It was just another sunny afternoon in North York. I was walking home from school when a strange middle-aged man drove slowly next to me. He yelled out from his car, Hey foxy girl! Since I knew better than to talk to strangers, I kept walking with my head down as he blared his car horn. He continued to scream, Hey, I’m talking to you, which was then followed by some Patoi curse words that I couldn’t understand. This continued for three blocks until I reached the safety of my driveway and entered my home. That encounter was one of the distressing moments of my life and made me afraid to walk home by myself for the rest of the school year. The scariest part of all of this: I was only eleven years old when this happened.
With this week being International Anti-Street Harassment Week, people all over the world are fighting back and taking the streets back from the predatory harassers. Also known as public sexual harassment and ‘eve teasing’, street harassment is an unwanted action or comment by unknown persons in a public space. This is motivated by gender and invade a person’s personal and emotional safety in a startling, disrespectful, insultingly, or creepy manner. These actions range from catcalling, leering, and whistling to making obscene gestures, groping, and stalking. In some cases, street harassment can quickly escalate to sexual assault, rape, and murder. In all instances, the victim always feels humiliated and degraded.
Dispelling the Myths Behind Street Harassment
There are so many misconceptions surrounding street harassment that it’s dizzying to keep track of all of them. One of the largest myths is that it’s just harmless flirting and should be received as a compliment. That could not be any farther from the truth. Street harassment is all about the assertion of power and control. The harassers feel as though they possess ownership of the victims’ bodies. It reinforces the notion that women and LGBQT individuals exist for their pleasure. In their minds, your very presence is an invitation for their judgments, ridicule, threats, and objectification. These nonconsensual actions and comments are meant to intimidate and demean. The consequences of street harassment can include depression, anxiety, and reduced sense of safety. These consequences are real and too disrespectful to be considered flattering.
The biggest and most offensive misconception surrounding street harassment is that it’s just “a pretty girl problem.” First, street harassment affects all women and LGBQT individuals, regardless of age, race, marital status, and economic standing. Simply brushing it aside not only devalues the issue but also devalues the victim. Only 10% of the victims report instances of harassment to the police. Talking about it can be extremely difficult, especially if the police or trusted individual follows up with the question, what were you wearing at the time? Dismissive comments like that place the blame on the victim and force them to accept it as part of the burden of not being a straight male.
Since street harassment is all about assertion of power and control, this behaviour happens everywhere! In early 2013, witnesses who participated in the anti-Morsi protests in Tahrir Square in Egypt reported that men surrounded and trapped women protesters so they could sexually assault and rape them. Street harassment tactics such as invading their personal space and physically grabbing them away from their companions were used in these assaults. During the Occupy Wall Street protests, women protesters were also sexually harassed and attacked. In these cases, this oppression forces women to limit their presence in public places and silence them politically. Thus, street harassment is a worldwide problem, and as outlined by the United Nations, a human rights violation.
Enough is Enough
It’s high time for street harassment to end! Throughout generations, women and LGBQT members have passed down advice meant to protect them from the lascivious leers and jeers from men: Don’t go out after dark. Carry mace. Ignore them. Walk with a male escort. Dress conservatively.
Although well intentioned, these don’t often work and if anything makes women and LGBQT individuals feel less safe and more dependent on others. They need to be empowered to make assertive responses, self-defense, and calling the harassers out on their actions. Sharing the countless stories of street harassment and its psychological/emotional/mental implications are effective in challenging the behaviour. Stop Street Harassment and Hollaback are wonderful organizations that do great work in for taking down street harassment, including activism, research, and providing resources for the victims. Hollaback also provides a step-by-step guide for bystanders to intervene when they see street harassment occur. The straight male attitude towards street harassment needs to change as well. Looking the other way and using the old “boys will be boys” excuse needs to be stopped! Fathers, brothers, uncles, and friends need to show their boys how to respect females and teach them healthy definitions of masculinity. This video entitled, “Shit Men Say to Women on the Street,” promotes awareness and challenges the behaviour of their fellow males who engage in street harassment.
Everyone has the responsibility to make the world a safer place, free of gender-based violence. The more we talk about it, the more people will pay attention, the more they will stand up and fight the cultural misogyny and hate. Street harassment is a huge problem now but together we can overcome it.