If I were to tell you that there is a population group where 99% of the people in America have suffered harassment in some form, what comes to mind? A smaller minority group? A certain religious organization? A particular sexual orientation? All fair guesses!
But the answer? Women. That’s right. Women in all countries suffer from street harassment – a form of sexual harassment. I just happen to cite a study from the US, but I’m sure the results will play across other countries similarly.
Street harassment is a very under-researched topic, but according to a 2008 study by Stop Street Harassment of 811 women, 99% said they had experienced street harassment in some form upon taking the survey. The breakdown: 25% experienced it by age 12, 90% by age 19, and 99% by the time these women took the survey (only 3 said they never experienced it).
What is street harassment?
Street harassment is any unwanted and unsolicited sexual conversation, gesture, or advancement motivated by gender that invades a person’s emotional or physical space. It includes whistling, leering, honking, vulgar gestures, sexually explicit comments, blocking a person’s path, kissing noises, following, target of public masturbation or flashing, touching, and assault. It is a form of social injustice, as it limits women the same freedoms to enjoy public places with the same peace of mind as their male counterparts.
Now, I realize that men also experience street harassment. I’m not trying to minimize this at all. Women can be guilty of this too. But the frequency of occurrence is stacked more strongly against the men as the aggressors. As a woman, and since this is my blog, I’m going to focus on the women’s perspective and go off of personal experience. (Sorry guys. Feel free to write a blog on the other side of things!)
I also want to state that I don’t put myself under the labels of feminism, and I don’t support misandry. I realize most men don’t condone harassment of women and many step up to defend us from it. I am married and have many great guy friends in my life. Most are just as frustrated with this as I am. When I am speaking to the men in this article, it is to those who either participate in harassment or justify those who do. So, don’t feel that I’m picking on you, guys. You have been my shining knights on several occasions.
What’s the big deal?
Street harassment is probably the most under-reported crime. It is socially accepted in many places. If a woman stands up for herself, she is deemed by others to be too sensitive, not able to take a joke, etc. Women feel societal pressure to keep quiet about something that is clearly uncomfortable to them.
I have experienced sexual harassment all my life in both the street and workplace. It knows no demographic or social class. As a sales rep, I had an instance with a doctor sexually harassing me. I left immediately and reported it to my supervisor, but nothing was done except that I was told I didn’t have to call on him again. As a runner, I have experienced multiple forms of street harassment.
And that’s the problem. We grow up with it. We are taught that, while it isn’t the type of behavior for guys to brag about to mom, it also isn’t a big deal. I will admit, most of my life I have shrugged it off, tried not to listen, and ignored it along with the rest of the world.
However, I had more forceful assaults as I grew older. Experiences that have gone past simple words and led to actions. There is something very haunting about staring into the eyes of someone you know wants to rape you. I have had it happen twice. Once, a guy saw me from the road while I was outside my house from his car, leered at me, drove up my driveway while I retreated into the house, and followed me to my front door. If my 100-pound German Shepherd, who is usually very friendly, had not gotten between us and scared him off, I’m not sure what the outcome would have been as I was home alone in the country. The other time, a man jumped in my car, tried to kiss me, and tried to get me to drive him down a lonely road while he sexually propositioned me. When I refused to drive where he wanted to go and told him to get out of my car, he resisted until I told him we were driving to my husband and he would make sure he got out. We were in a public place with many people walking by, so when he realized I wasn’t going to be an idiot and drive to a secluded location, and that the only driving I would be doing was straight to my husband, he retreated from my car and kept asking for my phone number as I drove away. I have had a man hang on to my car window as I’m driving trying to get me to stop, had men join me as I’m jogging or swimming to try to talk to me (thankfully they were in horrible shape and I soon left them behind), had men grope me in crowded areas where I couldn’t get away, had men drive beside me hanging out their car window, and had all manner of sexual comments come my way when I was walking, running, or biking.
Before the more scary incidents happened, I treated sexual harassment as a mere annoyance. Now that I’ve seen how fragile the line is between men saying things to me and men trying to do things to me, I am even more uncomfortable with unwanted advances. I can’t imagine how women feel who have actually experienced rape and other traumatic assaults.
To sum it up, the big deal is that when women are sexually harassed, they are made to feel like they are a peace of meat parading around for that man’s pleasure. They often feel threatened, demoralized, and objectified. To make it even worse, some men laugh it off as if it’s no big deal, and make anyone who stands up against it feel like they are wrong to feel the way they do. Instead of targeting the real issue – the guys who do this – women are made to feel guilty for expressing any outrage that they are being hollered at like a pole dancer at a strip club. What are we supposed to say, “Thank you?”
Common Excuses I Hear
I’m just giving her a compliment.
Nope, sorry. While some of the things I have heard, in other social situations among friends may be deemed a compliment, a stranger yelling them at me from across the street would not qualify. Other comments I have heard would make a sailor blush. It just makes women uncomfortable when strangers tell them things they should only hear from their lover in the privacy of their home. Now, I realize there are some women who may enjoy the occasional whistle, but for those of us who have seen the uglier side of things going to far, even that causes our stomach to turn. Since you don’t know what a woman’s experiences have been, if you want to make introductions, see if she is receptive to a normal “Good Morning” first before pushing your luck. You guys are smart. You can tell if a women is flirting. When you lead with “Hey Baby,” when you haven’t gotten any signal that she’s remotely interested, most of the time she will be creeped out. And, if she’s in the middle of her workout, she is probably not in the mindset to interact with you anyway. She is used to men yelling at her and the second you open your mouth, she is already on the defensive. Most men who do this know that women don’t like it. Most women, at the very least, give looks of disgust. That very fact should be a clue to even the most socially inept guy to stop the behavior.
