Memories of Street Harassment as a Boy


In the Nirmukta Facebook group last month, there was a discussion thread on street harassment during which one commenter, a woman, asked the following question:

I was wondering. Do you all think average Indian males understand what street harassment feels like? If not, I would like to explore this through my writing. My understanding is that men relate to bullying and ragging and understand the horror of it. I want to show that walking on an Indian street as a woman is like being surrounded by bullies every day, all of your life. I also don’t think men know how pervasive it is. In my experience, it starts when you are about 10 years old and doesn’t stop until you are about 55. I would write something that portrays a fictional world where men are constantly bullied.

"Young Boy in Profile" (1886) - a painting by Marie Kroyer

“Young Boy in Profile” (1886) – a portrait by Marie Kroyer. Image in public domain; via Wikimedia Commons (links to source).

We really can’t understand what it feels like. The social systems, identities and power relations being what they are, and given the frequency and severity of street harassment of women by men, men just cannot understand what it feels like. Thought experiments of a fictional world of constant bullying could make some impact I guess. Anyway, that question made me remember my own experiences growing up. I have some history of being street harassed by other men, and that’s what this post is about. My objective in writing it is to show what a toxic mess the man box is (more on that at the end).

I have a small build and am light-skinned. When I was a young boy, I had what is derogatorily called a “pretty boy” look. And I used to get street harassed by other boys, and grown men (they were were all male – each and every one). The street harassment consisted of staring/leering, passing comments, making kissing noises, pointing-and-laughing, etc. I think the purpose was to mock and “mess” with me, show dominance, goad me into a fight (which I would lose). Here are some instances and things I remember:

Going to play tennis, I’m in an auto-rickshaw, wearing shorts. At the signal some college-aged men lean out of the bus right next to me, and start saying (stuff).

Playing badminton/tennis, again in shorts, passer by stops to watch and starts saying (stuff), trying to provoke me into a reaction.

Walking back home from my bus stop, or walking to the market, alternating my routes so as to avoid harassers.

Avoiding bright colours and shorts (even in peak Delhi summer) so as to be more anonymous. (The habit has persisted to this day; only this year have I started wearing shorts in India again.)

Crossing the road to avoid “intersection”. So many times.

Then there was the incident of – I don’t know what to call it – assault? – when I was around twelve. I’d gone to the market to buy some maps for homework, and a man lured me to a deserted flat giving me some cock-and-bull story about how he knew my father and had to give him something. Some parts of the incident are hazy, but at the foot of the stairs he asked me to come up with him to find the package, when I resisted he got angry and violent and slapped me, I begged him to let me go, he then asked me for money, I refused, and then for some reason he did let me go and I ran. I suspect the reality of what he was doing hit him once I started crying. (A friend of mine wasn’t so lucky – he was sexually assaulted by the owner in a toy shop, who pushed him against one of those glass display cases under the pretence of showing him some toys and ground his exposed penis against him.)

There have been sporadic incidents in my adult life too. The last one was just a week ago – I was walking home from the gym on a Sunday morning, feeling awesome, wearing shorts and a t-shirt. I saw these two men – they looked like construction workers – walking in my direction. Surely not I thought, my “creeper sense” tingling as they got closer. But sure enough, there it was – the staring and the repulsive smirk which makes me want to drive a spike through his face. I stared back – that’s been my strategy for many years now. Just stare back in as hostile a manner as possible, and maintain the stare until the very end. Sometimes they look away, sometimes they don’t. This one did look away, just as he passed me, barely a foot away. Apparently I see this as some sort of victory, but the truth is I’d rather not have to participate in this nonsense in the first place.

I estimate that the frequency of street harassment for me was around 20 incidents a year. Girls and women in India experience that in under a month (I know my sister had it much worse than me). Also, apart from that one incident, there has been no physical harassment or assault – no “groping” (what a pathetic euphemism that is), not even touching. This, and more importantly the factors I mentioned earlier, means that despite my experiences, I don’t know what it feels like for women. I can probably empathise more than men who haven’t had such experiences. (Trans women on the other hand are in a unique position to know what it’s like – here [1, 2] are two such accounts, and here [1, 2] are accounts by trans men about the measure of anonymity they gained after their transition.)

While writing this post I felt myself hesitating, even wanting to change some of the details. I’m hesitating to publish it as well. The reason goes back to the lingering effects of the man box – I feel a sense of embarrassment and shame that this happened – happens – to me. That small voice saying you should be stronger, harder, more dominant, more of… a man. I can guarantee that small voice will be speaking in the heads of men reading this post as well. This bullshit patriarchal norm of masculinity – to dominate not only women, but other men as well – becomes ingrained in us, it becomes normalised. I shudder to think of what I would have become if I hadn’t found feminism at an early age. I’d rather suffer the consequences of being outside the man box than be stuck inside it.

Comments

  1. says

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – spending time in India was a crucial part of my feminist awakening. Up until then I took it for granted that I would always be able to move around in space, from point A to point B, regardless of what A or B represented, without worrying about harassment or assault. I grew up as a white girl in small-town America, you see, so although I’d had some experience with sexism, it never occurred to me that I might have to restrict my physical movements just because I was a girl or a woman. I walked or biked wherever I wanted to go, and when I got older, I drove. Public transport wasn’t really a thing. Being a white woman in Rajasthan is particularly bizarre, since the only representations of myself in media there were images of white women in really demeaning pornographic films. This meant that my physical appearance was like visual shorthand to the men on the streets for “slut who’s asking for it.” I couldn’t travel alone at all.

