Street Harassment: Not a Compliment

I’m walking down the street, on the way to school or a friend’s house. I could be wearing sweatpants or a skirt, when I hear the words 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”.

First, I’m momentarily flattered that I was noticed, but after that initial, fleeting feeling wears off, it starts to feel all wrong, and leaves me questioning and confused. I’m only sixteen years old, and all these leering men are much older than me. I’m still a kid, yet I’m getting such sexual attention? Why should I have to feel uncomfortable, when all I’m doing is minding my own business, walking down the street? My body isn’t there to entertain these men, but when I walk down the street, they treat it as though it is. The men in my life don’t have to deal with this. Why should women have to?

Growing up in New York City, I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. Many teenage girls experience this type of harassment: on our way to school or as we try to maneuver about the day, and some don’t know what to do about it. Sometimes, it’s even more extreme than what I experience. Desiree, 17, from Brooklyn, told me about her experiences with street harassment, “[the] first time I’ve experienced harassment was when I was 15 and a man pulled out his penis in front of me and my friends after school. It really freaked us out because we were young so we hadn’t had anything sexual like that before”. Though the type of harassment we face here in New York City isn’t as extreme as in other parts of the world, like India, it is still a woman’s rights issue in America because it perpetuates the view of women’s bodies as public property and, as a result, perpetuates rape culture.

Desiree and I are not the only girls our age to feel this way. According to a 2008 study of 811 women conducted by the organization Stop Street Harassment, almost one in four women had experienced street harassment, defined as any action or comment between strangers in public places that is disrespectful, unwelcome, threatening or harassing and is motivated by gender, by age twelve, and nearly 90% had by age 19.

I spoke with Holly Kearl, author of “Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Spaces Safe and Welcoming for Women”, about teenage girls experiencing street harassment. She states, “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 it’s the main first sexual attention they’re getting is from random men on the street who is someone their dad’s or grandfather’s age, they are adults, so how are you supposed to respond? It’s a challenging situation. And teen girls may not know what their rights are.”

It’s hard for some men to determine the line between what is okay to say to a woman on the street, and what isn’t. Some men think that these comments are compliments, and that women should be flattered. Kearl says that, from her research, the line of comfort is drawn with comments about appearance. She states “25% of women were okay with being whistled at, but most didn’t even want that kind of interaction. Where they drew the line were comments about their looks. Everyone was okay with a smile or hello or talking about the weather…things that are gender neutral you can say to anyone. So, I think as a general rule…say hello, how are you.”

For me, the harassment makes me feel uncomfortable in my own skin, and it turns simply walking down the street into an anxiety-inducing experience. Now, whenever I go to walk down the street, I anticipate these comments and try to drown them out by listening to music on my iPod. I feel unsafe traveling alone, and constantly have my guard up. Desiree, as well, speaks of taking preventative measures against street harassment. She states that she now “wears pants…and travels with friends or a guy at night”. To me, in our supposedly equal society, it seems unfair that women should have to take these extra measures to feel safe, whereas the majority of men feel comfortable navigating public spaces with ease. Clearly, men and women aren’t equal here, and a lot of people aren’t even aware of the problem: the culturally engrained notion that women shouldn’t walk home alone, whereas men can, is accepted and unquestioned.

Kearl states that lots of deeply engrained cultural beliefs are at play in normalizing street harassment. She states, “I think that 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, so a lot of what I’m doing is saying no, we can do something…I think every culture pretty much sees it as okay, 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”.

Another teen I spoke with, Lenny, 17, said that some of his cousins partake in street harassment because his culture views it positively. He thinks they do it because “they are overconfident, 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”. A lot of teenage boys might do it in order to fit in with their friends, or to express their confidence and masculinity and fit in with what their culture dictates.

Desiree says that she feels the cultural aspect at play as well in silencing women from taking action against street harassment. She says “in my culture, in the Caribbean, most men simply won’t care if they harass a woman, but the women will allow [themselves] to be harassed and won’t tell anyone…[they’ll] feel defenseless and can’t have a voice”.

One of the major things that perpetuate street harassment is that women feel as if they don’t have a voice. I myself wish I could have some witty, snappy phrase to give me a voice that I could throw at street harassers in response. Kearl suggested “anything you can do to surprise them [because] they won’t know how to react. They are taking power away from you so whatever you can do to take that power back. For me it works to say a go-to phrase…I say ‘hey, don’t harass women’ and keep walking”. However, whenever I get harassed on the street, 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 any power to say these things. It is so much easier for me to keep walking and ignore the comments, but it makes me feel powerless. Maybe the go-to phrase works for some girls and women, but for me it makes these situations even scarier, and it doesn’t effectively work to ending street harassment for good. So what can we as a society do to end this problem and have women feel more comfortable?

