Sexual Harassment

Time to Count Street Harassment as Hostile Acts

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The community around fighting street harassment is growing stronger and has pointed to its pervasiveness. K.C. Wagner and Emily May say more research is needed to lay the groundwork necessary to end this type of harassment.



(WOMENSENEWS)--The rape allegations against former International Monetary Fund Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn and now Egyptian former bank chair Mahmoud Abdel Salam Omar by two hotel maids have refocused the world's attention on the risks that women face by going to work.

Comments about someone's body, assumptions based on race or sexuality, inappropriate touching, gestures, or sexual requests--it seems that everyone either has a story or knows someone that does. And we never know when these situations will escalate.

As egregious as the allegations are against Strauss-Kahn and Omar, there's a fundamental difference between harassment in the past and today. Today, a name exists for what has happened, systems of accountability are in place and laws protect those who are victimized.

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Even this limited progress has not extended to the streets though. Today a silent epidemic rages on. Street harassment--or sexual harassment in public spaces--is fast becoming the flashpoint issue for an emerging generation of activists, just as workplace harassment was in 1980s. And like in the 1980s, a solid coordination of activism, research and analysis is needed to move street harassment from the background to the forefront.

In 1991, when the Anita Hill v. Clarence Thomas case captured the public's attention about "sexual harassment," activists, academics, legal scholars, legislators and practitioners had been at least a decade "in the trenches." They had already been developing vehicles for women's voices across the country, analyzing crisis counseling and hotline records, conducting scientifically based studies and writing academic articles, articulating a feminist jurisprudence, defending women in court and beginning to influence workplace prevention and policies and challenging workplace norms. A strong platform from this decade of academic and activist work was in place to challenge the victim-blaming and vilification of Hill and to continue the fight.

No Difference

Street harassment is no different than workplace harassment in its purpose and its effect. It is meant to put victims in their place, to remind them that they are objects and that their safety is a privilege, not a right. As a result, people change jobs, leave apartments or whole cities and suffer long-term stress and anxiety orders.

Now young activists internationally, at nonprofits such as Hollaback! and in projects such as Stop Street Harassment, Blank Noise Project and WomenSpeak, are beginning to stand up and say "no more."

In 2005, a group of young friends, men and women from ages 21 to 24, were telling their stories of street harassment. When they walked alone, they felt vulnerable and powerless; when they would yell at the instigators of the harassment, the situation escalated; police did not seem to respond to their concerns. One of the men in the group said to his female friends: "You live in a different New York City than we do."

They did what many youth would do when faced with a similar challenge: they started a blog. Called Hollaback!, it was intended to bring awareness to street harassment. They were quickly inundated by others' stories and supporters. Today 24 Hollaback! sites are up and running, from Croatia to Argentina to Atlanta. This newly forming community of voices combines story-telling with on-the-ground activism. And with coverage in The New York Times, the BBC and NPR in the past year, the world is clearly listening. We believe the time is right to tackle this long overdue issue once and for all.

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It's disturbing that street harassment is so pervasive in so many nations. In some places cat-calling is not only tolerated, but celebrated by the harassers and accepted as part of the culture as I've discovered first hand. Some of us have been conditioned to accept these interactions, even those who object in principle aren't necessarily going to address the issue for a myriad of reasons. Projects like Hollaback promote public discourse and empower women to retaliate by enforcing the point that any unsolicited word or action directed at an unknown female in a public space which results in intimidation is street harassment and it is not a soft-issue, it is a crime. Chapeau to you and all the anti-street harassment advocacy groups for spearheading a movement.

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