Sexual harassment? What sexual harassment?

When Sofie Peeters moved to Brussels for a film degree, she found herself confronted with a depressing problem almost every time she left her front door. Walking around her local neighbourhood, the mixed, working-class district of Anneessens, at any time of day she would be greeted with cat-calls, wolf-whistles and jeers of “slag” and “how much do you cost?”

Sick of wondering whether it was her fault for wearing particular clothes, she made her end of year film on the topic, armed with a hidden camera to record the street harassment.

You can see a short clip which shows how bad it is.

The student film, Femme de la Rue, a shocking account of everyday sexist insults in the street, is now at the centre of a political and social storm in Belgium and across its borders. After it was shown on TV and at a screening last week it has become an internet success and triggered a public debate.

Belgian politicians say they were already planning legislation to crack down on sexist insults and harassment, promising fines for offenders. French feminist groups seized on the film to highlight similar problems in France and break the taboo surrounding street harassment.

There’s a taboo? What the hell? A taboo not on doing it but on talking about it?

In the film, she walks round her neighbourhood wearing jeans and a cardigan and then a knee-length summer dress and flat boots. A hidden camera shows that both times, men – from youths to groups of older men on cafe terraces – leer, cat-call and proposition her. She is called “whore”, “slut”, “bitch” and told that she looks up for sex. One man follows her saying she should come to his house or a hotel room. She says she gets this kind of comment eight to 10 times a day.

Going outside while female. Not allowed, apparently.

The French feminist group Osez Le Feminisme, which praised the film for triggering debate on the issue, linked to its comic film-clip on role-reversal of women jeering men in the street.

French feminists said the film showed how street harassment was a universal issue for women.

Tut. They’re just playing victim. They should pull their socks up and get on with it.


  1. MNb0 says

    “A taboo not on doing it but on talking about it?”
    Sadly yes. The Netherlands (and I assume Belgium) is very polarized on the islam issue. If you criticize such behaviour way too many people assume you’re an islamophobe and belong to the Wilders/De Winter circle. If you defend the civil rights of moslims (and remember, in the European public debate Maroccan equals moslim) way too many people assume you approve of such disgusting behaviour.
    The Dutch (and I assume Belgians) who do not fall for this false dichotomy are in a small minority, I’m afraid.

    Stupid question like the one of Improbable Joe do not really help either.

  2. Pteryxx says

    MNbO: Joe was being facetious. There have been trolls in these threads who really did say “that doesn’t happen in Europe” as an argument.

  3. F says


    Just like the Brits* who claim things are better without a freedom of speech guarantee as in the US Constitution’s First Amendment. Yes, people actually make such claims as “it doesn’t happen here”.

    *Mostly, but not always, in my experience, these particular claims are part of a discussion and not a claim to an incontrovertible truth. I do not intend to dump on Brits, it is just a parallel example.

    As to Peeters film: Chroist Awlmoighty! Waht a bunch of misogynist jerks.

  4. Michael says

    This article is worth a read as well. Particularly this bit

    In France, where a new sexual harassment law has just been voted in amid soul-searching over sexism after the Dominique Strauss-Kahn legal cases, the Belgian film has hit a raw nerve. It comes just after Cecile Duflot, the housing minister, wore a long-sleeved, modest floral dress in parliament and was whistled and jeered at by male rightwing MPs.


  5. says

    this happened to me when i first moved to greece in the early 80s. it was a source of great distress and it forever damaged the way i interacted with the world.

    that was 30 years ago and obviously it doesn’t happen (to me) anymore, but i was under the (obviously erroneous) impression that the world had progressed.

  6. says


    you have no idea the emotional state i was driven to, just reading this article.

    and another thing:

    the fact that i am, at my age, now invisible on the street is part of the same sexism that cause this problem for me 3 decades ago.

  7. db says

    Wow. That is horrifying. I can only imagine how much strength it takes to continue to be able to go out in public with such an atmosphere, never mind to suffer it with such strength. I’d probably not even manage to leave my house/room, but I’d certainly not last long outside before going back and becoming a shut-in, and/or melting down.

    Yeah, I’m a male, and a pretty weak-willed one at that – so don’t let my comments be taken as representative or presumptuous about females – but there you have it anyway.

    Oh, and it gets better…

    From the by-line on the Guardian’s page for the video:

    Others accuse her of racism, because most of the men in her film are of immigrant origin

    OK. what the fuck?