For one, men need to imagine this happening to the women they care about. Desiree says “how can you disrespect women when one brought you into this world?” A big part of fixing the problem is having men who harass recognize how this affects the women they care about in their lives. Kearl spoke of a program at Girls for Gender Equity called “Bring your Brother to our Workshop”. She says of the program, “All of 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 or mother, so don’t harass women, call the men out on it. Get them to think about it in the context of women they care about.” Though the boys who were willing to attend the program probably weren’t the ones doing much street harassment, 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?

I also spoke with Emily May, the co-founder and executive director of “Hollaback!” a website dedicated to end street harassment through “online digital storytelling”. If you have been affected by street harassment, you can go on the website or use their app to share your story with harassment and read the stories of other women. In order to combat street harassment, May states that her organization is “trying to shift the conversation around street harassment. First, get people to acknowledge that behavior’s not okay, and to share their stories…My own story is that I told street harassers they were jerks all the time and it wasn’t particularly effective. I was in that one on one dynamic and wanted to change it on a bigger scale…don’t keep it to yourself. The worst thing you can do is pretend that 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.” May recommends you should “boldly tell your own story…this is something we’re collectively rising up against and solving…[you can] Hollaback!”

So, I read a few of the stories on Hollaback and was amazed by how relatable they were. It made me feel like I was less alone in experiencing street harassment. In particular, one fourteen year old 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. She writes of the experience, “My friends were visibly disturbed. There were a few nervous giggles, some looks of shock and one of my friends whispered ‘but we’re only 12 and 13’, to which my teacher answered ‘I know, which is why it makes it so gross’…Some women say that the first time they felt like a woman was the first time they were harassed. When this happened, I didn’t feel and still don’t feel like a woman. 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.” The writer’s experience of feel disempowered from being harassed was definitely relatable to me.

There were also inspiring stories of bystanders taking action to help women being harassed. One anonymous poster told such a story, “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”.

I was also surprised to learn that this type of harassment sometimes happens to men who defy traditional gender norms. A story from a man named Martin said “I was wearing fairy wings and makeup from a fun costume day in the park (I’m a man). A car full of dudes pulled up, honked their horns and rolled down their windows, yelled and stared. After we crossed the street, they turned right behind us, dangerously close, and sped away.”

Besides making victim’s stories known, there has also been a movement on a larger scale toward ending street harassment. Julisa Ferreras, a city councilwoman, held the first city council hearing on street harassment in 2010. Kearl said “It brings 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.” According to May of Hollaback, Hollaback has met with 74 different elected officials and is working on connecting the Hollaback app to New York City itself, “which would make NYC the first city in the world to meaningfully address street harassment”.

I asked Kearl what, legally, we can do about harassment, and she said it’s a police issue “if its threatening language, if they’re threatening to do something to you, follow you, grab you…but it might be something more subtle that still feels threatening. Any time they touch you it’s illegal, or lewd behavior like flashing, public masturbation, rubbing against you. If they’re following you I think that’s still worth reporting. Police don’t always take things seriously, but if you have the time or energy following can apply under stalking laws.”

In my opinion, for street harassment to end, we as a society needs to recognize that it really is a problem that affects women in a negative way, and that women and men will never achieve equality as long as this problem persists. People need to stop viewing harassing women on the street as a minor nuisance or complimentary, and start seeing it for what it is: belittling and objectifying. We need to talk about this issue as a society a lot more, in our every day conversations with one another as well as through media outlets. If we as a society become educated on this problem and change the public conversation on it, lawmakers will follow suit, and women and girls will feel more comfortable in public spaces.

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, and recognize for yourself that you do not deserve to be treated in this manner. You don’t have to stand up to the harasser, but just discussing how it makes you feel will encourage others to share their stories as well, and help others who may be hurt by these experiences recognize that this treatment is wrong. And boys, recognize that girls don’t enjoy being treated like this, because it makes them feel unsafe and dehumanized. Before engaging in this behavior, even if your friends are, think to yourself about how this isn’t just happening to random people, it’s happening to the women you care about: your sister, mother, girlfriend. Together, we can create a society where men and women both feel equally comfortable navigating their cities without experiencing degrading behavior.

Margaret Heftler, Age 16, Grade 11, The Dalton School, Silver Key

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