Being Harassed on the Street “for Being a Woman”

My “Female Experience”

Isseul | 기사입력 2022/06/03 [17:45]

Being Harassed on the Street “for Being a Woman”

My “Female Experience”

Isseul | 입력 : 2022/06/03 [17:45]

Editor’s note: To begin a new feminist discourse in 2016, Ilda is running a series on “Living as a Young Woman in South Korea.” The series receives support from the Korea Foundation for Women’s “Funding for Gender-Equal Society.”


Memory of three flashers


My designated gender is female. Yet, it doesn’t mean all my life experiences can be generalized as “experiences of a woman.” What I’m about to write about is not the experiences of all women but my own female experience. Let me tell you about being considered a woman despite my wishes and experiencing violence because of that, particularly street harassment.


Sometimes in the middle of the day, I’m reminded of a nightmare from the night before that I forgot about after waking up. Just like that, one day I recalled a negative memory that has been affecting me in a strange way. It was when I was asked, “When did you first start thinking of yourself as a woman?” while preparing for the Feminist Self-Defense Workshop as part of my job at Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center.


I was never scared of flashers, the men who expose their genitalia to women in public. Rumors that sounded more like urban legends regarding flashers were often a subject of ridicule among my spunky peers. In junior high, we used to burst into laughter upon hearing about someone’s experience of fighting off “some perv” with one simple question, “You happy now?” No one who has heard “You happy now?” could ever forget its cheerful rhythm.


I have also seen a flasher get beaten. Sophomores from my girls’ high school caught a flasher. Luckily, I got to see it on my way home. When a group of students dashed toward and surrounded him as he passed by the school entrance, the flasher gave up on running and got beaten, unable to even raise his head, all the while being told or scolded never to do that again to my friend. Police soon showed up as well.


I personally saw a flasher at the age of 19. I often walked home for over an hour at the time, when public transportation stopped running. Even at 3-4 am, I walked the streets that were nearly empty of not just pedestrians but also street lights. A flasher appeared in a brightly lit alleyway. I made a detour to avoid him, and when I went back to the alleyway after other pedestrians, he was gone like the wind in just those few minutes.


▲ Street Harassment Prevention Campaign by Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center “In public places, I have experienced: sexual discrimination / verbal abuse / gender-related insults or unsolicited comments / verbal sexual harassment / hatred against transsexuals / hatred against homosexuality / being followed / having pictures taken without my consent / being groped / being exposed to genitalia / stares, gestures / Etc.”


The first thing I felt was disdain. It was worthy of disdain. Largely, I didn’t feel much. I just remember that I screamed out of fear for the first time on my way home, soon after the incident. I was startled by the sound of fast running feet, which belonged to a runner with earphones on. He ran past me. Surprisingly, the flasher had made me feel small. I had never imagined such a possibility even remotely.


We can do anything to you because “you’re a girl”!


I sometimes pondered the experience. Why did I have to go through it? I could have asked, “You happy now?” or gotten angry at him. Although I did not do those things, that’s not what I regretted.


I was angry not because I saw someone’s genitalia but because the flasher chose me as the subject of harassment. His offense was a forcible statement of “You’re a girl!” Conventionally, flashers don’t expose themselves to men. He waited in the alleyway, scanning pedestrians and identifying their gender, and assumed that I was a woman. I didn’t feel good being forcibly told I was a girl when I myself had not yet formed a gender identity. Will I have to keep putting up with such stress, just because I look like a girl?


Actually, it didn’t happen that often. There were more times I was considered a boy. I was almost always called “so and so’s son.” I thought it was understandable people were confused about my gender if being a woman or a man has to do with one’s physical characteristics or clothing style. I accepted that was who I was no matter which gender others perceived of me. I was in a special environment all my teenage years and had never been harassed by people like flashers.


Running into a flasher on my everyday commute is what made me think about the issue of my looking like a girl for the first time. When the flasher decided to harass me merely because of a condition which I never wanted, being a girl, I realized I could always be threatened or attacked—anytime, anywhere. The offensive and unfair consequences of living with the female gender—their stench was palpable.


I want things to be okay regardless of which gender you choose to live as. However, flashers and their like do not leave people to be that way. To them, a girl is a synonym for “one to whom they are allowed to do anything.” So they harass those who look like women and attack a woman who doesn’t act like one. If I ever got hurt, it would upset me because then another message they want to convey—“You’re weak!”—would become fact. They attack you, and then say you’re weak because you have been attacked. I felt smaller because their rationale wasn’t rational. And anger brewed in me for a long time.