    Let me guess: most of these ‘others’ are men, whose poorly-veiled ultimate motive for these reflexive complaints is to avert any need for a real debate on the issue of ‘HOW CAN A WOMAN BE TREATED SO BADLY ANYWHERE JUST FOR EXISTING‘?

    Fuck’s sake. I really can’t believe this. Way to avoid the issue altogether.

    And of most of the sexists are immigrants, how does that make HER a racist? Firstly, one should separate race or immigration status from economonic or social status, things that might be correlated but are not necessarily causally linked. Secondly, such behaviour WERE endemic to particular ethnic groups, one should ask whether it’s because THOSE groups dislike people of OTHER groups… thus making whom the racist, exactly

  8. says

    A French dude apparently tweeted that HE never sees this happening, so it probably almost never happens.

    It has spawned a Twitter trend: #harcelementderue (street harassment) and #harcelementdemetro (harassment on the metro).

    It’s exactly the same as what we hear here: Oh, they’re just hitting on you. You should be flattered! It’s no big deal. You’re probably making it up. Etc., etc.

  9. machintelligence says

    And of most of the sexists are immigrants, how does that make HER a racist?

    I suppose one could make the argument that she selectively edited the film to emphasize immigrants (which I do not make). I suggest this is fodder for a controlled sociological study, if anyone has the guts to do one.

  10. Pen says

    Others accuse her of racism, because most of the men in her film are of immigrant origin.

    It is already difficult for women to criticise men’s behaviour. Differences of opinion on gender roles and female sexual autonomy amongst ethnic groups in Europe’s cities are even harder to talk about, especially in a productive way. Baroness Warsi tried to do this and IMO, didn’t do it right. But that’s not to say it doesn’t need doing.

  11. GordonWillis says

    Warsi’s father called on his daughter to do better. “He said to me: ‘Sayeeda, what is the point in being in a position of leadership if you don’t lead on issues that are so fundamental? This is so stomach churningly sick that you should have been out there condemning it as loudly as you could. Uniquely, you are in a position to show leadership on this.’ I thought to myself, he’s absolutely right’.”

    Warsi, who praised the British Muslim Forum and the Muslim Council of Britain for a “fantastic” response in the wake of the sentencing, said the authorities should not allow cultural sensitivities to prevent investigations involving minority ethnic communities. “Cultural sensitivity should never be a bar to applying the law,” she said.

    If the authorities failed to act in an “open and front-footed” way it would “create a gap for extremists to fill, a gap where hate can be peddled”.

    This contrasted with Vaz, who warned that the criminal justice system should not “dance to the tune of the British National party.”

    I think she’s right. In fact, I’m impressed (with her dad, too). This is much better than her religious Britain rubbish. We can’t afford not to speak out for fear of being thought racist or sexist or whatever. It isn’t racist to identify cultural attitudes as a contributing factor in crime or oppression if it is in fact true. Nor can we allow people to get away with cruelty and abuse merely because the actual racists might be tempted to start a riot under a false pretext. And it is perfectly reasonable to ask communities to do something about it.

  12. julian says

    It isn’t racist to identify cultural attitudes as a contributing factor in crime or oppression if it is in fact true.

    This. If we accept that our attitudes towards sex and others are at least guided by the culture we are raised in we have to accept a culture can have harmful, even dangerous, attitudes towards certain people. Like FGM, like circumcision, like rape, like religious violence. Crying racist for pointing out any of these problems only shields them ensuring this behavior will continue.

  13. Katie Anne says

    Europe has been slower to address sexism in this form. It’s sad, but I’m glad that this lady put this video out, good for her! Cultural change comes through awareness and education.

  14. smhll says

    A French dude apparently tweeted that HE never sees this happening, so it probably almost never happens.

    Arrrrggghhhh. Does this fallacious invalidation have a formal name?

    I mean I can sort of understand that a decent man who doesn’t grab ass at conferences or in elevators would generalize from his own data point to assuming that other men would behave much like himself, but persisting in this belief in the face of testimony (and video footage!) is a little perverse.

    Any bets on whether the tweeter referenced above actually watched the exerpt from the video?

  15. Beauzeaux says

    Reminds me of the famous photo “American Girl in Italy 1953” by Ruth Orkin. The subject of the photo later claimed that she was having a wonderful time in the picture. And that women thought the photo was showing her “being appreciated.” I have to call bullshit.

    Like Helen, I remember such street harassment and it was ALWAYS scary, particularly if I was alone. It sure didn’t make me feel positively toward the men who did it.

