Street harassment makes women feel unsafe, but it also pollutes male-female dynamics by reminding women to assume the worst about men…
I was 13 when I was sexually harassed for the first time. On a sunny summer day, two men in a pickup truck followed me for several blocks, yelling obscene things they wanted to do to me. When I was 18, a catcaller chased me home from the grocery store; he tried to force his way into my apartment.
My experience is not unique: street harassment is an everyday problem, but one that’s rarely acknowledged. According to several studies cited by Holly Kearl, author of the new book Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women, between 80 and 99 percent of women have been the targets of aggressive, unwanted attention from male strangers. When she polled 800 women, Kearl found that 75 percent had been followed, and 57 percent had been sexually touched or grabbed in the street by male strangers, some when they were just ten years old.
This epidemic has serious consequences: University of Connecticut researchers found that “the experience of street harassment is directly related to greater preoccupation with physical appearance and body shame, and is indirectly related to heightened fears of rape.” In a country where one in three women is sexually assaulted in her lifetime, such fears are not unfounded.
Unfortunately, the average street corner catcaller is oblivious to this reality. Recently, a young man on a bicycle followed me up my own street. When I asked him to leave me alone, he was surprised and seemed even embarrassed, as if it had never occurred to him that a woman wouldn’t enjoy being chased at night. Though many catcallers don’t have nefarious intentions, they don’t put themselves in our shoes. Too often, it’s a long, uncomfortable walk home.
Despite the fact that it touches almost all women, gender-based street harassment isn’t considered a social problem in the way that, for example, racially-motivated street harassment is. Many believe that women should just relax and enjoy the commentary. And many of us do appreciate a poetic compliment from a respectful man. But the problem is that a “Good morning, beautiful” can instantly become “Go to hell, bitch” if the gentleman in question doesn’t take rejection well. In Washington D.C. last May, a man shot a young woman in the leg when she declined to give him her phone number. It’s an extreme example, but many women report that they have been threatened or even attacked by disgruntled harassers– I know several women who have had bottles thrown at them. The vulgar turns violent with a troubling frequency.
Ten percent of women report quitting a job in order to avoid a harassment-heavy commute. Street harassment also decreases its victims’ workplace productivity, and it makes them limit their time in public spaces. Kearl argues in favor of creating laws against gender-based street harassment, the way there are laws against other forms of harassment. But women don’t just need legal protection. Until our society values women’s right to liberty and security more than men’s supposed right to objectify and intimidate us, girls and women will continue to navigate the sidewalks uneasily. This isn’t harmless flirtation.
Elizabeth Méndez Berry is a journalist based in Queens, NY.
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