Street harassment in Valencia: Does ‘No’ really mean ‘No’?

Does sexual harassment on the street in Valencia exist? An update to the Penal Code prompts the question of how safe Valencia’s streets are for its female residents. Isobel Heal explores the security of the city we love and her own experience of street harassment here in Valencia…

Upon moving to Valencia around three months ago, the shared consensus I reached with other young women I have met has been that fundamentally, Valencia feels to be a safe city. Well, as safe as any major city can be. Of course it has its more gritty areas, every city does. But we have felt comfortable enough to explore the city’s nightlife, enjoy the gorgeous expanses of beach at night, and stroll through the Túria riverbed in the day.

It wasn’t until a particularly jarring incident a few weeks ago that we started to change our opinions slightly. Personally, I don’t believe anywhere can be entirely free of street harassment. I come from a relatively small English town, quite far in the countryside. The amount of catcalling I have experienced in Valencia has, therefore, risen– I believe – with the population increase. However, I have never lived entirely free of street harassment, and neither have most other young women my age.

Studies of Street Harassment in Public Spaces

From 25 January to 9 February, 2021, Ipsos performed a study for L’Oreal Paris regarding public harassment. Overall, more than 15,000 people from 15 different countries participated. Though the study only took place over a two-week period, one out of every three women reported suffering sexual harassment. With Spain as one of the countries involved, how safe can the streets of Valencia really be for women?

The study, carried out for 2021’s International Anti-Street Harassment Week, used 1,000-person sample groups from each country. Unfortunately, 82% of each group reported experiencing sexual harassment in a public space at least once in their lives. The research also indicated that 75% of the women surveyed even avoided certain public places. A further 50% had suffered habitually from harassment all their lives.

street harassment by country, Ipsos
Personal experiences of street harassment in their lifetime, by country

The Government Delegation of Gender Violence performed a separate macro-survey with 9,500 participants in 2019. This investigation also revealed that 32% of women were victims of sexual violence, either verbal or physical, in public. A further 17.8% experienced harassment in bars, cafes, nightclubs, and other such establishments, leaving women with few truly safe spaces.

Street Harassment in Valencia

So does sexual harassment on the street in Valencia exist? One such altercation as outlined above made the local news in Valencia on the 18 June, 2021. A woman, who we are not naming, reported a sexual assault on Avenida Aragón de Valencia. For her, the unthinkable happened when she was walking home around 1:00am. An unknown man began following her, eventually restraining and sexually assaulting her.

Thankfully, not every incident is so extreme. This, however, should not mean we treat them lightly.

On 29 October, I was walking back to my own flat at around 4:00am when a male stranger began to purposefully follow me. As I increased my pace, he matched mine and started a tirade of catcalling I will struggle to ever forget. His most notable shout was that my “hands would look better tied in ropes”. I ran the rest of the way to my flat and moved to an apartment with friends the next week. Other friends I have made during my stay here have had similar encounters, being catcalled from bikes, pursued for several blocks, and being stopped in the street by men of all ages. So in my experience, sexual harassment on the street in Valencia does exist.

You may have noted the timings of the two run-ins mentioned and made a judgement based on the late hours they took place. You may suppose that because both occasions involved lone women walking at night it is in some way their mistake. In that case, let me ask you one question: why? Why should women have to feel unsafe walking alone? Why should they not be able to walk the five minutes it takes to get to their own home? We learn to keep alarms in our pockets, our keys between our knuckles, our heads down in the street. To ignore the calls, the shouts, the leers. To expect it to happen and to move on. We learn every possible defence against physical assaults, but what can you arm yourself with against words?

Enough, already: Just say no…

A study carried out by the Faculty of Psychology and Human Relations of the Inter-American Open University confirmed that when confronted with verbal harassment 76% of women don’t respond to their harasser, and only one in ten retaliate with an insult. The simple fact is that the threat of escalation makes even a verbal retort not worth the risk. In fact, the possibility of verbal harassment in the street is such a risk that the study discovered that up to 56% of women will cross the road if they see a group of men approaching. Sadly, a further 43% of women fear walking alone, not only at night but in daylight too.

The Law of Only Yes Means Yes

Here in Valencia, the government has recognised the harassment faced by women in the streets as a pressing issue. They have subsequently decided to do something about it. The Law of the Comprehensive Guarantee of Sexual Liberty, colloquially termed the Law of ‘Solo Sí es Sí’ (Only Yes means Yes) changed recently to further support women in public spaces. As well as eliminating the distinction between sexual aggression and sexual abuse, the Penal Code now includes a new crime: street harassment.

Amendments to Article 173(1) and (4) in the Penal Code now include the definition and punishment of street harassment as follows:

“A person who inflicts degrading treatment on another person, seriously undermining his or her moral integrity, shall be punished by imprisonment for six months to two years.

Anyone who causes minor insult or unjust abuse, where the offended is one of the persons referred to in Article 173 (2), shall be punished by the penalty of permanent tracking for five to thirty days, always at a different home away from the victim’s home, or work for the benefit of the community for five to thirty days, or a fine for one to four months, the latter only in cases where the circumstances set out in Article 84(2) concur.

The same penalties shall be imposed on those who address another person with expressions, behaviours or propositions of a sexual nature that create an objectively humiliating, hostile or intimidating situation for the victim, without constituting other crimes of greater gravity.

Therefore, street harassment in Valencia is now considered a crime. albeit minor. Consequently, victims are able to make a complaint, and obtain legal representation to testify against their harasser.

With such an improvement in the legal consequences for street harassment, women in Valencia should undoubtedly feel emboldened in reporting their harassers. It is, however, not always so easy when the perpetrator is unknown to the victim. Reporting someone whose name you don’t know is difficult, and it isn’t always possible to immediately call the police. Regardless, the strides towards protecting women in public spaces, and the recognition alone of street harassment as the crime it is, certainly make Valencia feel like a responsive place.

The update of the Penal Code alone, of course, cannot solve the inherent issue of street harassment. The change in mindset needed to prevent such attacks begins at home and in society itself, eliminating the sense of entitlement that some men feel over women.

My argument is not and never will be that women should be scared of all men in the streets. Nor is it that only women experience this kind of sexual harassment. In the same study by the Faculty of Psychology and Human Relations of the Inter-American Open University, the data documented 72% of women as having experienced harassment in week-long time frame, whilst only 29% of men encountered the same. Furthermore, though 59% of women reported having felt ‘uncomfortable or intimidated’, 29% of the men felt flattered. My point is simply that the subject of street harassment is undeniably an overwhelmingly female experience. And in my experience, as I say, sexual harassment on the street in Valencia does exist.

Since its implementation was only on 7 October of this year, the effects of the inclusion of street harassment in the Penal Code, and its subsequent threat of punishment of a 3,000€ fine are yet to completely come into play. The update does, however, prove a focus from the Valencian government on the issues of women. This in itself promises more support in the future against incidents which may arise, and definitively demonstrates Valencia’s adaptive and receptive nature towards its citizens.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get our latest news & Offers