Despite the fact that almost every woman and many others, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, have experienced street harassment, people still regularly sound surprised at some of the comments those getting harassed are told, let alone the fact that they are harassed at all.*
Just search Google news for street harassment and you will find that there isn’t a single week where it hasn’t been talked about in the news, blogs, and other legal and social spheres. Among these reports and editorials, you may see posts by people saying they have never experienced or seen street harassment. They may claim that the movement to stop street harassment is extreme, unreasonable, or unnecessary. It is wonderful to hear that these people feel safe on the street, and we hope one day that all of us feel that way. Many others don’t and both are valid experiences.
One of the most recent movements to raise awareness was the installation and performance “To Skin a Catcaller” by Mirabelle Jones** featured on Bustle and other news sources.
“The idea behind the exhibition To Skin A Catcaller is to change what we see when we hear the term ‘catcall.’ Street harassment isn’t the clichéd image of a construction worker whistling at a woman in a skirt suit and pumps. It’s walking from one place to the next in fear because a strange man said something rude to you, threatened violence, or started to follow you.” – Suzannah Weiss, published on Refinery 29.
Street harassment is a problem for many people because frequently it makes one person feel powerless or that they lack control over their situation. It puts them in a position where there is no “correct” response that will keep them safe or allow them to proceed on their way unhindered. While these comments may sound harmless and even like a compliment, it’s the intent behind them that can turn a phrase dark.
Typically, people who are targeted by street harassment ignore it. Similar harassment on the Internet receives responses in kind, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, which found that 60 percent of those who have faced online harassment “decided to ignore their most recent incident.”
If people ignore a comment on the street, they are met with continued pursuits, or the comment can change to vile insults simply because someone wanted to continue on their way. If people say thank you to a passing comment, that is taken as an invitation to talk more. Those who feel they are being harassed do not want continued interaction. Politeness and respect are not met equally. “It’s the reality of being a woman in our world. It’s laughing off sexism because we felt we had no other option.” (Published on The Huffington Post by Gretchen Kelly).
As Mirabelle tried to show in her performance, street harassment interrupts someone on their way form point A to point B. It ignores their body language. If someone looks like they do not want to talk to anyone, that is their right and it should be respected. Harassment is intentionally inserting yourself into the life of another without any consideration for their wants or needs.
There is a time and a place when greeting or complimenting someone on the street is great. It does still happen and it leaves people feeling good about the interaction. Unfortunately, this is not how meeting people on the street goes for a large portion of the population. Street harassment is different than just being friendly. The person subjected to street harassment is frequently not considered in the interaction, and this is why more needs to be done to stop it. Everyone should be able to feel safe walking outside of their home.
That leaves us with the question of how we can help people feel safe.
In the legal realm, a D.C. city council held a hearing on street harassment at the beginning of December. Dozens of women, LGBTQ individuals, and people of color gave their testimonies.
Nearly half the women who testified reported that they first experienced sexual harassment in a public space when they were 11 or 12. This is not uncommon. One 2015 survey by Hollaback! and Cornell University found that 85 percent of U.S. women experience street harassment before age 17, and 67 percent of women do so before age 14. These are all below the federal legal age of consent in the U.S. made to protect minors from sexual predators.
The Washington Post reported on this meeting, where the lead trainer for Safe Bars and director of Defend Yourself, Lauren Taylor said, “The message of such bullying, is that public spaces belong to straight men.” The hearing was not intended to find a solution to stopping street harassment, but aimed to increase discussion and elevate the issue.
What do you think about these street harassment movements? What do you think will make a difference in fighting street harassment?
*In a survey commissioned by Stop Street Harassment (SSH), 65 percent of respondents said they had experienced street harassment. 25 percent of male respondents reported experiencing street harassment. A higher percentage of LGBTQ*-identified men than heterosexual men reported this.
**Find out more about this performance piece and Maribelle on her website.