Gillian Schutte
Gillian Schutte

Leering glances: The silence on sexual harassment is untenable

Sexual harassment on the streets is a pervasive phenomenon that women from a range of racial and cultural backgrounds as well as social circumstances experience in daily life. Most men, even educated men from so-called respectable backgrounds belittle women’s experiences of sexual harassment. Internationally, this has led to a spate of new films and campaigns where women are calling attention to casual and more aggressive forms of sexual harassment by turning the tables on men. Their initiatives are highlighting what has almost become a taboo subject to talk about.

Recently the Guardian’s website posted an article and video by filmmaker Leah Green, which quickly went viral. Done in comedic style, in her video, “Get your arse out mate”, Green reverses the gender situation and becomes a sexual street pest herself harassing men in public spaces. While her behaviour appears extreme, all the scenes in the movie are based on real experiences reported by women. The results are really very funny as men react with disbelief and in fact turn down the feminine sexual predator. Their destabilised reactions speak volumes about who claims the right to behave as a sexual predator on the streets.

Green argues, “The disbelief of the men in my film mirrors the disbelief we should all feel when acts of everyday sexism happen to women.”

French filmmaker, Eléonore Pourriat’s short film Oppressed Majority also went viral on YouTube when it turned convention on its head by telling the story of a man who is sexually violated in a matriarchal society. Pourriat who wanted men to experience the rejection experienced by female victims of sexual violence received a flood of hate mail after her film was released.

Meanwhile in India, a student film project that produced a video campaign against street harassment also went viral. Its message is sharp and simple and goes a long way to holding up a mirror to men allowing them to understand why this behaviour is unacceptable to women.

Yet sexual harassment, often casually dispensed by men, has not been part of the public debate on violence against women in South Africa. With appallingly high rape statistics, femicide and hate crimes against lesbians living in townships in South Africa, catcalls and wolf whistles seem trivial in comparison. And yet street harassment is so widespread that it is should be acknowledged as a violence against women as well. It makes women feel insecure and anxious and thus restricts their mobility. It also thwarts women’s efforts to achieve control over their public lives and to feel legitimate in public spaces.

Far from innocuous, street harassment ensures that public spaces become masculinised, as multiple infringements on the autonomy of women are disregarded in what should be free and open spaces. This creates a situation where no woman is deemed sacred or self-governing and in order to remain secure is forced to perform a consummate and passive femininity to please and placate potential sex pests on the streets. In this way then, street harassment is a form of low-grade war on women in the public sphere. In fact feminist writer Hawley Fogg-Davis, author of “A Black Feminist Critique of Same-Race Street Harassment” calls it sexual terrorism.

“Sexual terrorism is an apt description of street harassment. As a young woman you know it will happen, but you never know for certain when or how it will happen. This makes street harassment hard to define, and difficult to combat. Its insidiousness derives in large measure from its venue: the semi-private, semi-public everyday occurrence of walking, sitting, or standing along city streets, or other public spaces such as parks and shopping malls.”

This focus on women’s harassment abroad prompted me to ask South African women to share their personal experiences of this occurrence with me on my Facebook platform. I wanted to understand the collective experiences of women in their everyday lives as social actors negotiating public spaces.

It became clear to me in this informal poll that men representing a cross-section of demographics are capable of street harassment and do practice it.

Respondents listed harrowing experiences of harassment while engaged in routine activities like going to the supermarket, at public swimming pools and of course while using public transport.

Elise Black Athena Fernandez: I think many coloured and black women can vouch that this has been happening to them from a very young age. Especially when using public transport. My friend and I were about 16 years old when we took a train into town. A man sitting opposite us masturbated right there. No one I know likes walking through the taxi rank in Cape Town because of this. No one really speaks about it.

Mbali MamakaUmi Mthethwa: I once got slapped by a guy who was trying to ‘hit on me’ and I wouldn’t respond to his advances. The thing about it that was scary was that I was in a busy area at Bree Street taxi rank and a lot of people saw it happen, but not one person did a thing. I just walked off crying. And when you don’t return men’s advances in town, you get called a whore or a bitch, just because you wouldn’t say hello back!

