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Hollaback!’s Deputy Director, Debjani Roy, wrote an amazing op-ed in the Huffington Post last week discussing criminalization and street harassment. Check it out below!
“When it comes to combating street harassment, increasing criminalization is not the answer.
I have been working as an advocate to end gender-based violence for 10 years with a focus on domestic violence, widows’ rights, forced marriage, sexual trafficking, forced prostitution, and other issues affecting women and girls globally. I currently work to end street harassment or sexual harassment in public spaces.
Street harassment is a widespread and global problem, defined as unwelcome and unwanted attention of a sexual nature, objectifying and targeting both women and men. The wide spectrum of actions ranges from leering, catcalling and whistling to public exposure and masturbation to groping, touching and grabbing. While some forms of street harassment, such as the overt physical acts, do fall under statutory penal codes, others including the ‘hey baby’s,’ the ‘can I get a smile?’, or even the reactive, ‘you’re so ugly, I wouldn’t touch you with a stick,’ do not. These commonplace comments and actions, some of which are claimed to be compliments, are belittling, offensive, intimidating and discriminatory. The 4,500-plus experiences of street harassment shared on the blogging platform of Hollaback!, the anti-street harassment organization, confirm that.
It is a commonly held myth that street harassment happens in low income communities and communities of color. Mapping incidents of street harassment shows it is prevalent in high density areas, such as Times Square in New York City or the West End in London. It makes sense — the more people present in a locale, the more likely harassment will occur, especially in a world that accepts it as a normal and everyday part of life.
When speaking about street harassment at trainings, panels and other outreach efforts, one question repeatedly asked by participants is, ‘How do you criminalize catcalling?’ Criminalizing verbal harassment and unwanted gestures is neither the final goal nor the ultimate solution to this problem and can, in fact, inadvertently work against the growth of an inclusive anti-harassment movement. The criminal justice system disproportionately targets and affects low-income communities and communities of color, as evidenced by more recent policies such as New York City’s Stop and Frisk program and other degrading forms of racial profiling. Our objective is to address and shift cultural and social dialogues and attitudes of patriarchy that purport street harassment as simply the price you pay for being a woman or being LBGTQ. It is not to re-victimize men already discriminated against by the system.
Further criminalizing street harassment can have a negative impact on families and communities within already marginalized and targeted groups. As a South Asian American immigrant woman who has been harassed by men of all backgrounds, including South Asian men, the thought of reporting men who already face institutional and systematic discrimination carries with it a personal sense of responsibility. Having been an advocate for survivors of domestic violence within the South Asian community, I understand the repercussions that families within my community face in the hands of the legal system. A family may depend on a harasser due to certain institutional and cultural barriers, including immigration status (dependent visas, lack of documentation, etc.), linguistic barriers or economic dependency. Say, for example, the harasser has a spouse who is on a dependent visa that does not allow her to work in the United States. Criminalization of the harasser, will directly affect the family that relies on him for their livelihood, potentially resulting in dependent family members losing legal status in the United States, being separated in the case of removal proceedings or economic hardships due to lost income. As advocates, our job is to consider the immediate and long-term impacts of criminalization, knowing that we are working with a flawed and discriminatory system.
This does not excuse the behavior and actions of harassers, but rather promotes the opportunity for more effective ways to let them know that street harassment is unacceptable and furthermore, prevent it from occurring in the first place.
A better approach would require devoting time, energy and effort toward creating social and cultural change. An example of these methods include going out to schools to talk to girls and boys about appropriate ways of treating one another; going out in our communities to engage members on how harassment affects their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, daughters and sons; training individuals on bystander intervention, showing that we all have a role to play in having each other’s backs; creating communities of people who stand up against behavior that is demeaning, discriminating, sexist and homophobic; working through community-based organizations to discuss how masculinity is shaped and actively redefining what it means to be a man across cultures.
Change will not happen overnight, but we intend to continue with this work of changing minds amongst individuals, communities and institutions about the acceptability of street harassment, while simultaneously empowering and strengthening the community of those of us who are targeted. Together we must focus our energies into laying the groundwork so that street harassment is no longer a part of any of our lives.”
- Debjani Roy
walking to the supermarket (15 minutes) in thick tights and a jumper.
a man went ‘mmm’ as i walked past him, a van full of men and a car full of men both gawked at me and turned to stare at me, a car full of boys yelled at me, and a man in a van beeped at me.
it felt devaluing and intimidating.
