and are staring. The balcony guys nod slowly a few times, before smiling lasciviously, triumphantly, and licking their lips. Being watched intently by six men now, I pull away, hurry home, and deadlock the door behind me.
The deadlock was just a precaution. I wasn't hugely scared, but I was definitely rattled. I felt annoyed, isolated, a little humiliated. It wasn't as bad as the time a guy groped me on the Tube, entreating me to "suck his cock", or the time, also on the Tube, when I glanced over at a guy and saw that he had cut a hole in the crotch of his trousers (now that's forethought!) through which he was threading his flaccid penis. That said, it was slightly worse than the regular shouts of "Cheer up, love, it might never happen", the loud, sudden revving of car engines (followed by hollow laughter) as I go to cross the street, and the wandering eyes that home in obsessively at chest level.
It was enough to get me thinking about street harassment: how ubiquitous it is, and how much of a penalty it sets on women when we're out alone. You're ambling along, oblivious, caught in some reverie, when you're reminded, sharply, that you are being watched. The message is that, as a lone woman, you are public property and you have every reason to be cautious.
Yet question this, either by talking directly to the harasser or to a group of friends, and you are likely to face a second set of penalties. Telling a harasser where to go carries every possibility of the incident escalating, so that "Hey baby, wanna fuck?" quickly turns into "You fucking bitch". Mentioning it to friends provokes shrugs. Women are likely to argue that yes, it's annoying, but what are you going to do? Men often take the "you should see it as a compliment" line. The message is: it happens to every woman, so just get on with it.
I have to admit that this is the tack I've always taken, too. After all, sometimes it's funny. Walking past a building site recently on a windy day, I was having a fight with my skirt which made me look in absolutely no way Monroe-esque. "Aaah, just let it go!" yelled the head contractor, and his tone, clearly friendly, made me laugh.
When this is the case, it's fine. The problem is that most attention from strangers on the street doesn't fit this bill: it is clearly predatory. People sometimes argue that life's too tough now, too politically correct, and that it has become impossible to know how to approach a woman without attracting accusations of sexism. This is often disingenuous, though. Being singled out by a stranger (or group of strangers); explicit suggestions whispered in your ear; the man insisting on walking beside you even when your pace suddenly quickens - all carry an obvious threat. If a woman responds cheerfully, often it's because this seems the only safe response.
But what can you do about street harassment? After all, it's part of a huge culture, including sexist language (bitch, ho, slut, sket, et cetera) and sexist imagery. All but the most venal person will accept that major crimes against women, such as rape or domestic violence, are wrong; people will generally respect your right to protest these. But street harassment? Well, that's just a fact of life.
Between ubiquitous porn, misogynist language and constant catcalls, however, it's becoming impossible to ignore the low-level hum of violence that defines our culture. And it has become hard, too, to ignore that it is exactly this atmosphere that allows such horrors as rape to fester.
The problem of how to deal with the hassle remains, but some young women have made a start. In Britain, there is an anti-street-harassment group with a website (www.anti-harassment.ik.com)
where women can post their experiences. And in the US, young women have set up the site Holla Back NYC (http://hollabacknyc.blogspot.com
- motto, "If you can't slap 'em, snap 'em"), which invites women to use their camera phones to ambush any harasser and post the man's picture beside a description of what he said and did.
Reading these websites is fascinating and infuriating; most of the incidents are instantly recognisable. It's fantastic testimony to how much this pisses other women off - if I felt isolated before, I don't now - and a clear retort to the idea that we should "chill out; other women like it". The message comes through unambiguously on these websites. No, we shouldn't, and no, we don't.