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Street Harassment Is No Compliment
Margaret Rose Heftler
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I’m walking down the street, on the way to school or to a friend’s house. I could be wearing sweatpants or a short skirt; it doesn’t matter. Inevitably the words are flung at me by someone I’ve never seen before, men alone or laughing with their buddies:

“Hey baby, smile for me!”

“Mmm, sexy. Nice legs.”

“I’d tap that ass.”

Sometimes it’s even more obscene: crude gestures, even threats of sexual violence. Even the less explicit comments that some may view as a compliment trigger the same feelings for me: First, I’m momentarily flattered to be noticed, but after that initial, fleeting feeling, I start to feel degraded, sexualized, and objectified. It feels all wrong. I’m only 16 years old, and these leering men are all much older than me.

I think to myself, “They don’t even know me, but they feel it’s OK to comment on my body like it’s public property?” It makes me feel like I’m not in control of my own body, like my mind doesn’t matter and my body exists solely to please others.

Growing up in New York City, girls have to learn to deal with what’s known as street harassment from a young age. It turns simply walking down the street into an anxiety-inducing experience. Whenever I’m out walking, I have my guard up. I try to drown out these comments by listening to music on my iPod.

I shouldn’t have to feel uncomfortable in my own skin and unsafe simply walking down the street, but I feel powerless to stop the harassment.

Crossing the Line

I spoke with several girls my age from different parts of New York City, and our experiences were similar. Desiree, 17, from Brooklyn, said, “[The] first time I experienced harassment was when I was 15 and a man pulled out his penis in front of me and my friends after school.” She doesn’t wear skirts anymore since that’s what she wore when she was first harassed, and she always travels with friends or a guy at night.

Desiree and I are not the only girls our age to feel this way. According to a 2008 study of 811 women conducted by stopstreetharassment.com, almost one in four women had experienced street harassment by age 12 and nearly 90% had by age 19. The website defines street harassment as “any action or comment between strangers in public places that is disrespectful, unwelcome, threatening and/or harassing and is motivated by gender.”

To find out more about how this behavior affects young women like me, I spoke with Holly Kearl, author of the book Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women.

Kearl told me that street harassment isn’t just a nuisance, it can be illegal. It becomes a police issue “if it’s threatening language, if they’re threatening to do something to you, follow you, grab you....” She acknowledges that it’s not always clear if the behavior constitutes a criminal act, especially if it’s not a direct threat, but it can still feel threatening.

Of course, if someone touches you, if the person is engaging in lewd behavior like flashing, public masturbation, or rubbing against you, that’s illegal and should be reported. Kearl also encourages women to report someone who follows them. “Police don’t always take things seriously, but if you have the time or energy, following can apply under stalking laws.”

It’s Hard to Speak Up

For most young women, though, street harassment is so disorienting the first time it happens that the idea of reporting it to police wouldn’t even occur to us.

“I think it’s a very hard age to be dealing with street harassment because a lot of teen girls are just discovering their sexuality, and the main first sexual attention they’re getting is from random men on the street who are their dad’s or grandfather’s age,” Kearl said. “They are adults, so how are you supposed to respond? It’s a challenging situation.”

It’s hard for some men to determine the line between what is OK to say to a woman on the street, and what isn’t. Some men think their comments are just compliments, and that women should be flattered. Kearl said that from her research, the line is drawn at comments about appearance. Most women do not feel comfortable with men on the street commenting on their appearance in any way.

“Everyone was OK with a smile or hello or talking about the weather…things that are gender neutral you can say to anyone.” However, “Where they drew the line were comments about their looks.”

In our supposedly equal society, it is unfair that women have to take extra measures to feel safe while the majority of men feel comfortable navigating public spaces with ease. Clearly, men and women aren’t equal here. For example, many women feel unsafe walking home alone, especially at night, while most men don’t have to think twice about it.

Culture of Disrespect

Kearl noted that cultural beliefs may be at play in situations where street harassment is considered acceptable. “The belief that this is just how it is for women normalizes it and makes us more accepting of it, so women and men are less likely to seek out and challenge it, thinking that there’s nothing we can do,” she said. “A lot of what I’m doing is saying, ‘No, we can do something.’”

Lenny, 17, told me that some of his cousins participate in street harassment. He thinks they do it because “they want to look cool… possibly even to fit in. A lot of people in my culture [I’m black] view street harassment as a good thing. They say it helps your social life and improves social skills such as conversation and humor.”

While some cultures may normalize street harassment to a greater extent than others, no culture is really exempt, she added. “I think every culture pretty much sees it as OK, unfortunately. We have cartoon characters that promote harassment, boys that go googly-eyed when they see a girl, music videos and commercials…it’s part of the U.S., part of our culture.”

In fact, some of the most powerful men in the country seem to think sexual harassment is no big deal. While reporting this article, I was appalled to discover that Mayor Michael Bloomberg himself has a reputation for making harassing remarks. A booklet compiled by Bloomberg’s colleagues in 1990, called The Portable Bloomberg: The Wit and Wisdom of Michael Bloomberg, contained some wisecracks he’d made, including this: “I know for a fact that any self-respecting woman who walks past a construction site and doesn’t get a whistle will turn around and walk past again and again until she does get one.”

image by YC-Art Dept

True, that was a long time ago, but apparently Bloomberg hasn’t changed much: A January 2013 New York magazine article revealed that the mayor regularly critiques City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s shoes and hair. “The mayor is going to yell at me when I get out of the car because I have flat boots on,” Quinn told the reporter. “He likes me in high heels.” The fact that this city elected someone three times who would say such things reveals that our society broadly accepts this kind of thinking, from the boardrooms to street corners.

