It Matters: sexual harassment and silence.

This was first published here and I think appeared in Red Pepper, though i can’t find it now. But I wanted to archive it here to not lose track.


“Are you a hooker?”

Street harassment is ubiquitous enough to usually be little more the white-noise of living under patriarchy but, this morning, stepping outside into quiet, semi-suburban street I’m staying on, a distant horn honk brought those words back into focus.

“Are you a hooker?”

Who said that?

I walked home alone, late, despite suggestions to the contrary; the night was lovely. The downtown music almost drew me into other venues but I wanted night air and stars more than music and drunken stranger companionship. All weekend I had chosen much-needed personal space and peace over protests, parades and parties.

With some ambivalence but a vague acknowledgement of ‘safety I chose a route through well-lit streets rather than through the shadowed park I used to hang out in day and night. In retrospect, it didn’t matter. I was on a well-lit city street when first heard the words:

“Are you a hooker?”

‘Maybe they’re looking?’ I give benefit of doubt. But with all that Canada’s new proposed prostitution legislation will make it harder for people to hire sex workers and make sex-work much more dangerous, no one is going to be soliciting here, on a quiet residential street, a few hours past the resident’s bedtime. Beside that car, I was the only sign of life. Their inquiry was disingenuous so i didn’t respond. Whether or not I’m a hooker doesn’t matter.

“Are you a hooker?”
A different voice; he has a friend.

I’m silent. Out of speechlessness as much as safety. What response is there to this question, hurled like slaps across the peaceful night? What would convey the deep respect i have for sex-workers, the utter contempt I have for men who harass isolated women*, let alone for anyone who thinks the best attack is the word ”hooker”? Asking if I’m a ‘hooker’ does not hurt me—-‘hooker’ signifies an important, often valiant, and dangerous profession–-but I can infer insult and threat in their intention. What can i say to counter their use of that word to erase a right to safety?

“Are you a hooker?”
They slow down, just enough to make sure the words carry.

Despite best intentions, I inventory myself. What a person is wearing doesn’t correlate to harassment: I have been followed, harassed, even stalked wearing platform heels or rubber crocs. My shoes don’t matter. Harassment is not the fault of the harassed. Nonetheless, I check. My platform wedges are tucked in my bag; my feet hit pavement in bland, functional sports sandals. Not that it matters.

I’m at the driveway, reaching for my keys when I realize their attention is still on me. I keep walking, slowly but deliberately, past the house, not wanting them to see where I live. I am grateful for the sandals as I prepare myself to run.

”Are you a hooker?”

Why run? I should yell, curse; chase them down and fight. If it were daylight, I might. But I am still at a loss of words. What sound bite would convey how deeply violent their attitude is towards sex workers; how dangerous such an attitude is for all of society? What words are there to express the anger I feel with the absolute knowledge that if i were, indeed, a ‘hooker’; in fact if i were not holding keys to a door nearby that i could almost certainly reach before they got out of the car, that this twinge of anxiety and readiness–-another background noise of living under patriarchy–-would be panic and fear?

“Are you a hooker?”
Staccato horn honks accompany their words.

I regret that I’m not a good fighter. I have gotten out of many situations by righteous indignation, false confidence, privilege, and luck. Any of those incidents could have turned more violent – even deadly. For many they do. Women sex-workers are 18 times more likely to be killed than other women; 4 times more likely than cops to be killed whilst working and are frequently targeted by serial killers. Aboriginal women*, immigrant women, racialised women, trans women, disabled women, homeless women, queer women are all disproportionately targets of violence and murder, more so when multiply oppressed.

“Are you a hooker?”
The car stops at the corner, 40 metres away their voices and horns still reach me.

They’ve stopped too far to see me clearly but they might back up or turn around. I stop walking. I won’t confront them, wanting to stay safe but quiet, not disturb anyone else. Not prepared to deal with the anxiety it would produce. Knowing that talking about this is less-likely to lead to fighting sexual harassment than it is to lead to more cautions for women not to walk alone at night. For months I’ve supported others who’ve been sexually harassed and assaulted in communities that don’t want to be disturbed by its reality. If I can’t even get my anti-sexist community to deal seriously with sexual harassment or assault, how can I expect others will react?

“I didn’t hear/see anything”
“Did you call the police?”
“Can you prove it?”

Who said that? Was that you?

I double-back, cut along the side to the rear, relieved i have a key for the back door. I stop in the backyard , look up at the night sky. I don’t hear them anymore. I try to let everything go but the stars. It doesn’t work. Not quite, though the breeze is cool and the sky is familiar and comforting. I go inside.

And I look in the mirror.

I know it doesn’t matter that my dress is form-fitting. I’ve gotten catcalls as often wearing oversized waterproofs as when wearing halters and mini-skirts. I’ve been oinked at as a well-coifed size 7 and a disheveled size 20. I have had my breasts commented on, gestured about and groped (unconsensually), in various states of couture and stature, by strangers, acquaintances, co-workers and bosses, since I was 12.

What I’m wearing doesn’t matter but i can’t keep myself from searching nonetheless.

I assess. Is it revealing? Not really. No cleavage. The skirt nearly hits my knees. And a cardigan hovers loosely, hiding the jersey-hugged curves that feminists say i ought to, anyway, be proud of.

“It doesn’t happen to strong women”
“What do you expect if you wear that/ smile at strangers/walk alone”

I disgust myself with these thoughts. For all I’ve done to fight the notion that what you wear, how you look, matters; for all I’ve done to insist that harassment is not the fault of the harassed, i still checked, listening to the past voices echoing in my head.

On principle I’ve long-since made it a point to talk openly about sexual harassment I experience.

For this i am sometimes accused of bragging. Sometimes, but not always in jest; often, but by no means always, by cis-men.

“Are you trying to make me jealous?”
“At least you got some attention”

Who said that? Do you know them?

The news is peppered with politicians talking about “legitimate rape”, with pundits blaming women not just for wearing too little, but also for wearing too much, as when women wearing hijab or niquab are assaulted or attacked. Every complaint of harassment or assault is meticulously scrutinized. Every word, act examined. So much so that we, or at least I, now do it myself.

I fell asleep with my own silence tonight mingling with my friend’s silences around known sexual harassment and assaults that have occurred in my communities. I write this today wondering how many people will doubt my story, or think i am over-reacting, or, indeed, boasting.

What do you say?
“Those guys were assholes”

Do you know them?”
“Not me. Not my mates. We’d never…not really”

Those blokes were friends of someone. How do you know they’re not friends of yours?


* Nearly 700 aboriginal women have gone missing in Canada over the lasts 30 years; despite international pressure, the Canadian government has ignored this crisis.

Since writing this a week ago, I’ve learned that the proposed new Canadian legislation against prostitution is being debated in the House of Commons this week. Find out more about the critiques of Bill C-36 and why prohibition/ciminalization of sex-work is dangerous from the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Reform.

Maggies and Stella are both organizations run for and by sex workers with good resources about violence against sex workers.

Here is some info on violence against sex workers in the UK, though i know less about groups who organize around such issues please do include other links if you know of them.
International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers – 17th December