By: Ledia Duro
Whistling…shouting…honking…blowing kisses. No, that’s not the sound of a parade—it’s street harassment. From attempts at flattery to assurances of security, the “hey sexy” and “get home safe ma,” street harassment has become “one of the most commonly experienced forms of gender and sexuality based discrimination and objectification that young people face,” as noted by the non-profit organization and movement, Hollaback!. Street harassment doesn’t just impact teenage girls in New York City. It affects men and women of all ages around the world.
Street harassment refers to verbal or physical gestures used as a mode of intimidation and control in the public sphere. Contrary to what some may believe, it is neither enjoyable nor complimentary. It is a method people use to erect their egos and coerce others into conversations and interactions. As a result, street harassment makes women feel uncomfortable, frightened, and inferior. By degrading women, harassers build themselves up to be indestructible, which leads to public acceptance and tolerance of street harassment, sexual assault, and domestic violence.
Some may argue that street harassment and domestic violence are completely unrelated. What does making innocuous comments in public have to do with hitting your spouse behind closed doors? Both intolerable acts stem from the same root—the need for power and control. The need to control a woman’s dress, behavior, emotions, and mental state is the desire inherent in both forms of violence. When a man asks a woman for a sexual favor on the street, he views her as an object he can have. Similarly, in cases of domestic violence, abusers objectify their partners in order to assert their dominance.
In public, women may carry pepper spray and rape whistles in their bags, walk faster at night, and ask male companions to accompany them to and from work, while having constant anxiety about being harassed or attacked. At home, women may monitor what the say or how they act—constantly fearing they might trigger their partner’s abusive behavior. Both harassers and abusers isolate women and make them fearful. Harassers instill a fear in women in going outside, while abusers cause them to fear staying home. Combined, they embed vulnerability in women by eliminating security in both private and public settings, as noted by Stop Street Harassment, a non-profit organization.
Because street harassment can have a domino affect, Hollaback! labels it as a gateway crime that can quickly “escalate into other forms of sexual assault and violence.” Hollaback! is an internationally renowned organization that aims to prevent the harassment many women and LGBTQ people experience on a daily basis. Through their Smartphone app and website, the organization encourages women to post stories (and even pictures) of their experiences with street harassment. The stories are then posted to a map so that all viewers can see where “street harassment hotspots” are located in their cities. By empowering women not to put up with harassment in the streets, Hollaback! hopes to “[transform] an experience that is lonely and isolating into one that is sharable”, thereby changing the way we look at all forms of domestic violence.
With street harassment, there is generally more focus put on the victims and the crimes committed than the perpetrators. However, some programs target the source of the harassment: the men. Quentin Walcott is a member of CONNECT, a community center aimed at promoting justice and building safe communities. Through the center, Walcott created a program that attempts to hold “men accountable for the abuse they inflict upon their victims.” In the 2010 “CONNECT Testimony”, Walcott stated that “CONNECT has built a solid foundation of successful men’s programming designed to transform male attitudes towards women, children and other men.” Considering men commit “90% of the reported cases of the violence,” CONNECT is addressing the issue head on and targeting male voices. Through its prevention and intervention workshops with abusive men and informative workshops with young men, CONNECT is combatting street harassment.
While movements like Hollaback! empower women by allowing them to share their experience with street harassment, organizations like CONNECT prevent men from engaging in abusive behavior through education. Although it’s inexcusable that some men’s unsolicited, vulgar remarks cause women to fear going out in public, Hollaback! and CONNECT are slowly making the streets safer by combatting street harassment.