Men Should Say Something Too

Kearl had a suggestion for young women seeking to have more of a voice: Do “anything you can do to surprise them [because] they won’t know how to react. They are taking power away from you so do whatever you can to take that power back. For me it works to have a go-to phrase.... I say, ‘Hey, don’t harass women,’ and keep walking.”

Maybe the go-to phrase works for some girls, but I feel uncomfortable speaking up. I’m afraid I will escalate the situation, and because I am so much younger than most of the harassers, I feel like I don’t have the power to say anything. It is so much easier for me to ignore the comments.

So what else can we do to stop this problem? And by we, I don’t just mean women. Desiree made a good point: “How can you disrespect a woman when one brought you into this world?”

I think that men need to imagine this happening to the women they care about, and think about how this affects the women in their lives. Kearl talked about a workshop at Girls for Gender Equity, a Brooklyn-based youth organization that works to improve gender and race relations through community organizing and girl’s empowerment programs. The workshop is called “Bring Your Brother Day.”

“All these teen girls who were part of the program brought their brothers and had discussions about street harassment with them…I thought that was a great way to let men know that, hey, this is happening to your sister, and think about it, all these women out there are someone’s sister or mother.”

Though the boys who were willing to attend this program probably weren’t the ones doing much street harassment, I do think getting men to talk about masculinity and respect for women is a big step toward changing cultural attitudes. How can we reach a wider audience, though?

Hollaback!

I also spoke with Emily May, the co-founder and executive director of Hollaback!, an organization dedicated to end street harassment through “online digital storytelling.” If you have been affected by street harassment, you can go to ihollaback.org or use their app to share your experience with harassment and read the stories of other women.

May said her organization is trying to change the conversation around street harassment. “First, get people to acknowledge that behavior’s not OK and to share their story,” she said. “Don’t keep it to yourself. The worst thing you can do is pretend it doesn’t hurt. I felt like I wasn’t a strong woman because it hurt me, but I know that’s not true. This does hurt us.”

I read a few of the stories posted on Hollaback! and was amazed at how familiar they were. It made me feel like I was less alone. In particular, one New York City middle school student described how her cheerleading squad was practicing in Central Park one day when a group of young men started shouting sexual comments and eventually started masturbating in front of her and her friends.

“Some women say that the first time they felt like they were a woman was the first time they were harassed. When this happened, I didn’t feel and still don’t feel like a woman,” she wrote. “If anything, I feel more like a girl than ever. Because I felt small and young and a little defenseless, a little powerless. What I hate most is that the boys who were harassing us got away with it and will continue to get away with it.”

There were also inspiring stories of bystanders taking action to help women being harassed. One anonymous poster wrote, “I was with some friends walking along the street and this truck of guys slows down and they start whistling and making noises. This nice man came to our rescue and told them to ‘f-off’ and they drove away, but he got their license number and called the cops.”

Changing the Conversation

The movement to combat street harassment is growing. New York City Council Member Julissa Ferreras of Queens, who chairs the Committee on Women’s Issues, held the first City Council hearing on street harassment in 2010. Kearl, who spoke at the hearing, said it brought “a lot of visibility to the issue.…Men on the Council didn’t understand, didn’t think it was a big deal, but it was standing room only and people gave testimony for two hours, so that made a statement for the whole City Council to see that street harassment is a big issue; it really does matter.”

Hollaback! has met with 74 elected officials and is working on connecting the Hollaback! app to New York City’s police department, “which would make New York City the first city in the world to meaningfully address street harassment.” They are currently developing a program that would allow people to take phone snapshots of street harassers and send them to the police directly.

Also, since the City Council hearing, the city placed anti-street-harassment public service announcements in the subway system informing people that they can report harassment to the police, and warning that sexual harassment is a crime in the subway system. These are steps in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go to meaningfully address street harassment.

People need to stop viewing harassment of women on the street as complimentary or, at worst, a minor nuisance, and start seeing it for what it is: disrespectful, belittling, objectifying, scary, and sometimes illegal.

We need to talk about it in our every day conversations with one another so public awareness will grow. We can create a public conversation about it and demand change. So, girls, if you have been harassed, even if it’s just a catcall that made you uncomfortable, talk about your experiences with your family and friends. You don’t have to stand up to the anonymous harasser directly if you’re uncomfortable, but just discussing how it makes you feel might make the guys you know think twice about doing it, and it will help the message get out that harassment is unwelcome.

And boys, if you participate in street harassment, recognize that girls don’t appreciate this type of behavior. It isn’t just happening to random people, it’s happening to the women you care about: your sister, mother, girlfriend. Even if you’re not a harasser, speak up about it. Together, we can create a more respectful society.

For advice on how to deal with street harassment, read our story "How to Respond to Sexual Harassment."

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(NYC-2013-05-12)

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