  16. Pen says

    OK, I’m going to try and explain my problem with Warsi’s attempt. Joseph Harker has a good article to read also. I think Warsi took a terrible crime and chose that moment to start a discussion about the attitudes of Asian men towards white women. Terrible crimes committed by members of the Asian community are as rare as for any other community I presume, but it’s hard to avoid conveying the impression that Asian men in general are criminals in waiting when making a move like that. White British men caught committing the same crime did not lead to a discussion of all that’s wrong with white male culture in Britain. I expect the white British males would protest vigorously if it had.

    Here’s another attempt at discussion about differences of opinion between members of two communities.

    Peeters talks to a crowd of local young men of north African origin about how to stop the insults. They suggest she says she is married. Peeters said: “I was told, ‘Come out with a man, your boyfriend and we’ll leave you alone.’ But that’s ridiculous. Women have the right to walk where they want.”

    Neither Peeters nor the young men introduced the question of ethnicity into the discussion as far as I can see. That was done after her video was made public, by commentators who notice the correlation even though it wasn’t made explicit. I’m offering that as a mere observation, because I don’t actually have a position on the rights and wrongs of this one – yet.

  17. julian says

    But in Asia, Pakistan or Islam there is no culture of grooming or sex abuse



    Ok, sure.

  18. Ana says

    I live in portugal, a very sexist country in Europe, and I’ve been routinely cat-called since I was about 10.
    In here we have the saying “an honorable woman has no ears” so yes, there definitely is a taboo against speaking about street harassment, but not against doing it. I learned to ignore it so well I really only recognize it as a problem when I went to study abroad for a year and suddenly was NEVER cat-called. The silence was amazing.
    Then I met a girl in that same place who came from an ex-communist country, and she was totally appalled that men would LOOK at us when we were out. She said it was harassment, and that in her country she would have yelled something rude or even thrown a stone at the guy and be totally justified. And when I told her how much better it was than my own country, she asked how the hell did I live.
    Only after this experience did I wake up to this and other feminist issues, and now I’m a card-carrying Watson-defending feminist. =)
    There is a video that appeared some time ago and that I think shows exactly the kind of priviledge guys have, and I usually show it to those who say we should be flattered by the cat-calling:

  19. says

    Yes, I was being sarcastic. European men are often convinced that they live in a more enlightened, sexually progressive place. The reality is that they live in a much less progressive place, where women are subjugated to the point that they don’t complain. Sort of explains why American men in particular are so eager to silence feminists, in an “out of sight, out of mind” sort of way.

  20. says

    A French dude apparently tweeted that HE never sees this happening, so it probably almost never happens.

    Arrrrggghhhh. Does this fallacious invalidation have a formal name?

    Argument ad dudebroum?

  21. jackiepaper says

    I’ve got to say, as often as I have hated on my small southern town’s culture, I’ve seldom had to deal with street harassment. It happens. Without fail it is guys in trucks who yell things and drive away. Sometimes I wonder if they think it is a funny joke or if they know how scary it is to wonder if they’ll come back and do more than yell. Guys who pass me on foot tend to nod or wave and keep walking. I cannot imagine how freaked out I would be if I had to live in a place where street harassment was considered normal.

  22. says

    Ana – wow – so the “honor” is in the woman who dutifully pretends not to hear it – not in the man either saying it or not saying it. What the man does is just a force of nature, or something, and the onus is on the woman.


  23. says

    This is truly disturbing! It never occurred to me that women suffered such abuse. I have heard it occasionally in Canada, but not often, though Elizabeth and I encountered it in Durham, in England, in 1990, walking along the Wear just below the cathedral, on a beautiful evening, calm and free, until a few yobs — fortunately on the other side of the river — started shouting abuse at Elizabeth, describing in graphic detail what they planned to do with her. It rather spoiled the experience. Though the pictures we took that evening are still beautiful, the memory, sadly, is not.

    I wonder what it is about men that gives them this sense of sexual privilege? Has this always been the norm in Europe, or is it something that has been growing gradually worse over the years? Is it the same in Scandanavia, where almost everyone is a nonbeliever, I wonder?

    Amazing, though, that this is something women are just supposed to take, without speaking out. Absolutely stunningly terrible. As I say, I had no idea. But I do ask, again, whether this is something that has been normal in France and Belgium, and elsewhere, or whether there is an historical trajectory that can be followed, and which would perhaps offer some explanation.

  24. John the Drunkard says

    It may be that the ‘I don’t see it so it doesn’t happen’ trope may have a useful side.