Harassment, attacks and insults—what happens in public places


Growing up, I almost never heard “a girl has to be a certain way.” However, from some point, such judgment always ensued whenever I did or chose to do something. When I shaved my head, wore “men’s clothes” and liked a non-male “unlike a girl,” people asked me why or told me to think hard about why I had to do those things. Thanks to them, I could understand better why I should do so.


First, I had no interest in listening to those fear-inducing urban legend-like stories about what meant to be feminine. I had no reason to suffer from those standards that men don’t need to comply with, nor did I have any intention of agreeing with the claim that those standards that do not always apply to everyone should be able to determine whether you are a woman or not.


In a society where there are only two genders and you must choose one, if a person is stopped from walking into a women’s bathroom, is that person a woman? That person was me. Or if I was really a woman, I was “that woman.”


While talking to a close acquaintance on the subway, I heard, “Dikes,” and, “They must be dating” behind my back. We didn’t feel uncomfortable around each other even if I looked like a lesbian. But I wanted to correct the misunderstanding because we weren’t “dikes dating each other.” I still regret not having told them, “Excuse me, but I just heard you, and that’s not true.” Would they even have understood me if I had told them about my identity, though?


I have also been told, “I hate men who dress like that.” Those words that made my attire sound like trash on the streets were trash themselves.


▲ Booth at a Queer Cultural Festival, run by volunteers from the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center to collect recollections of street harassment experiences


People commonly stereotype strangers using a few indicators. They try to guess others’ gender, believing the two genders are different and easily differentiated. If one wants to claim that discrimination based on sex or gender expression does not occur, one must first look at how women, sexual minorities, and people expressing their gender differently are harassed in public places. If one wants to say discrimination based on age, disability and ethnicity does not exist in our society, there should first be no rude looks and verbal and physical abuse against younger people, the physically-challenged and foreigners. But how are things in the real world?


Street harassment based on gender, sexual orientation and gender expression is taking place in various ways in public places; for example, a stranger yelling, “How dare you young bitch smoke out here!”, grabbing or hitting your breasts and butt, cursing and spitting out obscene insults, scaring you by screaming “wahh!” It also includes looking you up and down, running toward you, asking, “You a woman or a man?” while touching your body, lecturing you on what a woman should be and what a man should be or taking pictures of you without your consent, saying, “It’s my first time seeing an LGBTQ person”.


It happens all the time, but to some “it never does”


Street harassment occurs when one harasses minorities based on gender rules. It is the most frequent and common form of discrimination and violence against minorities including women. And it is cruel, because this behavior is never a mistake but carries the obvious and manipulative intention of disrespecting strangers by judging them on a few visible features.


Yet these occurrences are being taken lightly as if they are no big deal. Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center hosted the “Declaration of Eradicating Rude Behavior” last year in order to raise concerns about street harassment. One participant shared that whenever she told her little brother about how she was harassed on the streets, he would say, “Are you sure?” Minorities such as women are seen as sensitive, paranoid people who pay attention to “even things like that.” Victims getting rightfully angry about what they have had to go through is taken as making a big deal out of nothing. Street harassment also happens too frequently to get worked up over it every single time, leading to victims feeling calm both willingly and unwillingly.


I don’t think such problematic everyday occurrences should ever be considered non-existent. Their existence should not go unnoticed when they’re happening multiple times a day to some of us.



▲ Say something about street harassment! (On International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia & Biphobia in conjunction with IDAHOT in 2015)


The Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center ran a booth to collect various recollections of street harassment experiences at a Queer Cultural Festival. Most of the participants who visited the booth responded that they have experienced various types of street harassment. However, when they asked the same question at a certain university, men responded they have never even witnessed street harassment. I was shocked no one has even seen a single incident. Something I wouldn’t be surprised to see on my way home today is not even visible to some of those in the same generation!


I think people need to recognize what is happening in spaces we frequent, before we declare we oppose discrimination and violence. We must pay attention to the fact that many different types of harassment are occurring because of gender, sexual orientation and gender expression on the streets and public transportation we use every day. We must also admit that we are too lenient in just letting these things go.


What is the solution that will put an end to street harassment? Separating women and men into difference spaces in public? That cannot be the solution. We should allow everyone into public spaces as opposed to allowing only designated people to be in designated spaces. What is important is everyone being in public places together and figuring out how to be together.


People looking at the faces and hands of me and someone else walking down the street holding hands is just a part of my everyday life and I won’t give up my entire everyday life because of them. They may whisper “homosexuals” and laugh, saying, “Look at what she’s wearing,” but I will continue to live that life. An endless series of judgmental stares, words and actions have formed a part of who I am. I am now exploring how to shake up such “natural” everyday occurrences. I hope I can continue to discuss street harassment, discrimination and hatred with more people.


Translated by Jamie Sung

Published: April 27, 2016

Original Article:


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