About 1PM I got off the bus and began to walk home with my groceries. A car with at least 2 men slowed down, and yelled that they wanted to give me a ride. I avoided eye contact, and waived them off. Offers for rides are especially upsetting, because of the implied threat: that they want to get me in a situation where I am not in control of where I go or what happens to me.
About 9AM, I crossed the street as two men crossed in the opposite direction. As they passed, I avoided eye contact. One said “good morning, sister,” and I ignored it. He said hello again. When he realized that I was not going to respond, he yelled a veiled threat: “Don’t trip on the curb.” I hate these situations because they frequently end with a threatening comment, and I’m afraid that one day I’ll be physically assaulted because they think they’ve been insulted.
Hi. My name is Melissa, I am a transsexual woman, and I wrote my story here to Hollaback! on April 16th, 2011.
I just wanted to share that my story is improving. Since I live in a large suburb, people have come to know me. I have socialized with alot of the neighbors where I walk and run, and I socialize at the places I go. I find that talking to people helps bring me out of the street harassment I was experiencing, and still experience. Yesterday I was finishing a walk and I noticed out of the corner of my eye that a vehicle was exiting its parking space very slowly. I knew it was not a conflict with me and I could tell that it was not in conflict with anyone else, so, immediately I looked inside, and there was a man driving and he was staring at me. He moved his car very slowly and watched me as I walked by. It was creepy and disappointing. So, the harassment is still there, but I feel more positive, and an experience like that, I just brush off. I have had far more scary experiences, like a man following me in his oversize, raised-wheel white pickup truck. He singled me out and followed me in my car for at least a mile to my destination, waiting in the parking lot of the place I was going, and then followed me back almost to my home. We got separated at a light, and I later used the separation to get away from him. I arrived home safely.
I experience these things less now than I did when I wrote in 2011. They are fewer and farther between. I am not sure if it is because I make smarter choices, or because I feel more positive, or if it is because the world around me has changed just enough that people don’t bother me as much. I really don’t know. I do feel better, though.
I cannot imagine living in a city. Reading some of the stories here, I would feel very uncomfortable and very vulnerable in a city. People say a place like New York City you can be whomever you want, but my guess is that the people would eat me alive.
I have had the experience, since writing, of a young man stopping me on the street and shouting at me. I just talked back. I have also had the experience of a very edgy, scary young man shouting at me from across the street. I shouted back. I never saw him again. I have also shared some of these experiences with people where I live and they have shared experiences with me that they have had over the years and so it goes..
I officially changed my name to Melissa about three weeks ago, and have completed every facet of transition that I am capable. I look better than I ever have looked, I feel better than I have felt over the past several years and I am very grateful for your website because I think it should be possible to (dare I say it) – walk down the street without getting harassed.
A few weeks ago, a car full of men followed my car for 15 minutes in stop and go traffic. I didn’t think to snap a pic, so last night when the same thing happened, I got this. This car had 3 men in it with a woman driving. They stared at me while at a red light, then started screaming at me and holding up pictures of women in lingerie or less.
A middle-age man yelled something at me while I had my headphones on walking into work. When I looked around to see who was yelling, he leaned on his cane and nodded his head creepily at me like, “Yeah, I said it.” I mentioned it to the security guard and he said they knew exactly who it was and had been having issues with him and told another guard to say something to him about not yelling at people.
A guy was laying on a table during rehearsal. As a girl walked by him, he grabbed her breast. She slapped him and asked him why he did it. He replied: “if you’re gonna put them near me, I’m going to grab them.” He also got yelled at by another girl for doing something different. He then walked by her and pushed her very aggressively.
So I was walking downtown Toronto today back from a workshop and was cat-called. But it felt like more than that. Picture this, I’m walking down the street and some guy stops his bike just in front of where I’m walking but on the road (I’m on the sidewalk) and not only catcalls me but also proceeds to whisper in a really creepy serial killer in the movies kind of way. Ugh!
I was on an expense paid trip with a school group, and as we walked back to our hotel a man approached my roommate. He started to come on to her and put his arm around her waist. When a chaperone and I yelled at him, he did not stop. He was with a group of friends that did nothing but watched as he harassed my friend. He followed us nearly all the way to the hotel until another chaperone confronted him. I was outraged by the blatant disrespect and entitlement that the guy showed.