Street harassment is a real but understudied societal phenomenon. It can range from being stared at, followed, groped, physically assaulted, obstructed, whispered at and yelled at. It can be persistent, one-off, be construed as a criminal offence, cause immediate danger, or have longer lasting psychological damage. Regardless of what form it takes, it means that someone receives unwanted attention from someone else in a public space, which makes them physically and/or psychologically threatened. It can happen to anyone regardless of gender, but it is a gendered phenomenon that’s faced by far more women than men.
I was glad to see coverage of the issue in the HKFP last week. While my personal experience in Hong Kong is somewhat better than in several other cities around the world, I wasn’t surprised by what I read in terms of some women’s experiences in our city, and believe there should be concern, debate, and action around these incidents which have painful physical and psychological impact on victims.
I wasn’t surprised by the victim blaming that transpired in the aftermath of that article either. Victims are often urged to stop whining, to change their behaviours (assuming specific behaviour caused specific repercussions), to consider that others are victims too, or to consider that what they’re facing isn’t problematic at all. In essence, they are told to stop being victims.
But why do we try to diminish or deny the experiences of others by conflating it with our own experiences or putting additional burdens on people who have gone through something that is evidently traumatic? The problem isn’t the sharing of or coverage of these negative experiences. The problem is the behaviour that constitutes harassment occurring in the first place, that perpetrators feel powerful enough to engage in these offensive behaviours, and that there is propagation of said offensive behaviours by obfuscating the root issues and blaming victims.
If your experiences in Hong Kong have been safe, that’s wonderful. It doesn’t take away from other people’s negative experiences, which are real. It doesn’t mean that horrible things don’t happen.
If there are people who delight in being catcalled, stared at, or groped in public, let’s hear from them for perspective. And, while that would surprise me, this is not about desired attention anyway. Harassment conversations are about unwanted and non-consensual behaviours. If members of the public aren’t sure who wants what, don’t engage in behaviour that many of us are clearly spelling out as unwanted and can potentially cause physical or psychological damage.
If there are men being harassed, talking about women’s harassment experiences isn’t designed to take away from that.
If some of these victims could have spoken up or pushed back, it behooves the rest of us to understand that it isn’t easy for those feeling threatened to speak up. Nor will it be, if we keep denying people their experiences or shaming them for having gone through them or shared them. In situations of harassment, responses can even escalate situations to more extreme levels.
Panglossian attitudes of Hong Kong being a safe haven for all won’t help either, because it is obviously not safe for plenty of people. It makes a lot of us nervous to hear about crimes and unwanted behaviours in our city, but our nerves can’t warrant denying reality. “Victim blaming is not just about avoiding culpability – it’s also about avoiding vulnerability,” a psychology professor shares, and that’s a point worth acknowledging.
Let’s have productive conversations on how we might stop harassment. Let’s address its causes and let’s determine how to protect ourselves and others from it. Let’s figure out how Hong Kong can be safer for everyone and let’s empathise with victims. Harassment is unacceptable. Blaming victims means perpetuation of the harassment.