Goitsy Freeverse Lehmann: Yep, Van der Walt Street Pretoria … I have had buttocks grabbed, name-calling just because I would not reply to advances … like you owe someone your smile and your ‘good’ mood. They feel entitled and I think the root of the problem lies with the general feeling that women are objects of pleasure … I mean how can you get harassed because you refused to smile at a stranger.

Barbara Abdinor: I had this gross old guy staring at me relentlessly a few days ago while I was sitting in my cozzie at the water slide park with my kids. My sense was that he felt he had paid the entrance fee and that was why he was there, to stare at women in swimming costumes.

Zimasa Mkentane: I was walking with my little sister to a supermarket around 5pm, and I noticed that there was a car going up and down (following us). We went into the supermarket, came out and I noticed the same car following us back to our place. Then this old white man stopped the car, (got) out with no clothes below the belt and played with his penis while he waved at us to get closer. We ran and took a different route back to our flat …

Liza Jane Shuttleworth: I can assure you that white girls get it just as badly as black women … aside of course from the fact that as a white woman I am lucky enough not to have to use public transport or walk anywhere other than for recreation (in ‘safe’ areas, with a man and a dog in tow). But that said, I do a lot of work in rural areas and it seems that there is never a time or place where openly talking about my body, trying to grab me, talking about sexual acts and insisting I go out with/marry them is inappropriate.

Black and coloured women and working-class women who rely on public transport or the taxi system are most exposed to and vulnerable to aggressive forms of sexual harassment. However, it is also abundantly clear that from the maid walking to work to the madam going out for her morning jog, no woman in South Africa is safe from sexual harassment.

Of most concern is the fact that this sense of entitlement over women’s bodies is perpetuated by mainstream culture.

Women are tired of being stared at by men and it’s not just the creepy guys that bother us. Street harassment, sexual terrorism, leering, and unwanted advances — all of these categories of sexual harassment wear women down. Men clearly need to be educated on the intimidation and mistreatment of women who are recipients of unwanted advances, lecherous glances, utterances and actions.

It is time that this syndrome was outed and spotlighted in the very public spaces where it occurs. South Africa needs a visible public campaign against this untenable treatment of women, which has become normalised in our masculine society and rendered invisible to everyone but its victims.

Gillian Schutte is an award winning independent filmmaker, writer and social justice activist. She is a founding member of Media for Justice and co-producer at Handheld Films.

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    • Jan Zandberg

      Society must be carefull how we bring up our boys. My parents told (and showed) me that you must respect women. If you respect a woman in every which way, you will never haras them. It is however also true that more and more women does not give you the opportunity to show respect. Many a time I experienced a cituation that a women openly disregard a act like opening a door for her or stand back for her to enter first. Many a time you are laughed at when getting up to take a tray etc from her. So please people bring your kids up in a respectful environment and not try torectify wrong outcomes by law.

    • zoo keeper

      So men must never look at women again? Ever?

      Can women look at men though?

      Should we all cover up in shawls so we cannot be tempted by the flesh?

      Yes, some do overstep the mark but seriously men masturbating in public is hardly a routine category of behaviour.

      Yes, some do overstep the mark but that has to do with upbringing. It starts in the home. And women are quite capable of groping men too – yes it happens both ways.

      So the author uses an enormously broad brush to call for the outlawing of any flirtation based on some peoples’ bad experiences. Its a bit like finding out a thief comes from a certain town of 100 000 people, then the entire 100 000 must be treated like criminals just in case one of them might turn out to be a criminal.

      Looking at each other is normal. There are some boundaries and some will overstep but each incident is its own matter.

      Quite how the species is supposed to survive if we can’t flirt is a bit of a mystery.