    Until street harassment is a thing of the past, women will never have full equality, because women will not be able to participate fully in public life.

  2. CaitieCat says

    This is both moving and sensitively written, Sunil, thanks for telling this story. I have to admit that, although I desperately love travel, there are some parts of the world I am reluctant to go as a single woman travelling alone, and a big piece of the reason is that some countries just seem to have a strong culture of street harassment.

    And because of some PTSD issues from my own experiences with being assaulted (sexually and not), along with my military training and size/strength (former varsity athlete), I worry things will end up very badly for me and/or for at least one other person. For both our sakes, I avoid countries where there are significant numbers of reports about street harassment being a problem. Brazil and India are the two biggest names on the list (there are a handful of others).

    It’s a horrific thing to do to a 55-yr-old, let alone a 12-yr-old. :/

  3. Pen says

    I had one experience of public transport harassment in India which is quite revealing of male attitudes. The guy backed away completely when he realised that the child in the other white woman’s lap looked so much like me I had to be a mother. Next question: ‘Where is your husband?’ It was the next question after that that which really took the biscuit under the circumstances: ‘How do you like India?’ I told him I’d liked it very much up to the point he decided to grope my breast. Seems like there’s a whole bunch of things he wasn’t really conscious of.

    Having said that, the other incident of serious street harassment I’ve experienced, as opposed to ubiquitous whistles and catcalls, was in the US and revealed a whole different set of bizarre assumptions.

  4. says

    // I would write something that portrays a fictional world where men are constantly bullied.//

    Enter Planet Wumma (planetwumma.blogspot.com)

  5. says

    Very well written, Sunil.

    I haven’t really ever had such an experience as an adult male. At least not any that I remember. But once, I was waking back from a pub with a female friend when a few drunk men outside said something inappropriate to her. This was the first time I experienced this first hand from close quarters. Since I witnessed such harassment from so close, I felt threatened personally, even though it was directed at my friend, not me. My heartbeat started racing and I felt myself getting enraged and scared at the same time. Those guys were tall, strong and drunk. I turned back to retort, even physically if I had to (I have a relatively small frame so that would not really have helped).

    However, my friend quickly stopped me, and physically pulled me away to walk along on our way. I didn’t understand. Why was she not angry? She realized why I looked flummoxed and angry at the same time, and said, “Sid, relax. This happens every day. Move on.” Then she went on to take a call, completely unperturbed (at least on the face of it) by what had happened.

    That’s when it struck me. Women not only face this all the time, they have internalized such behavior. Although they are constantly threatened, many of them put on a brave face and and move on with their daily lives. Most of us men don’t even find out what they are going through. It’s shameful.

  6. Lady Ez says

    Having travelled around India as a young woman on my own I have to say that Indian men are not NEARLY as bad as Arab men…Although Im sure they do a lot of harm they are not the worst….Its the women that have to change the men…They wont change on their own – why would they??? They already have everything their way….Women need to persuade them that manners are sexy and manly and that harrassing women is to hide homosexuality…(a little un-PC but it will work….Gay men and women in India have their own fight)….Expect them to be good…and they will be…There is an enduring culture in the UK where a few women still like the bad boy and put up with disgraceful behaviour from their partners that they would never take from anyone else…..So this group of men still behave like animals…..It is a far smaller proportion however than it was….Being an arsehole is not generally considered cool in the UK now….Guess who 90% of the sexual harrassment I have ever received came from??? Arabs and persians – muslim men…Thats the truth….

  7. Arjun says

    I have experienced street harassment as a man of 30, and it was nothing short of an assault by several drunk men, all younger than me: possibly early twenties. I suppose the ‘excuse’ was that I had gorgeous long hair then and looked both ‘pretty’ enough and weak.
    These guys were crazy drunk, dancing away in one of those processions for immersing a deity, as I was walking by the road with my cousin. They suddenly came up, surrounded me and asked me to dance with them. I thought it was a juvenile fancy which wouldn’t last long; smiling in agreement to shake a leg for a second or two and casually excusing myself and walking away seemed the best option. Non-compliance might have given them a good enough reason to roughen things up, and neither me nor my cousin were strong enough to fight them.
    However, it wasn’t just for a second or two, and it was much worse than expected. One of them started pinching me while another tried to lift up my kurta and put his head inside; others were asking my ‘price’ and where I usually dance. Then there was someone trying to bite at the nape of my neck. It was horrid, and it just wouldn’t stop. Finally some senior men in the procession intervened to let me pass. Surprisingly, they never reprimanded the hoodlums: just mumbled to me something like ‘please do not mind’. Some younger ‘wannabe hoodlums’ from the procession followed me for a while at a distance, with catcalls and taunts.
    It was quite late when I finally dropped my cousin at his place, and then I had to return the same way! I loitered in empty streets for an extra half an hour just to make sure the procession was well on its way.

  8. Sunil says

    Arjun thanks for sharing that. That’s horrible and that’s sexual assault, not harassment. :(

  9. says

    Different, courtesy of orinam.net
    Trigger alert (from source): descriptions of bullying and abuse.
    The post ends with a difficult question both for those at the receiving end of harassment as well as bystanders.
    How should I respond if I were to find myself in such a situation again?

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