Actress April Hughes performing Ness Lyons' poem about street harassment

OPINION

When I was harassed, I just smiled politely and quickly walked away

Because we’re afraid or because we’re uncomfortable, women so often smile rather than stand up to harassment. To mark Anti-Street Harassment Week, Ness Lyons explores that instinct

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By Ness Lyons on

I’d been harassed in the street personally as a young woman, and professionally I’d handled sexual harassment cases as an employment solicitor, but it wasn’t until I experienced street harassment in my role as a mother that I felt compelled to publicly speak out. 

Last year, on a family holiday in Southeast Asia, the part of the world I grew up in and which I adore, a man in the street made a sexual remark to my 10-year old daughter that left her feeling terrified. I asked her how she reacted to the man’s comment and she answered, “I just smiled politely and quickly walked away.” I felt a surge of anger: how dare that man make my child feel she had to respond to being sexualised with a polite smile. I told her that if someone made her feel uncomfortable, she shouldn’t feel she had to smile. But then I hesitated, remembering the times in my teens and twenties when I’d been subjected to humiliating, provocative and threatening comments by strangers. Sure, sometimes I’d sworn or glared in response. And on one memorable occasion, merely responded with a look of pure disbelief when a man shouted at me to “smile love for God’s sake, it might never happen’…. when I was in a hospital. ON CRUTCHES.  But a lot of the time, I too had simply smiled politely, not wanting to offend. 

It was contextual, my female friends and I agreed. Sometimes you felt safe to challenge unwanted sexual remarks or gestures. Other times, say when it was late or night, or the bloke was clearly drunk, or had a psychotic stare… not so much. Call a man out on his catcalling and you were likely to be called “slag”, “bitch”, or “not all that”. 

Often, what this is really about isn’t actually a woman’s body, but her having a voice. Tell a man who is harassing you that you have a boyfriend, and he’s likely to back off out of respect for another man. Reject him on the grounds that you’re simply not interested in him without justifying it, and he may try to insult, follow, humiliate, threaten or assault you into silent submission… all of which has happened to numerous young woman I know. It’s hard not to feel extremely vulnerable when your aggressor is taller, bigger and stronger, particularly if you’re a teenage schoolgirl and he’s a grown man whose opening gambit is “suck my dick”. 

She wanted to move to another seat, but still she worried about appearing rude. It wasn’t until she turned to find him masturbating that she shouted at him, got up and went and sat elsewhere

I wanted to explore this issue the best way I knew how: by writing about it. I started by having lots of conversations with a diverse group of women, hearing about the various ways they all “smile politely”. 

I wrote a spoken word piece about it, performed by actress April Hughes (at WOW Festival and in a video to mark Anti-Street Harassment Week). April told me how she sometimes lies about being younger than she is to put off harassers. Once, she’d been trying to deter the attention of a thirtysomething man at a bus stop. She gave clear signs she wasn’t interested, but still he persisted and advanced, until, taking a deep breath, she announced loudly “I’m 15.” Horrified, he retreated. We laughed, but wearily. It gets tiresome having to make up lies because men won’t simply accept the truth: “I’m not interested.”  

When April’s friend El, a 21-year-old student, heard we were working on the piece, she asked if she could tell me her story. Last October she was sitting on a half-empty bus when a man came to sit beside her, smiling “weirdly”. She instinctively felt uncomfortable, but rationalised that she shouldn’t regard a man as creepy simply because he was smiling. But then his hand began to brush her thigh. El shifted in her seat, again giving him the benefit of the doubt that maybe it was accidental. When his elbow nudged her in the breast however, El turned and glared at him. He apologised. She wanted to move to another seat, but still she worried about appearing rude. It wasn’t until she turned to find him masturbating that she shouted at him, got up and went and sat elsewhere. The man was later sent to prison for the offence – after El was cross-examined in court on whether she’d merely imagined the masturbation or had given him the impression she was interested. She now says that what she learnt from it is to not dismiss her initial instincts, and to accept that sometimes, it is actually safer to risk appearing rude.

My daughter’s phrase of “I smiled politely” was a refrain echoed by nearly every woman I spoke to about street harassment. I want us to change that conversation: why, when we talk about politeness in these situations, is the word usually in relation to the woman in the scenario, and not the man? Instead of expecting us to simply smile, men need to learn to “speak politely”.

Actress April Hughes performing Ness Lyons' poem about street harassment
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