My name is not ‘Hey Baby’
Picture this: It’s a bright sunny afternoon and you’re standing outside the entrance of a shopping mall. You see a woman walking down the sidewalk. She’s going to the supermarket perhaps, or going to meet a few friends. As she a passes a group of men, one of them looks her up and down and remarks loudly ‘Oooh; sexy legs!’ She doesn’t react, just keeps walking. Now, I want your reaction. What do you think about what happened? Do you think it’s just a bit of harmless fun? Funny, perhaps? Or better still, a compliment! After all, he did say she had nice legs.
Think again. Start by putting yourself in her shoes. You’re walking down the sidewalk, and as you pass a group of men, you see one of them look you up and down. He remarks loudly, ‘Oooh, sexy legs!’ Your face burns, your pace quickens slightly, your heart beats faster and your grip tightens on your handbag. “Should I say something to him? He’s with a group, what if they get aggressive? What if they follow me? What if they hurl insults at me? What if I see them again when its deserted? Dammit, I should’ve crossed over when I saw them.” Feeling angry and helpless, you decide its best to let it go. And you keep walking, vowing you’ll cross the street the next time.
It’s not a compliment, it’s not harmless, and it’s certainly not fun. It’s called street harassment, and women and LGBQT around the world face it on a daily basis. Holly Kearl, founder of ‘StopStreetHarassment.org, a campaign and online resource centre dedicated to the cause surveyed 800 across 23 countries in 2008 and found that 99% of women had experienced it by the age of 19. And this is not limited to the developing world or patriarchal cultures; 80 percent of Canadian respondents reported street harassment. A survey conducted in London put it at 41% of young women.
So what is street harassment? StopStreetHarassment.org defines it as ‘Unwelcome words and actions by unknown persons in public which are motivated by gender and invade a person’s physical and emotional space in a disrespectful, creepy, startling, scary, or insulting way.’ Harassment ranges from low severity like leers, whistles and catcalls, to moderate severity like sexually charged comments and propositions to severe severity like groping, flashing, stalking, assault, even rape and murder. Most women (more than 80% worldwide) and members of the LGBQT community will experience such harassment in their lifetime.
Holly Kearl, founder of StopStreetHarassment.org testified in the first ever city council hearing on the topic of street harassment in New York City in October, 2010. She said, “Street harassment is a form of sexual terrorism. They (women) do not know where it could happen by whom or how far it could escalate. Women learn public places are male territory, they learn to limit the places they go and try not to be alone in public spaces at night and when they are alone, they learn to be on guard. It is a human rights issue. It teaches them that public spaces are male territory, and that they need to navigate it carefully.” And this is the crux of the matter. It affects a majority of women and is a human rights and a gender violence issue.
“Wait a minute”, I hear you say. “I’ve never heard of this. And calling it gender violence and a human rights issue is a bit extreme, isn’t it?” And that is the biggest problem that street harassment campaigns face. One, it is not considered a ‘serious’ problem, like say, sexual harassment, and hence is largely normalised and trivialised. And two, it is invisible.
Normalisation of street harassment is aided by widely held misconceptions and stereotypes. A common misconception is that women should consider it a compliment. Says Jessica Valenti, author and executive editor of Feministing.com, “While I’ve heard the argument that street harassment is actually a compliment – you know, because we’re supposed to be flattered that strange men are screaming at us about our asses – it’s really a super-insidious form of sexism. Because not only do perfect strangers think that it’s appropriate to be sexual toward any woman they want, but street harassment is also predicated on the idea that you’re allowed to say anything to women that you want – anytime, anywhere.” People at the receiving end of such behaviour routinely say they feel angry, ashamed, violated and dirty. A 45 year old woman from the UK felt ashamed when someone groped her, and then felt ashamed that she was ashamed.
Another misconception is that harassment was provoked by the woman because of the way she was dressed. Consider this – 90% of women surveyed in Yemen had experienced harassment, and most women in Yemen dress modestly. Bloggers on the StopStreetHarassment website report facing it irrespective of whether they were dressed up to go out or dressed in track pants to buy groceries, or in a full length winter coat. A blogger from Australia reports routinely being harassed when in her work clothes – a loose work shirt and pants and steel cap boots. It’s not about clothes, people.
