Street harassment is public sexual harassment. Those who can expect to go about their day without being examined or assessed by strangers don’t seem to treat this as a real issue. Street harassment is:
Being able to appear in public without experiencing harassment is a right that should be extended to all human beings. Instead, almost all women experience some variety of this during their lifetimes:
What’s your name? What’s your number”
Every. single. day.
It’s not flattering. It’s not respectful.
Walking through a busy park, a man on a bicycle makes kissy noises at me. I curse at him, loudly, before I have time to deliberate if that would be an appropriate way to respond or not. This is on the same day that a motorist throws an empty bottle at me while coming off the I-84 ramp near the state capitol building.
I’m getting over a cold and wearing sweatpants. These aren’t the kind with words stamped on the back. These are plain, dowdy sweatpants. A man approaches me with the usual language of “looking good.”
A man drives slowly next to me. I hear, “psst, psst hey.” I don’t respond. “Hey, I’m talkin’ to you.” I think to myself, “No, you’re not talking to me. You’re trying to assert power over me. That’s not a conversation. That’s an attempt to dictate. Learn the difference.”
On an average day, if I am out walking, I get 2-4 remarks from strangers. I’ve counted as many as eight within half an hour. All races. All ages. In a variety of languages. I am not alone in experiencing unwanted suggestive and sometimes lewd comments or actions. Recently, while a friend was walking her dog, four older teen boys said they would tie her up and rape her. As if this weren’t horrifying enough to hear, they then called her a “whore.” Then they laughed, because assaulting women, as we all know, is hilarious.
There are too many stories to relay. The times I have spoken up or taken a type of action, like pretending to call the police, the harasser stopped immediately. When I have chosen to say or do nothing, the harasser continues talking or behaving obscenely until I am out of sight/earshot.
It seems that everyone has an answer for how to deal with this, ranging from the victim-blaming (“Why were you walking alone?”) to the semi-victim-blaming (“You shouldn’t even look at them. Make sure you cross the street.”) to the learned helpless/hopelessness that favors evasive action (“It’s always been that way and there’s nothing you can do, so you might as well drive everywhere to get away from it.”) to the more active (“You should carry a whistle”).
Maybe, instead of telling the victim what s/he should be doing, we offer options for action (or inaction) so that the victim feels empowered to make some of her own choices. The entire scenario offered up with street harassment is one in which the objectified person is the victim of an attempted robbery; her agency and dignity is what she is expected to hand over. She’s already been told to smile, answer when she is being spoken to, give her name, give her number, give over rights to herself…she does not need someone telling her how to respond to all of that.
There are options. In every situation, the person needs to assess the best type of action to take. She needs to consider what the possible consequences will be of taking action. There are split-second assessments to be made: how many people are there? Is this a young adolescent or a large teenager, or someone else? If need be, can she outrun this person? Is he all talk, or is there potential for immediate violence? Is this happening in a busy area during lunch time or on a side street late at night? Are you in an area where people often “settle disputes” with guns, or is it a relatively tame neighborhood? Is the harasser mentally ill or impaired due to substance use (i.e. not predictable)?
“Ignoring it” is an option. So is saying, “Do not speak to me.”
But women are socialized to be nice and polite, not confrontational. That needs to change. We should not feel the need to justify taking action when we are being harassed or assaulted.
An action that can be taken is to hollaback, whether you have a phone with a camera, or no cell phone at all. Taking down a license plate number and reporting it to the police is an option. We only ever seem to hear about schoolchildren reporting creeps to the police, as if adults getting harassed have no legal rights until the actions escalate beyond verbal harassment. Actually fighting back, if attacked, is another option. In every scenario there is a decision to be made that we do not know the outcome of until we have taken an action. Most women have been raised on a steady diet of horrible made-for-tv movies, myth-based emails, and word-of-mouth horror stories about what can happen. There’s no need to remind anyone about what the worst case scenario could be.
What it comes down to is that we have the right to respond. None of this is to say that the person being harassed is responsible for causing or stopping such behaviors. The onus of stopping street harassment is on those who harass. But this does not mean that those on the receiving end should be expected to silently endure.
“Boys just being boys” is not acceptable. That it may just be “all talk” does not make it acceptable. Call it what it is: bullying. Verbal assault. Threatening.
If these young folks know this behavior is a problem, why don’t those twice their age know it?
Disclaimer: this post is intended as discussion, not advice. That should be glaringly obvious, but I’ll spell it out for those who lack critical thinking abilities.