Society Is Starting to Wake Up to Rampant Street Harassment of Women

Last week a wave of demonstrations took to the public walkways of the world to protest street harassment. March 30 to April 5 was International Anti-Street Harassment Week, with 25 countries and 150 groups organizing to raise awareness about a category of assault that is rarely thought of as violent or serious, and to ease the onslaught of such commonplace offenses, in solidarity with the global community.

In 2011, the gender justice nonprofit Stop Street Harassment founded International Anti-Street Harassment Day, and by 2012 they had expanded the mission to a full week. “They held marches, rallies, sidewalk chalking parties, wheat pasting nights, workshops, and comedy events,” Holly Kearl, the founder of Stop Street Harassment, told AlterNet over email. “Countless more groups participated as well by raising awareness online through sharing images and stories, participating in tweet chats, and more.”

One of the largest events was held in New York, where more than 500 protesters gathered on Saturday for a rally organized by 46 social justice groups to end street harassment. As part of the demonstration, a 12-foot tall inflatable cat was hoisted on the mainstage: its side read “cats against catcalls.”

Also last week, Chicago’s streets were graced with Brooklyn-based artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s “Stop Telling Women to Smile,” a traveling art installation advertising such slogans as “My name is not baby” and “Women are not outside for your entertainment.” The installation heads to Baltimore next, on display April 20-27.

Some Facts About Street Harassment

Does a man asking a stranger on a date in a respectful manner without the expectation that he or she will say yes, constitute street harassment? No. Is a man asking a woman he encounters in public for directions to the nearest cologne store street harassment? No.

Here is what does count as street harassment: groping, stalking, sexist comments, and publicly masturbating in someone's presence. These kinds of assaults happen with great frequency. According to a 2010 study conducted by the CDC, “non-contact unwanted sexual experiences,” the category into which most instances of street harassment fall, is the most prevalent form of sexual assault: 70-99% of women worldwide have experienced street harassment.

The fact that victims of street harassment are usually unwilling to report their experiences also speaks to a culture that has deemed such actions appropriate. A 2007 study found that 63% of 1,790 surveyed New York City subway riders said they had been sexually harassed. Just as concerning was the discovery that a mere 4% of these respondents said they had contacted authorities in reference to the incident.

Street harassment also impacts women more severely than it does men. As a result of personal experience with street harassment, not to mention a culture that accepts the shaming of women as inevitable, most women feel far less secure being on their streets alone than men do. A 2012 Gallup poll, which collected data from people in 143 countries, found that men feel significantly safer walking outdoors alone at night than women. Worldwide, 72% of men and 62% of women feel safe walking alone at night. In high-income countries the gender differential jumps considerably to 82% and 59%, respectively.

“Street harassment, like sexual harassment in schools or the workplace, has a more negative impact on women who are harassed than on men who are harassed,” says Kearl.

A slightly more qualitative approach to analyzing the effects of street harassment is to listen to what politicians say about it, especially those on the left. Politicians’ reactions to such attacks on women’s personal liberties have been slow, and—in the rare instances statements are made—weak. When she was Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton remarked, "Studies suggest that women's physical security and higher levels of gender equality correlate with security and peacefulness of entire countries." This may well be true, but the real issue is that as long as there’s national consensus that women’s bodies exist only as vessels for the production of social good, whether that is giving birth or avoiding war, the problem will be rationalized, the patriarchy will not be challenged directly.

Even organizations that are supposed to specialize in helping victims of sexual assault can get this one wrong and put the onus where it shouldn’t be, on the women. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network recently received some criticism for posting some tips for women on how to avoid sexual assault on its website. “Walk with purpose,” RAINN suggests, “Try not to load yourself down with packages or bags as this can make you appear more vulnerable,” or, if all else fails, “Avoid putting music headphones in both ears.” Because one ear is better than none.

Public Misconceptions About Street Harassment

My personal favorite catcall was a man who shouted at me from across the street, “You look like the kind of girl who men pretend to walk their dog just to get a look at.” He wasn’t walking a dog, so this was a purely creative catcall, though no points for calling me a girl. But usually it’s worse, and I’ve heard stories that are much worse. 

Men are often surprised to hear about such uncouth propositions coming from the ranks of their own gender. When I tell them a week never goes by without some guy hissing sweet nothings at my earlobe, their jaws drop. By the time I get around to telling them it usually happens every day (I live in New York, I go a lot of places), their jaws have hit concrete.

A popular response is the defensive “most guys are gentlemen” ploy, often paired with the old “sexual expression is healthy” dig, this belief that feminists should seek equality by upping their sexual boldness, not “censoring” men.

Such commentary flows in the vein of David Foster, in a column for the Guardian recently, which he wrote in opposition to the Everyday Sexism Project: “The liberal left should be envisaging a society where adults of both genders are comfortable both making and receiving straightforward sexual propositions.”

Contrary to Foster, Stop Street Harassment's Kearl understands that street harassment has real consequences for those who deal with it on a daily basis.

“As second-class citizens in the USA, street harassment can remind women of that status. Likewise, for persons in the LGBQT community, street harassment can remind them that they too are second-class citizens. For rape survivors—and there are far more female rape survivors than male—street harassment can be retriggering.”

Finally, there is a pernicious race component to public perception of street harassment, the misconception being that most harassers are black and Latino men.

Some people do have a racial bias as well as class bias when it comes to harassers,” Kearl explains. “For example, they may see comments from a white, middle- or upper-class man as complimentary or at least harmless, but see the same comments as harassment by low-income men of color. But I think more and more women are recognizing that they have the right to be free from unwanted sexual and sexist attention in public spaces from all men and are less willing to see any of it as complimentary.”

The stereotype also simply isn’t true. “Men of all races and socioeconomic status are harassers. However, in general, people are harassed by people of their own race the most…so for women of color, men of color may be their main harasser.”

Know Your Rights

Kearl writes, “There is no national street harassment law and only a handful of states have a general harassment law that could include some forms of street harassment (Maryland, for example). Most states have laws like disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace that one could argue some forms of street harassment would fall under. Unfortunately, most laws are written in such a way that the harassment must cause the person being harassed 'serious alarm' or fear of ‘bodily harm’ and so that would only include more severe forms of verbal harassment, such as rape threats.”

Groping and flashing are illegal in every state; up-skirt photos are illegal in some states, but not all.

While little legal assistance is offered to victims of street harassment, there are ways to resist that do not involve court dates. One way is to know your rights, be confident in your power to push back and not self-silence, if that’s how you choose to fight back. Before the laws come, or, hopefully, in place of laws, there needs to be a shift in power relations, in agency.

In response to the Supreme Court’s decision in January to hear a case that calls into question the legality of buffer zones for abortion clinics, Jessica Valenti suggested her own general approach to men who are disrespectful and invade women’s bodies, space and dialogues, which she calls “Back The Fuck Up.” The message is simple: women know best about their bodies and they know when sexual attention paid to them—whether threatening or not—is patronizing and unwelcome.

“The ethos is one we can all embrace, “wrote Valenti for the Nation, “the idea that women have a right to live their lives free of discrimination and without encroachment on their rights and physical space. It’s really not that difficult to understand, nor is it too much to ask.”

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