Street Harassment Fuels a Viral Documentary

One day, during a typical 15-minute walk from her office to her apartment in the center of Brussels, 25-year-old graduate film student Sofie Peeters was harassed 11 times.

To channel her frustration with her inability to commute in peace, she produced a short documentary for her final school project called Femme de la Rue  (Woman of the Street). The undeniable display of street harassment in the film made it and her story go viral, drawing global attention to the problem.

Using a hidden camera, Peeters captured men saying, “sexy butt” and “naughty slut,” leering and making “pssst” sounds as she walked by. A few men marched alongside her, repeatedly asking for her phone number or a date and then calling her a slut or a whore when she politely refused. In the film, Peeters also interviewed women about their similar experiences.

While the documentary was filmed in Brussels, the behavior captured occurs in cities worldwide, as demonstrated by the stories women share on the Hollaback chapter blogs and websites such as Stop Street Harassment, HarassMap and Blank Noise. The 1998 documentary War Zone captures similar behavior in four major U.S. cities.

Supporting the stories and film footage, the few studies on the subject reveal that more than 80 percent of women experience street harassment in Canada, Egypt, Israel, Pakistan, Yemen and the U.S., and a recent poll found that four in 10 young women were street-harassed in London just last year.

Street harassment negatively impacts women’s lives. A recent survey for Gallup conducted in 143 countries shows that significantly more women than men feel unsafe walking alone at night, and street harassment is undoubtedly a large reason why. In the film, women that Peeters interviewed shared how, because of street harassment, they avoid eye contact with men, change how they dress, alter their routes, stay off public transportation at night and listen to iPods. One woman said street harassment led her to move neighborhoods.

While the documentation of street harassment and its impact is growing, we know less about why it happens. What little we know mostly comes from women such as War Zone producer Maggie Hadleigh-West who interview their harassers. Showing off for friends, “Just saying hi,” and, “I don’t know” (because it’s so culturally ingrained), are examples of responses she received.

Peeters asked the men in her neighborhood, “Why do you do that?” One admitted that 99 percent of the time his tactics “never succeed” in helping him meet women, but, “There’s time to be filled. It’s great to fill it like that.”

Sexual frustrations and being inundated by media and advertising images of women in sexually suggestive poses were other reasons men gave for their sexually aggressive behavior.

A few told Peeters that the only way women can avoid harassment is to have a man with them or to wear a wedding ring and say they are married. When Peeters asked if there was nothing else she could do, one man said, “You just need to remain silent. [His friends laugh.] If you respond, then they will consider you someone asking for it. Put earphones on, like all the other girls. And let them talk.”

The men in Peeters’ film are primarily Arab (several of the women she interviewed are, too) and she faces criticisms of racism. She responded by saying only a small portion of foreign men are harassers, and her film is a testament to the social situation of some immigrants: There are a lot of foreign men with little more to do than sit in cafes and in parks and bother women.

Given how universal street harassment is, I wonder if the actuality is that Peeters’ film only looks at one area of Brussels, and as cities are often at least loosely segregated by nationality or race or socioeconomic status, a similar film produced in other neighborhoods of the city would pinpoint different kinds of harassers. Street harassment, after all, is a symptom of and contributor to patriarchy, and most modern cultures, not just Islamic ones, are patriarchal.

Whatever its limitations, the documentary is having an impact.

Joëlle Milquet, Belgian interior minister, saw the film in late July and reaffirmed her plans to introduce a bill before Parliament next month that will legally define sexism, including street harassment, and attach penalties for committing it. A fine of €250 is one possibility. It is unclear how legislators plan to enforce the law, and some activists fear it may have a disproportionate impact on immigrants.

Even if a well-written law against sexism passes, it is the discussions about street harassment that will do the most to stop it since they raise people’s awareness and can change mindsets.

In this sense, the film is having a great impact, too. Its coverage in international news and social media is sparking conversations globally. In France, for example, one man on Twitter thought Peeters’ experience was unusual until scores of women in France responded with their stories using the hashtag #harcelementderue.

For Peeters, just by talking to men in her neighborhood for the film made them think about their behavior and Peeters differently. She said the men respect her now. If her film can inspire initiatives and conversations that will increase men’s respect for women, that may be its most important contribution.

Still from Sofie Peeters’ documentary Femme De La Rue.


  1. William L. Turner says:

    I personally don’t engage in such behaviour. But I don’t support a law against “sexism.” It is overly broad and will limit freedom of expression. Even offensive forms of expression should be protected. Limits are only placed when it amounts to threatening or violent expression. Or if it is expression likely to result in a breach of the peace (e.g. crying “fire” in a crowded movie theatre). There is also the issue of gender discrimination. While it is unfortunate women face this type of harassement, other groups, including men are harassed and teased in the public realm for a variety of reasons. If all these groups are also protected, it will amount to legislated politeness in the public realm. I am not supporting aggressive styles of street harassment, but I can see a law being taken too far. Perhaps some women, particularly those who spell is “womyn”, may find the mere presenence of a male to be “harassment.” Or the public display of heterosexual affection to be “harassment.”

    • You actually think, a law against calling a strange woman in public “whore” or “slut” or threatening her with rape is limiting your freedom of speech?!!!
      calling a strange women stuff like the above said in public is certainly not a sign of heterosexual affection.
      If stupidity would hurt you would be rolling around in constant pain.

      • littlelord says:

        Insulting people (whore, slut etc.) and threatening them with rape is already illegal in all civilised societies (including belgium). So your point is moot.

  2. phil ford says:

    This is NOT excusing anyone, but … I think the less ‘social standing’ a male has in society, the harder it is for him to imagine his actions as threatening. Some people would rather be seen as threatening than invisible, but men, in general, aren’t as aware of the impact of their actions. These guys want to be acknowledged, but most of them don’t WANT to be scarey or creepy.

    Unfortunately, the creepiness is hard to ‘reason’ away. Be careful out there.

  3. Two words: Homosocial behaviour.

  4. LAGRANGE says:

    Very interesting documentary.Just one thing:having been a feminist since the 70s, I am shocked by the way young women dress in big towns;Tiny shorts, tiny T shirts, boobs showing. I’ll admit that when men will walk around half naked with a slip showing their cock. You can dress as you want but not confuse the average male (with a low IQ) with playing at being a prostitute when you are not.It is a form of collaborationnism!

    • Sorry, but I think everyone should have the right to dress however they want without being harassed for that.

      • Well said. An outfit cannot negate basic human rights. I don’t like seeing people half naked in public but blaming a harassers actions on someone else is a child’s defence.

        Clothing often makes no difference. When I started school at 11 I had to wear the regulation uniform but walking my school route through a muslim immigrant neighbourhood was years of daily torture. I felt confused and violated by grown up men saying sexual things I couldn’t understand and trying to touch me. I’m not sure I want children as seeing a daughter go through that would kill me.

  5. cymrugel says:

    The elephant in the room is that this is largely ethnically and culturally based.

    It is beyond belief that a woman cannot walk down a street without being harassed and called a whore if she does not respond.

    This is a form of cultural; warfare – frightening women of another group and making them fearful of attack. It appeals to men from macho although unsuccessful culture who are struggling to cope in a world where they do not have automatic status or are even at a disadvantage, having nothing to recommend them except ownership of a penis.
    As compensation they persecute the women of the host community, who they as both an enemy and sexually desirable. Why on earth should being at a loose end mean that men make the lives of passing females a misery, just to while away an hour? What sort of man does this? Why should it be tolerated on any pretext whatsoever?

    This situation will not be successfully addressed until this simple fact is acknowledged and the men doing it punished.

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