    • Agreed

      Agreed GIllian
      As A young (white ) schoolgirl who used public transport back in the day, I had men expose themselves to me at least twice a year. I was at an all girls school and some creep even tried to drag a std 6 pupil out of the grounds during break time. (He was thrashed by staff and students alike :0)) In the intervening years I was “hit on” repeatedly, including by one very odd man in a red Prosche who screeched at me that I would soon be begging him for sex (I didn’t know him from a bar of soap!) Just last year, as a now mature woman on my way to an early morning meeting, I had a man step out of a substation area without any pants on and beckon me over while he was masturbating. You know what? I felt pity for him and for all others like him. I cannot think what it must be like to have so little control over your sexual urges, or to have such a backwards belief system, that you would demean yourself – often publicly, to satisfy it. There is a richness to life that can never be defined by sexual gratification alone – they do not see that richness or the need to embrace it. . We differ from animals in that we have a brain which enables allows us to think, communicate and exercise self-control. When we fail to engage those faculties we are in fact, no better than animals and lacking in human dignity.

    • Conrad

      A necessary, thought through and balanced piece. Even so I found myself wondering whether “most men” do actually belittle the experiences of women. I know of no men in my circle of friends that would do that. In fact, the opposite would be true. Nonetheless, the problem addressed in the blog is pervasive and socially entrenched. Men are often also ignorant of the realities that women face in the work place and elsewhere.

    • Rejoice Ngwenya

      Gillian makes good points that should send a message to bad men. None of us men is ‘immune’ to such behaviour. Funny enough, it doesn’t matter what our social or economic standing is, when we see ‘nice women’ walk by, the instinct is to say ‘Wow!’. What then takes over is either good judgement [‘She is not mine’] or bad behaviour [‘Can I have your number?’]. We SERIOUSLY need one hell of massive, national collective therapy!

    • The Praetor

      In my opinion, and by nature, there is nothing more beautiful and attention-grabbing to a man than a woman…

      Having said that I am fully aware of the untoward stares women would get from individuals, and the types of behavior as mentioned by women above are not acceptable.
      There is also a big difference between harassment and the normal act of ‘chatting’ up a woman. Innumerable lasting relationships were started by someone noticing another person on the street and taking the plunge and engaging that person in conversation.

      It is also so that men will naturally notice a woman’s body if she is half unclothed, as this again is part of human nature, so if a woman feels uncomfortable being stared at she should simply avoid this type of dress.

      We have to be careful on where we draw the line on saying that men shouldn’t be allowed to stare at women, as this is asking for human nature, which has evolved over millions of years, to be altered.

      The Praetor

    • Isabella van der Westhuizen

      The hetero-normative sphere of whiteness is part of the hegemonic dominant discourse of phallocentric patriarchy that others the feminine.
      Yes yes Gillain

    • Peter

      Isabella, can you say it in normal English so that we can all understand?

    • Jason

      Hi Gillian,
      I agree that the unsubtle street harassment of women has now quite reached a saturation point. The biggest problem related directly to this from a South African context is that none of our cultural systems place women equal to men. That is the crux of why things do not get any better. The Human Rights Declaration and The Constitution of South Africa are completely opposite to the deeply-rooted, generationally-maintained chauvinistic value system. A significant spanner in the works is that even highly-educated, strong women, find themselves cowtowing to “appropriate” behaviour norms, and are reluctantly just coerced to accept harassment when it occurs. It would also go a long way for some of the men who are gender-enlightened, to chastise their relatives, colleagues or friends for continuing such behaviour, by emphasising that it is demeaning to women.There would, I hope, be a chance for men who are fathers, to reflect on their own reactions should this harassment have happened to their daughters. (and, yes, I am discounting the chance of them saying that she somehow initiated her own harassment.)

    • DavyH

      Oh no, Isabella, not again. This article is not about race and only the most blinkered individual would not notice that behaviour of this type is universal. You do other races a disservice by refusing to acknowledge that they are capable of evil all by themselves.

      However, to the content. Without trying to detract from the wrongness of the (usually mentally unstable) flasher-type, there is a big difference between an admiring glance and a sexual invitation. Most people spare more than a passing glance for something to which they are aesthetically attracted, be it a car, man, woman or dog.

