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More from Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women (Praeger Publishers, 2010) by Holly Kearl '05

Starting at a young age, as many as 80 percent of women around the world face at least occasional unwanted, harassing attention in public places from men they do not know; some women face it daily. The harassment ranges from physically harmless leers, whistles, honks, kissing noises, and nonsexually explicit evaluative comments, to more insulting and threatening behavior like vulgar gestures, sexually charged comments, flashing, and stalking, to illegal actions like public masturbation, sexual touching, assault, and rape. This type of unwanted attention is termed street harassment.

Street harassment and the underlying fear of it escalating into something worse makes most women feel unwelcome and unsafe in public at least sometimes, especially when they are alone. It causes women to restrict their time in public alone and to be on guard while there, liming their access to resources and leadership opportunities. It also reminds them that they live in a society in which, because they are female, men are allowed to interrupt and bother them at any time in annoying, disrespectful, creepy, and threatening ways, virtually without any consequences.

Street harassment is depressingly normal, and every street harassment study-from academic research to regional or countrywide investigations-shows that it is a significant problem.

How can women every hope to achieve equality with men when so many are routinely harassed simply for leaving their homes, especially if they are unaccompanied by a man? What does it mean that young women grow up in a world in which they likely will be the target of male harassment in public several times-probably before they reach their twenties?

From a young age, girls and women are told to be careful about what they war and how they wear it as well as how and where and when they walk…Girls and women learn from this advice that they are not safe in public. They also learn that it is THEIR responsibility to be safe. If they are harassed or assaulted, it must be because they did not follow every single guideline…Instead of focusing on changing the habits of girls and women, we should be figuring out why perpetrators harass and assault people and how to make them stop.

Most men engage in harassment without any intent of complimenting the woman or of complimenting her in a respectful way. And telling a woman that she has beautiful legs or whistling at her is not a respectful compliment. It is treating the woman like a sex object that anyone has the right to evaluate just because she is in public.

While advice from parents, guardians, and other concerned adults may be well intentioned, it teaches girls that public places are unsafe for them. Following this advice means that young women have to constrict their lives in way men usually do not. The advice also suggests that it is not men's responsibility to stop harassing and assaulting women, but that it is instead women's responsibility to try to “avoid” those men and to generally learn how to read men's minds to how which one will harass and assault them and when.

Instead of collectively being outraged about this as a human rights issue, often men live in ignorance and most women are not aware of the connection between why they do not feel safe going to the corner store alone at night or walking through a deserted parking lot to the vehicle, and the continuation of gender inequality around the world. Instead, women tend to adapt, try not to think about why they cannot have the same freedoms as men, and say… “It's just how things are.” Silence and inaction on this topic must end.

Street harassment will not end until men stop behaving inappropriately toward women they don't know in public places. Since most men who harass women do not think they are doing anything wrong-or they do not care that they are-and men who do not harass women tend to not know it occurs or else also do not think it is wrong, ending the behavior is challenging and will require a multi-layered, comprehensive approach. The layers I propose include educating men to respect women and to intervene when they see other men harassing women, empowering women to know street harassment is not their fault and equipping them with assertive responses they can use against harassers, raising public awareness that street harassment is a problem, and working to make street harassment an issue the way sexual assault or workplace sexual harassment is, including lobbying for anti-street harassment laws.

Reminding [men] to think about how they would feel if a woman they respect was being harassed by a stranger when they were just walking down the street can help them realize that no woman deserves to be treated so disrespectfully. Several women who took my 2008 survey offered advice for men about what acceptable behavior is:


  • - If you would get mad if someone did it to your mom or your sister, don't do it to a stranger.

  • - If you wouldn't say it in front of your mother, your sister, your daughter, or a good friend then don't say it. Show women the respect and courtesy you would show any person.

  • - The following tips can guide any interaction with women in public:

  •       - Treat women like human beings with respect and dignity.

  •       - If you want to say hello to a woman just smile and nod or say hello.         Do not whistle, honk, or make kissy noises to her. Do not say, “Hey         baby,” or “Hi cutie.”

Ultimately, to end street harassment, the onus is on men to stop harassing women, but achieving that will take time. In the short term, it is also important to empower girls and women to lead less fearful and restricted public lives by teaching them that street harassment is not their fault, equipping them with a range of ideas for how they can deal with harassment and, if they want, tactics they can use that could make the harasser think twice about harassing women again. Engaging in tactics that hold harassers accountable can do, though verbal responses and by reporting the harasser to persons of authority.

One of the most important messages for girls and women…is that any street harassment they experience is not their fault, no matter what people may tell them. Women are not at fault because of what they wore, where they went, or what time of day or night they were in public, nor because they looked “too attractive” or “too vulnerable.” Men who harass are at fault. They are the ones acting inappropriately. They are the ones with the problem. Women should have the right to walk down the street or wait for a bus without being the target of unwanted sexual or sexist attention, or [be] the recipient of insults.

Read more and follow links to buy the book at: http://www.stopstreetharassment.com/book/index.htm

Spring 2011

See all articles from this issue

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