    Whether for ethnic or gender motivations, street harrassers don’t want to be seen by other men. Or at least, not by men who aren’t part of their in group.

    I personally have seen a serial stalker shift gears in mid-sentence and succesfully avoid detection when a potential witness came by.

  25. charlottedaems says

    @MNbO what you said is indeed the same in Belgium, only here it’s not Wilders but Vlaams Belang…:-)

    Anyway 2 days after the national screening of Sofie Peeters’ documentary ‘Femme De La Rue’ the spokesperson of Sharia4Belgium posted a video on YouTube explaining that this movie shows the ‘hypocrisy’ of Western societies and that Sofie Peeters did deserve the behaviour she got from these Muslims because she was running around naked….

    I do wish to add a few things: a) This is not a problem of Brussels alone, it happens in every major city in Belgium. For instance I live in Antwerp and I get subdued to the same behaviour on a daily basis even from boys that are half my age (and size)! Sometimes they even get physical…the problem is: they never do it when they are alone, they always and always do it in group of at least 5 others. Through the years I’ve learned to spot ‘the leader’ of the bunch and attack him directly (verbally mostly)…luckily these men are very often cowards whom back off if you are assertive.
    b) Belgium has a large Muslim community the problem lies with SOME Moroccan men and not all of them AND I have never had this behaviour or seen it done by Turkish or other Muslims. It’s always the same ‘group’

  26. Pierce R. Butler says

    Those guys have a serious case of djinn possession.

    Fortunately, I know where they can find a Pir to help them with this.

  27. Robert says

    I have no words. This is vile and repulsive behavior, and I’m glad that neither I nor any men I know personally engage in it. That said, I KNOW it exists, and will never claim otherwise.

  28. charlottedaems says

    @Eric MacDonald first of: yes this is ‘normal’ here in Belgium.
    second: During the documentary a male is interviewed and he gives a few reasons why men do this:

    1) The Muslims don’t get any sexual education and the guys don’t know how to handle and deal with all the emotions of sexuality and their hormones;

    2) (Muslim) girls from the neighborhoods are off limits because they are daughters of friends or daughters of family, plus they are all covered and nobody can see anything which instigates the lust and frustration emotions even more. He literally says the more you cover up the more they want to know what’s under it (destroying the whole argument of why women should wear burqas, Niqabs or veils.);

    3) Western publicity campaigns are always with half naked or naked woman. These pictures basically makes them even more horny and fustrated. So they take it out on the next best thing…other western women

    4) Women aren’t emancipated as long as they are lust objects of men, so it’s ok and normal that we treat women like that.

    Complete documentary is here: (it’s in French, Flemish and English)

  29. GordonWillis says

    I think Warsi took a terrible crime and chose that moment to start a discussion about the attitudes of Asian men towards white women.

    And she was right to do so. You are only reinforcing the argument that concern about racism should cause us to stifle our protestations. If we are to wait for the “right time”, nothing will ever happen — there is never a “right time”.

    White British men caught committing the same crime did not lead to a discussion of all that’s wrong with white male culture in Britain. I expect the white British males would protest vigorously if it had.

    True, but that is something wrong with white culture, and the only proper thing to do is to make exactly the same case, because it obviously applies just as well: no culture is all good, not even mine. You cannot use the argument that white British males would complain as a means of preventing criticism of culturally-driven cruelty.

    But where, amid all the commentary, was the evidence that this is a racial issue; that there’s something inherently perverted about Muslim or Asian culture?

    I would respect Harker more if he used his chance in print to tranfer Warsi’s arguments to his own “culture” and plead for communities to make their views clearly understood instead of planting the racist idea by turning a Muslim’s criticism of one single flaw in her own culture into a wholesale attack on everything and everybody. He is perhaps aware of his missed opportunity, too, or maybe he doesn’t grasp the full implication of his own words:

    There was no commentary anywhere on how these crimes shine a light on British culture, or how middle-aged white men have to confront the deep flaws in their religious and ethnic identity.

    He is banging the wrong dustbin-lid.

    I wouldn’t have taken up this line of defending Warsi if I hadn’t felt that it was relevant to Peeters’ predicament and protest, but, of course, it is. She is now being accused of racism because the culprits were non-whites. Any way to shut a woman up. Pity those poor foreign men who don’t know any better. We wouldn’t bother if it was white Europeans doing the harrassment, would we? Well, a few women might complain, but who listens to them? We all know they’re spoilsports or harlots or adulters, don’t we? Whole blogs are devoted to tearing apart women who complain about — wait for it — one aspect of white male culture.

