In our modern, global society sexual abuse exists as the most colossus impediment to gender equality. Street harassment, in particular, is a human rights issue that it serves as a daily, tangible reminder of the disparity between male and female power and freedoms.
Street harassment is not something restricted to a single culture or one 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.
Street harassment can be defined as any unwelcome sexual behavior, be it physical or verbal. Catcalling is street harassment. Unwanted sexual looks or gestures are street harassment. Whistling or winking is street harassment.
Street harassment primarily affects women and limits their access to public places in volumes inexperienced by the opposite sex.
Women are forced to change commuting routes, only go to places accompanied, change jobs, quit hobbies and even move neighborhoods in order to avoid further harassment. And even with such radical measures; there is no guaranteeing that sexual harassment will ever stop.
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”
One of the major misunderstandings with street harassment is that it only comes in physical form. Both men and women largely misapprehend this. 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”, kissing sounds, howling, pressure for dates, whistling, cat calling and asking about sexual fantasies, preferences, or history are all forms of verbal sexual harassment.
Studies have shown that street harassment can have severely negative implications on the well-being of young adult women, 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.
An innovative resistance project labeled ”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 women all over the world that street harassment is simply not a compliment.
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. Sweet Machine best explains this abuse of rights:
“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. Street harassment indicates that you believe your desires are a legitimate reason to override her rights.”
For women who are dealing with a daily barrage of physical and/or verbal assault another key issue is at play; there is no telling who is a dangerous perpetrator.
As expressed in my article on Rape Culture in the Feminist Wire, 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.
Male collaboration is absolutely imperative in ending sexual harassment. This is not to say that women need male protection from street harassment — this would be a perpetuation of patriarchal ideals depicting women as helpless damsels and re-enforcing erroneous conceptions of masculinity.
Instead, I am calling for male allies: men who accept that street harassment are endemic and are willing to act on and educate others on this knowledge. Here are some examples male allies expressing their angst towards the problem:
“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.”
Joe Vess, Former Director of Training at Men Can Stop Rape.
“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.”
Dr. L’Heureux Dumi Lewis, Assistant Professor at the City College of New York.
Street harassment is ultimately a deplorable method at objectifying, sexualizing and trivializing women. There are many ways for you to act against street harassment.
Educate everyone around you on the importance of refraining from harassment and rally male and female peers to act against it. Sharing a story or joining anti-street harassment organizations is another imperative move towards raising awareness. We won’t end worldwide street harassment, but local initiatives have national impact and slowly but surely, we will erode the street harassment mentality.
What is Sexual Harassment? Facts and Outlines: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/osagi/pdf/whatissh.pdf
Stop StreetHarassment is a nonprofit organization dedicated to documenting and ending gender-based street harassment worldwide: http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/
Femme De LaRue: A powerful documentary on street harassment: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xsknaq_femme-de-la-rue-sexism-in-the-streets-of-brussels-english-subtitles_webcam
HollaBack is a movement to end street harassment powered by a network of local activists around the world: http://www.ihollaback.org/
Everyday Stranger Harassment and Women’s Objectification (2008) by KimberlyFairchild Laurie A. Rudman: http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/KimberlyFairchildStreetHarassarticle.pdf