    • Agreed

      @ Conrad – Agreed. The men with whom I associate are also respectful, even when they are admiring or complimentary – and I never feel uncomfortable or threatened. It is those who feel free, or see it as their “duty” to lech or harrass that are worrying. The sad thing is that every single woman I know, irrespective of race or age, has been sexually harrassed or humiliated. And of course, women can, and are, also guilty of this behaviour, but to a far lesser extent (possibly because there is less peer pressure or we are not living in a matriarchal society?). Of course men love to look at women – it is the most natural thing in the world. But “civilised ” men keep their thoughts and fantasies to themselves – they don’t act on them. if a woman seems to spurn offers to open doors etc, register it and don’t do it next time. Most however, are probably quite comfortable with it, or even appreciate it. I work in a very multi-cultural, male dominated environment where there is a lot of confusion about social conventions and manners. Sometimes men let me into the lift first, sometimes they walk in before me. They also seem to be unsure, so I take no offence, thank those who usher me in first and just go with the flow. Men are men – and we love them, but indulging or condoning crass behaviour just because they are men, is out of the question. It is ultimately men who have to decide that they want to change.

    • J.J.

      A lot of women dare men not to look at them every day –
      by wearing very revealing clothing.

      It’s very effective.

    • hippiegoth

      I think something that’s been brought up in a variety of comments is the difference between admiring glances/looks and stares. The former can be respectful. The latter, to me, is downright rude.

      As to previous commentator Ian Shaw who mentioned his “human right as a man” to look at women – I’m not sure that there is such a human right. If this is a reference to appreciative glances, I have no issues. I don’t understand why you felt the need to comment on the author’s appearance, sir, but I won’t presume to know your reasons.

      If, however, Mr Shaw is trying to defend a supposed right to stare or leer, I’d have to admit that there is (sadly) no law against being an @sshole. Having said that, if one decides to act as such (by staring), one must also respect others’ “rights” to give the starer a good solid [email protected] out, as I believe is warranted by such rudeness.

    • Rory Short

      Hetero-sexual men have been programmed by evolution to be very interested in woman, and vice-versa. Our species would have died out long ago were this not the case. But it is not necessary for this interest to replace the utmost respect for other people just because they are women, or men.

    • J.J.

      At the end of the day we must understand the concept of reciprocity and mutual respect, even if it has become inconvenient to have to do so, because these values and principles are now considered relics of the past, because some of us believe we are automatically entitled to respect while at the same time are under no obligation to show or give respect. In the past people were able to understand natural cause and effect. If you tend a garden it bears beautiful fruit. If you don’t, the garden grows weeds and deteriorates and the quality of the fruit becomes poor. Gender relations and how we treat each other within society needs to be continuously cultivated. If you neglect or even reject doing cultivation, or if only one side must do the cultivating and the other side is absolved from that requirement, you might end up with the side not receiving respect ultimately being less inclined to show respect – naturally.

      See first comment by @ Jan Zandberg #

      “It is however also true that more and more women does not give you the opportunity to show respect”

    • nguni

      If you take the pervs out of the equation (they are found in all races) then black women have a much harder time than their white counterparts. I have read really heart-wrenching and angry blogs written by black american women on this issue, they seem to be more forthcoming about what is going on in the ‘hood than SA blacks are about townships.

    • J.J.

      @ Agree

      “Sometimes men let me into the lift first, sometimes they walk in before me. They also seem to be unsure, so I take no offense, thank those who usher me in first and just go with the flow.”

      This uncertainty of men of “how to act” was not a problem 15-20 years ago. Men knew EXACTLY how they were expected to treat women and act around them.

      Since chivalry has somehow become unpopular, (many men report how chivalrous are met with negative reactions from women), there are no clear guidelines for men anymore. This has a general effect as well. If chivalry is considered “a problem” rather than common civility, fathers are less likely to teach their sons to be chivalrous and men are less likely to promote (or insist upon it) amongst their peers.

      “It is ultimately men who have to decide that they want to change.”

      Well, it’s a case of “damned if you do and damned if you don’t”…

      Maybe women should change as well (If this is not too much to ask – since it’s being asked of men all the time).

