Every woman has experienced it. The cat calling, kissing sounds, howling, whistling, lewd staring and even groping. Some of us have to experience it every day.
We’ve changed our routes, our clothes and even our attitudes to it, “Am I doing something to cause it?”, “What if it’s just me?”. No. Self-blame is not necessary. No woman is alone in this.
We are all street harassed. We are all objectified. We are all treated like pieces of meat to gawp and derive visual pleasure from. We are unified in this struggle. If you suffer from street harassment; you are one of billions.
*Oh but what about men who are street harassed?* I hear all the male rights activists wail. Well, there is much consensus on how street harassment disproportionately affects women. Women are — almost exclusively — limited in their access to public places because of harassment.
You might already have some ideas on what gender based street harassment is, but I have provided a definition here:
Street harassment can be defined as any unwelcome sexual behaviour, be it physical or verbal.
StopStreetHarassment defines the endemic as:
“an invisible problem.. dismissed as being a “minor annoyance,” a “joke,” or the fault of the harassed person.. it’s a human rights violation that must be addressed”
Certainly, street harassment is a human rights issue. It serves as a daily, tangible reminder of the disparity between male and female power and freedoms.
One of the major misunderstandings with street harassment is that it has to be physical. This is largely misapprehended by both men and women. Not all forms of abuse come in touching or groping; verbal street harassment is equally as destructive as physical harassment.
Just words can be enough to exercise power over somebody.
Sexual comments about women’s clothing, anatomy, or looks, referring to women as “babe”, or “honey”, pressure for dates, whistling, cat calling and asking about sexual fantasies, preferences, or history are all forms of verbal sexual harassment.
Street harassment is not something restricted to a single culture; or a concentrated area of the world. A recent study concluded that street harassment affects 80% of women worldwide, one in five women in the UK and similar figures in the U.S.
Among many things, street harassment is an inconvenience and frustration. Above all else; it is an infringement on women’s essential rights and a derailment of gender equality progression.
This abuse of rights is best explained by Sweet Machine:
“If you speak to a woman who is otherwise occupied, you’re sending a subtle message. It is that your desire to interact trumps her right to be left alone. If you pursue a conversation when she’s tried to cut it off, you send a message.. It is that your desire to speak trumps her right to be left alone and each of those messages indicates that you believe your desires are a legitimate reason to override her rights.”
Unfortunately, there exists a block of individuals obstructing progression for the sexual harassment movement.
These are the people who refuse to accept that street harassment is a plague affecting millions of women worldwide. We’ve all heard the asinine responses:
“Complimenting a woman is harassment?!”, “I’m just trying to speak to her, it’s not harassment!”
The facts are:
Street harassment is never a compliment. Ever.
Street harassment does not boost confidence.
Street harassment does not make women feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
Street harassment does not make women want to date, give their phone number or have a relationship with you.
Street harassment does reduce us to mere sexual objects who serve only as visual entertainment and aesthetic pleasure.
Street harassment does seriously undermine, objectify and trivialize women.
Studies have shown that street harassment can have severely negative implications on the well-being of young adult women– who are mostly affected by it– some even going as far as to blame themselves or not leaving their homes in order to avoid it. Public transport is particularly ridden with street harassers since there is nowhere for women to escape to.
Do men ever have to change their routes? Think about the effects of their clothes? Or even, move houses in order to alleviate street harassment? And even after taking all these pre-cautions, there is no guarantee that it will ever stop. Imagine the frustration they would feel!
We’ve done nothing to deserve street harassment and we should never have to put up with it.
For women who are dealing with a daily barrage of physical and/or verbal assault, another key issue at play is that there is no telling who is a dangerous perpetrator: ”Will he follow me home?”, “What if he tries to touch me?”
Women are constantly made to worry about whether verbal street harassment could lead to physical harassment.
As expressed in my article on rape culture, our current milieu is a harrowing one; women are constantly victimized under a culture of physical, emotional and sexual terrorism. This constitutes a culture of rape that maintains an environment of sexual assault so that rape is viewed as normal, and even inevitable.
In this case, a rape culture does not allow for women to differentiate between dangerous and non-dangerous assailants since assault is so prevalent. Any male approaching you can be regarded as a threat, until proven otherwise. Women are forced to remain alert and on-guard, fearing the worst and discerning possible threats from street harassers. This undoubtedly exasperates the magnitude of street harassment.
An innovative resistance project labelled “Stop Telling Women to Smile” launched by Brooklyn based artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh is aimed at curtailing prevalent street harassment in Harlem, New York. Fazlalizadeh places portraits of women defiant and impactful, in the very spaces where strangers have hounded her. She describes:
“The project is saying that street harassment is not okay. That feeling entitled to treat and speak to women any type of way, is not okay. That demanding a woman’s attention is not okay. That intruding on a woman’s space and thoughts is not okay. That women should be able to walk to the train, to the grocery store, to school – without having to cross the street to avoid the men that she sees already eyeing her as she approaches. That making women feel objectified, sexualized simply because they are women, is not okay”.
Fazlalizadeh’s street posters reflect a wider sentiment expressed by many women that street harassment is not welcome and nor is it a compliment.
Male collaboration is absolutely imperative in ending sexual harassment. This is not to say that women need male protection from street harassment — I’m not calling for men to jump in and right-hook every dude they witness harassing a woman– this would be a perpetuation of patriarchal ideals depicting women as helpless damsels and re-inforcing erroneous conceptions of masculinity.
Instead, I am calling for male allies: men who accept that street harassment is endemic and are willing to act on and educate others on this knowledge.
Here are some male allies expressing their angst towards the problem:
Joe Vess, Former Director of Training at Men Can Stop Rape.
“Harassment is never about complimenting women, and it never has been. You may respond, “But I’m not trying to bother her, just be complimentary.” In that case, see above; it doesn’t matter what your intent is, it matters how what you do is received by her. This can be hard for us as men to hear, but intent doesn’t matter in this case.”
Dr. L’Heureux Dumi Lewis, Assistant Professor at the City College of New York.
“As men, our silence is deafening and we continue to ignore the canary in the mine which says our community needs to deal with issues of gender and power. Until we see street harassment as the problem that it is, we’ll continue to live in our neighborhoods like the miner who labors in a mine with a dead canary, until it’s too late to get to safety.”
What is Sexual Harassment? Facts and Outlines: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/osagi/pdf/whatissh.pdf
Stop Street Harassment is a nonprofit organization dedicated to documenting and ending gender-based street harassment worldwide: phttp://www.stopstreetharassment.org/
Femme De La Rue: A powerful documentary on street harassment
HollaBack is movement to end street harassment powered by a network of local activists around the world: http://www.ihollaback.org/