Stop Street Harassment defines street harassment as, "any action or comment between strangers in public places that is disrespectful, unwelcome, threatening and/or harassing and is motivated by gender or sexual orientation. In countries like India and Bangladesh, it’s termed 'eve teasing,' and in countries like Egypt, it’s called 'public sexual harassment.'" The website states that street harassment affects roughly 80-90% of women worldwide.
Street harassment is one facet of a larger social problem known as "Rape Culture", which is defined by Marshall University as, "an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety."
The problem with street harassment in general and rape culture as a whole is that it leaves victims feeling unsafe walking around alone, questioning what they wear, and debating the wisdom of going out at night. It sends the message that victims do not own their bodies, but rather that they exist for the viewing pleasure (or displeasure) of others.
This week marks the third anniversary of Stop Street Harassment's International Street Harassment Week campaign, which calls for victims and their advocates to make their voices heard against street harassment through a variety of creative means including writing anti-harassment messages on sidewalks, engaging with the Stop Telling Women to Smile organization, and by educating themselves and others about street harassment. In India in 2011 a group of activists organized to send anti-street harassment messages by using passages from the Quran to make Islamically correct arguments, as Holly Kearl explains here.
While organizations fighting street harassment stay involved year round, Street Harassment Week is an attempt to bring the issue to the attention of the mainstream by having millions of people speak out at the same time. Several of these organizations made short videos that went viral, including this one by french organization Oppressed Majority, which highlights how frightening street harassment can be for victims (who are usually women) can be by turing the tables and featuring men as the victims and women as aggressors.
Much of the focus of campaigns against street harassment has been on female victims, but LGBT individuals also experience high levels of harassment. Many report avoiding public spaces as a result. Clearly this is an important problem to address, but creating the change necessary is a daunting task.
Preventing street harassment requires sweeping cultural change. Until street harassment is condemned actively by victims and their supporters, the problem will continue to persist. The task is daunting, but this change is very possible and thousands of people are already taking part in ensuring it happens in the near future.