      How about appreciating civility? Because if we don’t return to appreciating civility which promotes civility, it might be lost forever. How “progressive” would that be?

    • Ms Ann Thrope


      Go google “straw man argument”- nobody is suggesting that men never look at women again.
      Yes, public flashing is not common behaviour, but take something more subtle: I get told “You’re prettier when you smile” – or some variant thereof- fairly routinely by strange men I pass in the streeet; and I’m sure MANY women experience the same.

      That may seem completely innocuous to some; but when I was younger I would get insecure and worry that I wasn’t pretty, when I was older I started to think, hey, what right has a stranger got to comment on my appearance. These days I tend to respond with a hearty “fuck off”. Why should I have to deal with that stupidity for no other reason than being female?

    • zoo keeper


      Would you be equally offended by an equal stare from a bedraggled, bearded man in an overcoat and one from a strapping, well dressed Brad Pitt-type?

    • Agreed

      @ JJ – YOu make certain cultural assumptions in your statement about lifts. In white culture men would generally usher a woman in first. In African culture men go into the lift first (I have been told, to ensure that the space is safe for the woman.) Both are cultural expressions of good manners, but when one has a multicultural group accessing a lift then there is sometimes confusion. Who lets who in, and according to whose culture? That’s why I think its best to “go with the flow” and why it is important that we learn about one another’s social mores. We cannot assume lacks or insults on the part of others from a position of ignornace about them.

    • Joe Citizen

      Hysterical exaggeration once again from this author. Subject addresses an established problem in most societies and needs serious looking into but not through the ramblings of this unbalanced writer.

    • nguni

      @ Agreed
      Don’t come with the cultural nonsense: people are getting into a lift, not going into a dangerous cave. That might be relevant in the bush but not in a city. It’s this kind of thinking that led some idiots to slaughtering cattle and goats in their back yards in the city.
      I don’t bother prioritising who gets into a lift first, unless its small and there are lots of people waiting. But for doorways to homes restaurants etc I do the ‘old school’ thing.

    • zoo keeper

      Ms Ann Thrope

      Gillian used the broadest brush she could to suggest any kind of appreciative look is to verboten. Gillian opened the doors because she has failed to distinguish between what is socially acceptable and what is not. We all kinda know where the line is, it is really difficult to express but we know it when we see it.

      All we can do is deal with those who step over the line when they step over the line and make sure they know they were out of line. We must be careful of legislating how people must behave.

      We’re human and we are attracted to each other. Its called life.

    • Agreed

      @ nguni – its not nonsense if you are used to walking ahead of a woman. Just like its not not nonsense if you are used to behaving “old school”. People have had manners drummed into them for years.and they (manners) are culturally bound – like it or not. And if someone wants to slaughter a goat in their garden that their business BTW. Whether I like it or not, or whether I think its backward or not, is irrrelevant. All transitions need time.

    • Momma Cyndi

      zoo keeper

      I cannot speak for other women but I can honestly say that a hobo and a ‘Brad Pitt’ are equally disconcerting. It isn’t about the look, it is about the way they look at you. A polite recognition about you being there is nice but, being mentally undressed is uncomfortable. Even the best looking man starts to look scary when he gets ‘THAT’ look. You start feeling a bit like the dinner guest at a Hannibal Lecter party where favor beans and a good Claret are already on the table.

    • Momma Cyndi

      A friend put me onto ‘the everyday sexism project’ .

      As someone who has been through the gauntlet, you tend to forget just how frightening it all is. Playing the ‘dumb blond’, who misinterpretates the conversation, and having to be devious to juggle your way through life becomes so second nature after a while. You stop fighting and just do what you have to to get through it all. That is sad.

      I so remember pretending to be gay and pretending to have a fiance and pretending to be a novice nun (all work related)! That is not even mentioning the times I pretended not to understand English or when I pretended to be a blood drinking satanist! The funniest was in Spain where some guy knew two phrases – ‘my wife does not understand me’ and ‘cocaine – yes?’. Good gods but he was a creepy creature! Could I hells get rid of him.

    • mark

      Is it sexual harassment when a large proportion of our country urinate in public?