The most insidious of these misconceptions is that street harassment is harmless. Again, not true. Nearly 75% of respondents were followed by strangers, 62% had their path blocked, 57% were touched or grabbed in a sexual way, 37% have had a stranger masturbate in front of them, and 27% have been assaulted in public. Also, street harassment starts early. 25% of the 800 people surveyed by StopStreetHarassment had faced harassment by the tender age of 12. This teaches women that public spaces are not safe, and that they must be on guard at all times against unwanted, violating attention. Victims feel unsafe and violated. Quentin Walcott of Connect, while testifying in New York said street harassment “is a phenomenon that compromises the safety and freedom of women and girls. It is rooted in sexism and misogyny. Alice X, from New York city, tells of how harassment affected her on StopStreetHarassment.org. “I was sexually harassed on a regular basis from the year I turned fourteen until the year I left for college. I tried so hard, every day, to ignore it. But I couldn’t. It changed me. The irrepressible nervousness when a stranger approached. Being afraid to look any man on the street in the eyes. Worrying I was being followed…Crying. Not crying until I got home, then crying. Hating myself for crying. Playing the faces of dozens of men back in my mind—I remember them all. Wondering what would have happened if I had bumped into them in a deserted area. The rape nightmares. But the worst part was how it warped my own view of myself. Maybe it was my fault, I thought. Maybe I was asking for it. It was because I was small and weak, I thought. I hated myself for my own helplessness. Hated myself every time the snappy retort, the “leave me alone,” the “stop,” bubbled up furiously in my heart only to wilt in my throat. The tiny, illogical, and unshakable fear that no matter how hard I worked, I would never amount to anything more than a body. That my feelings—my disgust, the anger and loathing written all over my face—would deter no one because they simply did not matter. That it would only get worse as I grew older. That my only worth was sexual. That I was less than human. That I was nothing.”
While misconceptions and myths need to be exploded, they are not the biggest problem faced by street harassment campaigns. It’s invisibility. Misconceptions and stereotypes can be dealt with once there are discussions and conversations happening about it. Unfortunately, there have not been too many. There is very little research or media coverage on the topic. Victims rarely retaliate or report the problem and bystanders very rarely intervene and express outrage. And the harassment persists. Hollaback! is looking to change all of that. It is a campaign that aims to end street harassment by, well, hollering back! To break the silence, Hollaback! encourages people to post their harassment stories and pictures online. They believe that facilitating the telling of these stories will lead to people taking action against it. ‘MustBol’ in India (roughly translated to ‘Must Speak Up’) has the same aim. It is a “call to young people to examine violence in their lives and speak out against it. To recognize it, to talk about it, and to address it.” The founders launched a website called ‘GotStaredAt’ which allows people from anywhere to upload pictures of what they were wearing when they were harassed to break the silence around it and dispel the victim blaming culture around street harassment.
To bring street harassment into focus, StopStreetHarassment.org organised the first ever Anti-Street Harassment Day in 2011 – the response was so overwhelming that it was increased to a week in 2012. This March 18 – 24, 21 countries participated in the first ever Anti-Street Harassment week. People rallied, launched publications and local anti-harassment campaigns, website to share harassment stories and access resources and discussions were had about the intersection of racism, sexism and homophobia. Overall it was a huge success, and UN Women listed the week on their calendar. Another success that StopStreetHarassment has had is with an anti-harassment Public Service Announcement campaign at 28 subway stations in Washinton DC. The announcements state that harassment is not ok and gives information about how to report it, which is a huge step forward in making public spaces safer for women.
Now that it is out there, what can you and I do about street harassment? Firstly, don’t ignore it. This is precisely why street harassment persists, because victims don’t react to it. StopStreetHarassment.org lists responses one could use to talk to a harasser to hold them accountable for their behaviour.
Secondly, if you see it happening to someone, don’t look away. Taking a stand against it is makes it clear that it’s not ok, and will inspire others to take action. You don’t have to be female or part of the LGQBT community to take a stand. There are campaigns specifically for men to help stop violence and redefine conventional notions if masculinity.
Thirdly, get active. If you see something objectionable, find out how to report it. Get online and add your voice to campaigns. StopStreetHarassment.org organised a Change.org petition to protest against a sign at a construction site that condoned street harassment. The sign read ‘We apologise for the whistling construction workers, but man you look good!’ The petition received 1500 signatures in just over 24 hours and the Mall took down the sign almost immediately. This is the direct result of an online campaign, so you can help make the change.
Fourthly, and most importantly, share your story, whether you are a victim or an observer. Post your story on StopStreetHarassment.org or Hollaback! and talk about it. Invisibility is the biggest problem street harassment faces, and your story will educate people in your network and break the cycle of silence. DM from Tasmania, Australia witnessed patrons sitting in a pub harassing teenage girls as they walked past. Inspired by the StopStreetHarassment campaign, she called the pub to report their behaviour, and the management asked them to leave. Posting her story online, she says she was bowled over at finding an ally. DM now thinks of the pub as a ‘safe zone’, and supports it as often as she can. So you can make a difference. Join your local street harassment or gender violence campaign. If you don’t have one, create one. Take a stand and take action. You need your community to be a safe place for everyone, equally.
To start, visit StopStreetHarassment.org or Hollaback.com. They list additional resources on their website you can use. Or just google “Street Harassment”. If you’re interested in resources aimed at men check out www.mencanstoprape.com, www.acalltomen.com,
Written for YouthLeader.org; awaiting publication.
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