by Brittany Shoot
- Denmark -
Every woman I know has, at one time or another, been followed, leered at, or catcalled. For most of my life, I have been fair game - at the grocery store, walking down the street, on the subway. If sexual harassment is illegal in the workplace and domestic violence is illegal in the home, why does going to the mall suddenly make me a target?
While circumstances may vary by region and culture, street harassment affects women's ability to exist in public all around the world. Several groups - including JAGORI’s Safe Delhi in India, Bangalore's Blank Noise Project, the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights, and the London Anti-Street Harassment Campaign – combat the problem locally and raise awareness that street harassment does not happen in a vacuum.
A few years ago, Holly Kearl wrote her Master’s thesis about street harassment. Conducting independent research, she realized very little had been published about gender-based harassment in public space and concluded that legal remedies might provide relief for women bombarded with lewd comments and unsolicited suggestive glances. Kearl founded the Stop Street Harassment website and blog. By the middle of 2009, she had conducted several independent studies with hundreds of women and had enough material for a book.
Taking time out from speaking engagements and her full-time job at the AAUW (formerly the American Association of University Women), Kearl spoke with me at length about legal and social remedies for street harassment and her own experiences being followed and harassed in public.
How is the lack of a single, obvious definition for a problem like street harassment damaging to educating men and women and organizing around this issue?
Without a solid definition of street harassment, it is difficult to talk about what this problem is and how we are going to end it. Problems without definitions tend to stay hidden and so it is hard to do anything about them. Ending street harassment is a long, long-term goal. Right now, one of the first steps is deciding on a definition so that all the other steps can follow: research, policy-making, education, and laws. Those later, crucial steps won’t happen as easily or at all if no one knows what we’re talking about and if we don’t know what we’re working to end.
What are some of the messages ignored in mainstream coverage or popular press articles about street harassment?
One message the mainstream media often misses is how street harassment impacts women of all ages, appearances, races, sexual orientations, classes, and abilities.
The mainstream media rarely places street harassment in a context of gender violence to show its seriousness or the pervasiveness of gender violence in every aspect of society. Most people would be freaked out and upset if those dots were connected and they realized that women they care about are more than likely impacted by some form of gender violence, including on the streets.
Street harassment is often portrayed as something humorous or at least trivial. Rarely do you see its real impact. The unseen reality is that, at least sometimes, women are afraid to leave home alone. They change their routes, they move neighborhoods or jobs, and they are constantly on guard looking out for harassers or assaulters. Where is the humor in any of that?
Many people object to legal remedies to street harassment, citing First Amendment concerns and stating that looking at other people shouldn’t be a crime. How do you respond to that?
A law against street harassment would not be easy to create. But that doesn’t mean one can’t be created. After all, there are laws against sexual harassment in the workplace so we have a starting point. Cynthia Bowman in a Harvard Law Review article explains how a law against street harassment would withstand scrutiny under the First Amendment. She says the intent behind a lot of street harassment - to humiliate, inflict distress, anger, or harm - is not protected by the First Amendment.
Young women and girls are often harassed and experience threatening behaviors from a young age. How can we teach girls about safety and responsible behavior without frightening them? What are some of the ways we can raise respectful men who do not harass women?
You raise a great point about the challenges of informing girls about the reality of the world while empowering them to deal with it instead of frightening them. When I was young my mother and grandmother each told me about attempted or carried out sexual assaults that happened to them and it scared me pretty badly for many years. I didn’t have a boyfriend until I was 18 in great part because I was scared of men. While girls should be alert and aware of dangers, it’s not right for them to always be fearful of men.
What I think can help overcome this obstacle is telling girls that they are not at fault…and that it’s okay to…make a scene, tell someone, and/or fight back. Too often girls and women are socialized to believe it’s their fault and that their only real option for staying safe and un-blamed is avoidance of situations where they may be harassed or assaulted. Teaching girls ways to respond that are empowering is essential to helping them live less fearful and restricted lives.
Raising respectful boys can be challenging because there are so many negative influences that show that it’s okay to sexually objectify, degrade, and disrespect women. Boys often are also given really harmful definitions of masculinity: be tough, aggressive, and powerful with many sexual conquests. Thankfully there are great groups out there working to counter the harmful messages boys are getting and I hope more will crop up.
At an individual level, what we all can do is teach, encourage, and praise boys who exhibit kindness, thoughtfulness, and respectful behavior. We can support boys who act outside gender norms. We can discourage boys from taking part in activities that glorify violence against women or sexualize violence. We can show boys positive female role models and point out women making important contributions to society and their community. It’s harder to objectify that which you respect.
When I informally surveyed male allies about what would be the best way to reach boys or men about street harassment some of their recommendations included…asking boys or men how they would feel if their mother or sister or aunt or female cousin was harassed and to help them see it from the perspective of a woman they do respect and care about. Relatives can share their street harassment stories with boys and men to show them that it happens to people they care about.
Another suggestion from the male allies was to ask boys/men how they feel when boys or men who are bigger than them bully or harass them. Try to help them see it from the girls’ perspective that way. Street harassment is so engrained and normalized that many boys have never had to consider it from a girls’ perspective or just assume that girls like it. It’s important to tell them otherwise.
In the book, you write about your own experiences being followed and harassed. How does street harassment continue to impact your daily life?
I feel lucky because for the last three years, the harassment I experience is much less frequent than it used to be. I moved and I also finished graduate school. I was harassed while I was alone commuting to and from campus or running. I still run, but in the three years that I’ve lived in my new town, I’ve been harassed about five times total instead of five times in a week or even in a day. I’ve been so busy the last two years with the research and writing of the book, that when I do anything recreationally, it’s mostly with my male partner or family, and men tend to harass me less when I’m with them.
That said, there are still a few things I do because of harassment. I won’t go running at night, or, now that I have a dog, without my dog. I don’t become predictable in the times of day or routes I do when I run. I rarely run with headphones on. If I run somewhere deserted, I carry a cell phone and/or mace with me.
I’m also wary when I travel alone. Even as I’m facing less harassment at home, the harassment has continued when I’ve gone on solo business trips to New York City, Los Angeles, and Portland, Oregon. This harassment makes me feel less safe as a woman traveling alone and it makes me wary to even step foot outside my hotel at night.
This November I am making my first trip to India…to attend an international conference on making cities safer for women. Ironically, my own safety has been paramount on my mind. I did not book a ticket until I found a female friend who could go with me, and we have already had many discussions about what to do to help us stay safe while we are there. This maddens me to no end because I know if I were a man, I wouldn’t have to spend any time worrying about being sexually harassed or even assaulted in public.
About the Author:
Brittany Shoot is an American writer living in Copenhagen, Denmark. A longtime member of the Feminist Review blog editorial collective, her writing has also appeared in a variety of print and online publications including Bitch, make/shift, WireTap Magazine, and Religion Dispatches. Visit her website at www.brittanyshoot.com.