    Warsi has put her finger on a real problem: many Muslim men coming from abroad have very odd ideas about the West, including the notion that white women are fair game. These ideas can persist because settlers cling to their traditions in the face of the uncouth natives. But of course, we know from bitter recent experience that the same notion exists in Western culture too. She is brave to try to address the one side, whether you think her timing wrong or not, and there is no excuse for us not to try to address the other also. Ducking behind the complaint that nobody, apparently, does is not acceptable.

  30. says

    This is craziness! Unbe-fuckin-lievable.

    Like all injustice, it makes me want to DO something to stop it. But what? Even if I was in Belgium… I should do, what?

    I was kinda thinking superhero vigilantism — leaping from rooftops and dog-calling at the cat-callers. You know: “You have a tiny penis.” “You couldn’t get it up with a forklift.” That sort of thing.

    The law should intervene, though. This is harassment, plain and simple, and that’s behavior that can be outlawed. Sadly, social change tends to be much harder to achieve than legislation, and Prohibition (should’ve) taught us that you can’t legislate behavior.

    I’m afraid we’re still struggling uphill, but I do think — maybe even believe — that putting religion in its place in secular societies is going to be the defining issue of the 21st century. So many other social evils, from racism to misogyny to homophobia, rely on religious privilege to perpetuate themselves. We remove that privilege, then the bigots will no longer be able to shield themselves from justice.

  31. GordonWillis says

    She is now being accused of racism because the culprits were non-whites.

    I omitted what seems to me the obvious parallel, when a woman who reports being raped is accused of adultery. The worry is that the anti-racists may even be concerned and well-meaning; I wish they would consider where supposed “good” intentions can lead us. But I also worry that Blame-the-Victim is a heady and tempting indulgence.

  32. callistacat says

    “…putting religion in its place in secular societies is going to be the defining issue of the 21st century. So many other social evils, from racism to misogyny to homophobia, rely on religious privilege to perpetuate themselves. We remove that privilege, then the bigots will no longer be able to shield themselves from justice.”

    Right, it’s religion. Because fighting for social justice is so popular in secular communities.

  33. The twelfth vote says

    How long will it be until thunderf00t appears in this comment thread to furiously shout in all caps that this problem is being blown totally out of proportion and that everyone should be focusing on other things?

  34. Godless Heathen says

    “Arrrrggghhhh. Does this fallacious invalidation have a formal name?”


    With re: Scandinavia. I studied abroad in Sweden about 8 years ago and don’t recall having many issues with this. I don’t recall having people talk to me on the street that much, period. Swedes keep to themselves.

    However, that was a while ago, and I know memories are faulty, so I might be wrong.

  35. says

    A Swede talked to me in Djurgården when I was there in 2010. Mind you, I was looking right at him and probably smiling. He was about 3, and wearing a floppy hat and a blue and white striped jersey. He raised a hand and said “Hej” very affably.

  36. CC says

    This reminds me of when I was a 20-year-old student in the south of France in the late 90’s. For the first few months, I had to wind up all my courage to go out of my dorm because I got accosted by men on the street every single time I went out. At first, I tried turning them down in a way that Americans would think was polite, with a smile and a “non, merci.” But that only encouraged them. I had to learn NOT to smile, to look straight ahead and say loudly, “no, that doesn’t interest me” (in French). I absolutely hated being approached everywhere I went. I felt besieged. I couldn’t go anywhere by myself and just enjoy my surroundings. I couldn’t just sit on a park bench and enjoy a nice day because men would come and bother me and be quite insistent about it. French women seemed to be used to it. They didn’t seem to have the strong emotional reaction I did.

    Six years later, I went back to France to work at a business school. I lived in the north, where the culture is different. Also, I was no longer quite the doe-eyed innocent I was before. I didn’t get accosted in the street at all. Although, once, a guy sitting across the aisle on a train stuck his hand down his pants and started jerking off while grinning at me. That individual, however, was undoubtedly on the margins of society. All in all, I was able to enjoy myself a lot more during that stay because I wasn’t always getting hit on or getting a running commentary on my appearance.

  37. says

    CC – yes. I had exactly that experience when I spent a month in Paris at 17-18 (I turned 18 while there). The same feeling besieged, the same fury at not being free to just walk around Paris like a normal human being, the same bafflement that nobody else seemed to mind. One guy followed me for most of a morning. It was an absolute nightmare.


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