I have traveled a lot. This excuse is used in other countries, as well as in the US to describe certain demographics or regions. While bad behavior may be more tolerated, and therefore more prevalent in certain areas or countries, it most certainly isn’t cultural if you believe your culture should interact in civilized society. When I go a bit deeper into the issue and start talking to the local women, I find they don’t like it any more than women anywhere else do. They have just been told to be quiet and let certain men sexually objectify them. They have no where to turn for help, and so they just learn to survive and adapt to bad behavior. Some even follow men’s lead and minimize it due to societal pressure.
She dresses like she’s asking for it. She’s out late, so she must like it.
The way a women dresses or the time of day she decides to go out is her business. She is never asking for it. I realize men are visual, but have some self control. You can’t blame anyone else’s clothing choices or the time of day they are outside for your bad behavior. You make the choice to engage someone, so take responsibility for your own actions vs. blaming the victim of your harassment. I have seen a man walking fully exposed down the side of the road. I had no desire to do anything else but turn away. I realize I’m not a guy, but you certainly won’t have me believe you are so controlled by animalistic instincts where you can’t just keep quiet.
We were just having fun! It’s no big deal! Lighten up!
I’m all for having fun. But the last time I checked, doing so at someone else’s expense was a form of social injustice. There are many instances where people had a great time harassing others: slavery, bullying, hate crimes, etc. Some of these examples, while much more severe, were socially accepted in the past. They may have been deemed normal by the majority of people of that time period, but they were still wrong. Sure, harassment is really fun for the people perpetuating the crime. Having fun isn’t proper justification for suppressing other’s rights to be in a public place in peace. And remember, many women have had traumatic experiences. Once you cross the line of harassment, they don’t know where you will stop. To constantly be on guard or worried for your safety is exhausting and limits a woman’s freedom to go places without fear.
So what can we do about it?
If you are sexually harassed, and can do so without putting yourself in danger, let your feelings be known. Tell them it is not something that is o.k. The more women who speak up, the less tolerated this will become. The more men who stop their peers from thinking that it is normal, the faster it gets resolved.
Speak first and be strong.
This is not a foolproof method, but I found I got much worse harassment when I completely ignored the men. In my personal experience and from talking with other women, this targets the main reason guys do it – to be noticed or interact. If I am already getting the full-body stare and I know the guy is about to say something, I try to initiate contact first with a greeting. When this happens, I notice them before any harassment is needed to get my attention, and the guy is more likely to fall into a more polite social exchange. This doesn’t always eliminate the harassment, but it does make it more tolerable. I am usually just given a more forward compliment or asked for my number, but the more disturbing comments stay locked behind his cranium and away from my ears. When I ignore him, the comments are usually much worse.
Walk or run in groups.
This is where I have messed up in the past. When I get slower or out of shape, I tend to run alone as I don’t like to hold others up and feel embarrassed about my slower pacing. However, running alone means I am more of a target for sexual harassment. I’ve learned I need to put aside my pride and find people in my target pacing group. When I am with other women, the comments are much less frequent, and when there is a guy in the group, they are all but eliminated. Plus, I get to make new friends! There is always strength in numbers!
If possible, change your route.
While this doesn’t always work, it can help in certain places. When in the US, I love to run in retirement golf communities, public parks, or on nature trails. If I run through downtown with more foot traffic, my chance of harassment goes up. However, be careful. Deserted roads, while they may offer less sexual harassment, have their own dangers. If you come across the wrong guy and help is far away, sexual harassment will be the least of your worries.
Be mindful of what you wear.
While what you wear is NEVER a justification for men’s poor behavior, you have to understand that they may not know that. You will get more unwanted attention with more revealing clothing. While it’s not fair, it’s just a fact of life.
Change the time you go out.
I have found that running very early in the morning has greatly reduced the amount of call outs I get. The less people that are out, the less chance you have to come across the type of guy to do this.
Some other suggestions I have gotten, but haven’t felt the need to implement, are to cut my hair short and dye it a different color. The above tips have greatly reduced the street harassment I get, so I haven’t decided to go more drastic and change my appearance. It is sad we have to deal with this at all, but I would rather make a few changes to minimize unpleasant interactions than be subjected to them constantly.
The Take Away
The main point I want you to take away from this article is that when you minimize the issue of street and sexual harassment, you further empower the people engaging in this form of social injustice and you devalue the victims of it. I realize part of the reason it is still so accepted is that the entertainment industry is guilty of making light of it and perpetuating the myth that all women like it. This issue won’t change unless enough people step up and speak up. Here is a great site with a list of companies that trivialize street harassment. Feel free to contact them if you agree it is wrong of them to do so.
And men, if you are about to say something to a strange woman, run it through this filter for me, please. If you have a daughter, girlfriend, or wife, would you want some stranger to say it to them? If you’re not at that life stage yet, would you still be able to say it if the woman’s father or boyfriend were there without upsetting them? If the answer is “No, or I’m not sure,” then don’t say it. And, if a woman is trying to work out, don’t yell at her. Let her run in peace. Running is that time of my day that I want to relax. I promise you, anything you yell at me is an intrusion.
Now, I want to hear from you! Please, ladies or men who have helped women through this, feel free to give me your ideas on what you have found to stop street harassment. I’m always learning new ways to handle this! I would love to hear your ideas, but I would ask that you refrain from generalizing certain demographics, countries, people groups, or regions. Keep the locations of where this occurred to yourself, as I don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes. Any comments containing references like this will be edited or not approved at all.
This is a problem everywhere, but solutions can also be found when everyone comes together to stand against this most accepted form of social injustice. Everyone deserves the right to be able to go anywhere they want without fear of devaluing comments or actions. Let’s all do our part to make this dream a reality.