Being in Public While Female

I’ve always considered myself relatively lucky on the street harassment front. It’s not something I’ve had to deal with much – which is a blessing, because I know from other people’s experiences that it’s very prevalent, especially for women.

But then I was reading a blog post on street harassment the other day, and I realised just how many times in the last two months I’ve been harassed while out on my bike. I ride to uni and back every day along quite busy roads (much faster than catching the bus from my house!) and often take it shopping as well, lacking a car. Sometimes I ride in the dark and late at night, if I’ve stayed at uni for choir, or am coming home from a night in the city. Sometimes I ride in skirts and dresses, because I refuse to wear lycra.

You’d think it wouldn’t be a big deal to see a person on a bike. But once I started counting it up, I realised that hardly a week goes by where I am not harassed in some form or other, just because I happen to be riding a bike, in public, while female.

People – young men – yell out at me from their cars. Often I can’t make out what they’re saying, but I bet it’s not asking me how my day was. That happens every few days. It’s just enough to make me pedal a bit harder and want to give to yell back at them, which I don’t.

People race past with an inch to spare, speeding up just as they pass me. Two weeks ago, a bunch of young men had their windows down and one of them tried to grab at me. Luckily he didn’t succeed, because I there’s a good chance I would have ended up under their car, or at least sprawled across the side of the road. That one got my heart racing.

Last week I was walking along a quiet street on my way home from the busway station in the evening and two men on bikes thought it would be hilarious to ride straight at me and swerve away at the last moment. That incident made me feel particularly vulnerable, because for once I wasn’t on my bike and wouldn’t have been able to get away quickly.

And why? Is it that hilarious to yell out at women, to grab at them, to make them feel vulnerable? Does it make them feel more masculine, like they’re only worth something if they can show they have power over me? Does it remind them that this is still a patriarchy and anyone out in public while female is fair game? Or that women are only really second rate people? Is it just a bit of ‘harmless fun’ to make women feel threatened?

I refuse to believe that this is just the way the world is.

7 thoughts on “Being in Public While Female

  1. Hi Jo
    I’m also a cyclist, and the situation that you are discussing is something that I feel passionately about. I’m going to venture that I don’t think it’s your gender that car drivers find so threatening, but your choice of vehicle. (Notwithstanding the car load of young dickheads with their hands ready to grope.) There’s a sickness at the heart of car culture in this country and a pervasive lack of awareness in society of the sorts of abuse and life-threatening danger that cyclists must endure on a daily basis.

    1. Well, I can’t judge whether grown men who are also cyclists get the same treatment… But I’m going to go out on a limb and say probably not. I do agree that there’s a culture where being a cyclist isn’t exactly the safest thing, but there’s also a culture which says that any female in public is fair game, and if she happens to be on a bike on the road? Well, even more chance of being harassed. The same thing happens to me when I’m out on foot as well, and to many women.

      1. I agree with you completely that more people, men in particular, would do well to heed the principle of ‘Live and let live’ when it comes to women, cyclists etc, who are just going about their business in public.
        My dad has been riding for about 20 years longer than me, and although he is not a representative sample (as one person never can be!) it is his experience that the treatment of cyclists has improved, however slightly, from what it was. When there were fewer cyclists on the roads than today, they would frequently get pelted with items flung from cars.
        There are a lot of prejudices tied up with the wearing of lycra. This really puzzles me. A couple of years ago, Geelong hosted the UCI World Road Championships, and a dedicated bogan contingent (bless em) saw fit to adorn local roads with their handmade “Real Men Don’t Wear Lycra” signs. Thank god they did so because the town was at serious risk of a large-scale emasculation! One day, out for a ride, myself and my dad encountered some of these lycra-haters in person. While my dad copped a spray for his choice of attire, as I rode past, I received the rather thoughtful appraisal “you’re alright, love”.

      2. (here from feministe, btw)

        As a woman who rides whose husband also does — we get similar amounts of drivers honking or yelling cycling-related insults like “get off the road”. But he doesn’t get the sexual ones or the appearance-related ones (I’m not skinny, and so get more unappreciative commentary on my assets on display than appreciative ones, and never a grope attempt, but either way, it’s harassment.)

        I’ve actually found that cyclist-harassment is a good comparison to make to guys who ride about how tiring street-harassment is for women, because they get really sick of it too, and it makes them feel less safe, etc.

      3. I used to commute by bike and received the same kind of harassment. I’m a woman, but in my work uniform (men’s shirt and tie) I was easily mistaken for a man. One time, some boys walking down the street shouted at me, I shouted back, and I heard one say, “wait, that was a woman?” In the state I lived in, the law said cyclists had to ride in the street, but everyone was certain they belonged on the side walk and they weren’t afraid to assert this. I’m with you that women are generally more harassed than men, but I’d have to say that all cyclists are harassed.

  2. Over from Feministe. Again, anecdotal evidence all being suspect, but coming from one of the “bike friendliest” cities in the US as a male cyclist (and especially I think a winter cyclist), I’d hazard a guess that we don’t get the same stuff (never been grabbed at) but the primary focus is the bike. A couple weeks ago a cyclist in our city got a firebomb thrown at him from an overpass, and I’ve had bottles, rocks, and other crap tossed out windows at/near me. “Buzzing” seems to be the most frequent, cause we all know it’s hilarious to watch the cyclist jump when they’re right next to our car when the horn blares. Had a city bus driver do that to me, which was super professional of her. Winter is especially hairy because the calculus of drifting slightly into the under-plowed verge where a second lane should be or cutting closer to what little is left of the bike lane so cyclists get that fun whistling sound as the side mirror goes by is really easy for drivers.

    Interesting tidbit though, here if you get busted for drink driving they may cut the corner of your license off so any cop at a traffic stop will know immediately that you’re violating the terms of your probation. When I started a new job about a year ago it took about a week of people seeing my biking in and out of the parking lot for two of the ladies to come up to me and ask if, “They could see my *giggle*, license.” Confused, I obliged since sometimes it is kinda funny to see how license pictures make a mockery of the photographic arts. When they saw it one said, “See I told you it wasn’t true.” Turns out there’d been a general supposition that I didn’t drive because my license was clipped. Yeah, the only reason most of my coworkers thought someone could possibly have for biking every day was if they legally couldn’t drive.

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