ON THE STREET, MEN HAVE YELLED AT me, touched me, trapped me to talk to me and tried to get me into their cars. My stories are upsetting but common. Street harassment is the reality for women, non-binary, Trans, and queer people in the core.
Indeed, downtown Edmonton has a street-harassment problem. I live here, and it’s impossible to go through a summer week without someone yelling at me or invading my personal space to try to force an interaction. And while this isn’t a new phenomenon, the way downtown is being developed means it’s growing. New developments are drawing more people downtown, and shifting some of the party culture away from Strathcona and into the core.
What we need to do now is to get creative to find ways to increase awareness around how common this all is. Thankfully, we are starting to do just that.
Locally, small efforts have been made, like the Transit safety campaign, which displays ads encouraging riders to look out for one another. But my favourite project so far is the This is What it Feels Like exhibit, at MacEwan University, which invited participants to step inside a dimly-lit booth while comments women hear yelled at them are played back to them.
Sitting in the booth, you’ll hear: “You’re pretty — for a native girl,” and “You’re beautiful — smile for me.”
And every once in a while, on some downtown construction board or a light post, I spot a stencil from artist Tatyana Fazlalizadah, wheat-pasted to a street light or construction barrier. It will feature a woman of colour looking regal and serious above the words, “Stop telling women to smile” or “Respect women.”
These kinds of projects give me hope. They let people know about the issue. Art is uniquely able to help us experience what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes.
Still, moments experiencing street-harassment can limit a woman’s life. They can dictate what we wear, where we go. It used to be that you had to expect this: Men are awful, we’re told, and it’s our responsibility as women to deal with that. Cover up. Don’t go out at night. Be a good girl.
We have to do better than that for future generations. We have to because street harassment is more than just words, and it will take more than the government to solve our problems.
When I tell men my stories of street harassment, the common refrain is that they have never seen anyone being harassed. Sometimes they have their own stories of dealing with drunk and boorish men and women. Sometimes, they say, they wish people would also yell ‘compliments’ at them the way I apparently get them. Sometimes, they ask what I was wearing.
It is tough to have your experiences dismissed. That needs to change. It’s up to people to change their culture. Women are speaking out in historic numbers about sexual violence. It is up to all of us to listen.