I recently returned from a 2-month stay in Toulouse, France in a last-ditch effort to improve my lackluster ability to speak French.
I passed two men as I walked home one evening in July. I could see from the corner of my eye that they quickly checked me out and deemed me worthy of a disingenuous “bonsoir” to catch my attention. I ignored this, but walked the rest of the way to my hostel room, furious. I was confused: what’s wrong with a simple “good evening”? It can’t be that harmful. They didn’t whistle or shout offensive slurs. But did I see the way he looked at me? Did I see that he only said “good evening” once he had a chance to check out my butt?
While this experience bothered me women in France—indeed, all over the word–experience much worse. Women in Paris’ La Chapelle district face harassment ranging from “What’s up your skirt?” to “lower your eyes, slut”. One survey presented to the French government showed that 100% of women polled faced sexual harassment while riding public transportation  (IIP-PRACTICE-2). Certain MPs in the French government “wolf-whistled a female minister who walked into the parliamentary chamber wearing a floral, knee-length dress”  (IIP-PRACTICE-2).
This data shows one of the biggest obstacles concerning sexual harassment: France has laws in place with fines starting at 15,000 for convicted offenders, but it only convicts around 80 a year. Sexual harassment is still rampant . France’s Gender Equality Minister, Marlène Schiappa, suggests that men sexually harassing women should be heftily fined on the spot , but legislation has yet to occur.
What are French women—but really, all women—to do? I’ve heard stories of women directly and immediately confronting the men who harass them, of women ignoring their harassers, of women resigned to a future time when boys are raised to respect all women, even strangers.
I found another blog post that I strongly identified with while writing mine. Dana explains her encounter with a man in Toulon that almost mirrors my own experience in Toulouse. I waited for a bus after finishing my dinner a bit later in the night. A man tried greeting me, and to be honest I tried ignoring him with the expectation that he was going to ask for my number. He then tried greeting me again, and I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the guy needed directions.
He told me he wanted to get to know me better. I apologetically told him I had a boyfriend. He either didn’t care or didn’t believe me. A few minutes later my bus arrived, and I told him I had to go. Then he followed me onto the bus. I started to panic a little at this point. All my normal deflection techniques hadn’t worked.
In the end, I lied my face off: I gave him a fake number, I didn’t correct him when he got my name wrong, and I told him I didn’t use social media because it was too distracting. He didn’t follow me to my building, but my stomach was in knots throughout the night.
My very anxious brain started coming up with scenarios: what if he was a vengeful man, and I happened to be the woman that set him off? I placed a chair in front of my door that night, and I completely changed the way I looked the next day. I never went back to that bus stop.
I could have acted differently. I could have told him right off the bat that I wasn’t interested. His arms were the size of my thighs, and the fact that I was alone at night in a foreign country silenced any gumption tell him to leave me alone.
It is not fair, in the words of Dana, that I felt scared enough to never go to that bus stop again, regardless of what I should or could have done. It’s not fair that women in France must face this daily. The harassment has become so commonplace that women deny being harassed on public transportation, but when asked “Has a man ever pressed up against you or put his hand on your bottom?” she will answer in the affirmative .
Let’s root for Marlene Schiappa and her efforts to end France’s street harassment problems until we find a safe and effective way to end street harassment.
Variables from the WomanStats Database Used:
IIP-PRACTICE-2: Are women harassed when they are in public spaces?