They stare, whistle, and stalk
What’s a joke to him is terrifying to her
Floor van der Wijk still remembers that night. She was in her first year of orthopedagogy and she was cycling across the Vismarkt around midnight when a group of six guys stopped her. They’d seen her coming and lined up to block her path.
The guys pulled on her bike, and one of them jumped on the back. Floor tried to get around them, but there was nowhere for her to go. They didn’t let her go until she started screaming and crying. ‘I think it scared them. The guy on the back of my bike said “oh, fuck” and got off’, says Floor.
She quickly rode away. Once she’d arrived at her friends’ house, she threw up. ‘I was in a panic for the rest of the night. Those guys were drunk and probably thought of it as a joke, but to me it was terrifying.’
Floor isn’t the only person this has happened to. An online survey conducted by UKrant that was filled out by 256 Groningen students, 216 of which were female and forty of which were male, showed that street harassment of a sexual nature is very common. People whistle at women, stare at them, make unwanted remarks about their looks, or even touch them inappropriately.
Apparently, some men think they own the street
In 80 percent of cases, people stared at them. 69 percent of respondents had been whistled at and 67 percent were subjected to remarks about their looks. 28 percent say they were stalked. The perpetrators are almost always male, and the students are almost always alone.
Male students have also experienced sexual harassment. They either get stared at (45 percent) or receive remarks about their looks (32 percent). But because the number of men who filled out the survey is so small, it’s difficult to draw definitive conclusions.
Sociology professor René Veenstra isn’t surprised that women experience more street harassment than men. ‘Because of the power imbalance, men pose a greater threat towards women than the other way around. Women aren’t as quick to harass a man in public. If they say something a man doesn’t like, he might approach them. Apparently, some men decide they own the street because they are stronger or because there are more of them.’
But not all forms of catcalling, as it’s also known, are intimidating, the students say. When Floor was walking on the street and a guy said she looked nice, she liked it. ‘He was all the way on the other side of the street and didn’t do anything’, she says. ‘But it’s different when someone looks you up and down and then smiles creepily. That’s not a compliment, that’s weird.’
A twenty-three-year-old student wrote that she considered the remarks from the builders on the street as a compliment. ‘They were laughing and I didn’t feel threatened at all. Their vibe was relaxed and they told me to have a nice day.’ But she didn’t like it when a man started cycling alongside her. ‘He told me I was beautiful, asked me where I was going, and wouldn’t leave. I told him that if he kept cycling next to me, I’d kick him off his bike.’
A twenty-two-year-old international business student had a similar experience. She was walking to the gym one afternoon when two men in a car pulled up beside her. They yelled something at her in Dutch, but she doesn’t speak the language. ‘I thought they might need directions, but they asked for my Snapchat and said some more things I didn’t understand.’ When she walked on, the men kept driving next to her. ‘I felt unsafe. I was annoyed and frustrated, and I felt naive for thinking I could help them.’
I felt unsafe, annoyed, and frustrated
A twenty-four-year-old student writes how a bus driver made sexual gestures towards her. These kinds of incidents aren’t funny; they’re uncomfortable, the students say. Most of them call the experiences ‘unpleasant’. Others feel insulted or frightened.
That makes sense, Veenstra says. ‘We expect other people to take us into account in a public space. It would be such an improvement if men whose intentions are sincere would understand that yelling or whistling at a woman is uncomfortable at best during the day, but downright frightening at night. It’s inappropriate and it’s not flirting.’
Do you adjust your behaviour to prevent being harassed?
When Floor was stopped by those guys on the street, it confirmed to her she was right to be afraid. ‘As a young woman cycling through the city at night, I’m already on guard. My experience taught me that my fears were founded.’
Since sexual harassment mainly takes place in parks and nightlife areas, students have started to avoid those places. International relations student Samara Jetta (20) often gets accosted in the Peperstraat. ‘I was walking down that street with a few non-Asian friends’, she says. ‘And this guy I didn’t know called me an “Asian hottie”.’ He stared at her for a long time before moving on.
She was extra annoyed that his remark not only addressed her gender, but also her ethnicity. ‘It made me feel insecure. I felt different and excluded for not looking like other people.’
Whenever possible, she avoids areas like the Peperstraat and the Poelestraat. ‘I almost never walk the street alone and never in areas where I experienced stuff like that before. If men say stuff like that when I’m with other people, what will they do when I’m alone?’
What will men do when I’m alone?
No fewer than 35 percent of respondents said they avoid the nightlife areas at night. They hate the Noorderplantsoen even more; 63 percent said they don’t like being there at night.
These results once again showcase the power imbalance between men and women. ‘These are typical adjustments that women make out of fear. Men hardly ever have to make these changes. A lot of student life takes place at night. It’s when they visit their friends, go to the pub, have their fun. It’s sad to see that in a safe city like Groningen, an important part of students is afraid’, says Veenstra.
Many female students take extra precautions to prevent street harassment. Nearly 95 percent said they don’t make eye contact and avoid groups of men. A little less than 64 percent said they talk to someone on the phone while walking or cycling home, or they pretend they do. Only 14 percent of respondents said they never change their behaviour.
Street harassment has made Floor feel less free in her movement. ‘It would be great if it didn’t exist’, she says. ‘I wouldn’t have to be afraid of going home alone at night and I could do what I want. I’d have more freedom.’
Samara thinks men simply don’t understand how being harassed affects women.
‘It only has to happen once for your whole view of society to change. I’ll remember an incident for as long as a year. It makes me feel less safe.’
‘Men, take your responsibility’
Why aren’t men being held responsible, though European languages and cultures student Hugo van den Heiligenberg when he was filling out the survey. He’d never paid much attention to the issue of street harassment, until one night when he saw how a young woman in his study association was repeatedly harassed by another guy.
The guy was intruding on her personal space, even though the girl had told him many times that she didn’t like it. Hugo ended up walking his fellow student home at the end of the night, when the guy who’d been bothering her showed up again and tried to touch her. He didn’t leave until Hugo had warned him off three times.
The experience left him shocked. ‘I had no idea it was this bad. I used to downplay it a little. I didn’t realise the severity of it until I saw how my friend was being harassed’, says Hugo. The experience, as well as conversations with other female students and his sister, opened his eyes.
He wants to increase awareness of what men can do. ‘It’s not just a problem that women face, it’s a societal problem.’
He doesn’t have a solution, but he’s thinking about it. ‘Men need to know what’s going on and how it makes others feel. If you see a woman being harassed, you need to intervene. At the very least, you can support the people this happens to.’
UKrant compiled an online survey about sexual street harassment. This survey was disseminated via our website and social media channels. We had a total of 246 respondents, all students at the University of Groningen or the Hanze University of Applied Sciences.
We do take into account the possibility of participation bias; it’s possible the online respondents specifically took the online survey because something had happened to them.