Friday, September 9, 2011

Ditch Your Love Hate Relationship With Street Harassment

This post is a part of my “Out of the Kitchen” weekly column at The Progressive Playbook in which various news and pop culture items will be examined through a feminist lens.

“Hey girl, you look good.”

They’re pretty innocent words, and most women have heard at some point in their lives. There is a certain risk in “walking while woman.” This risk is called street harassment. Street harassment, as explained by Hollaback!

is one of the most pervasive forms of gender-based violence and one of the least legislated against. Comments from “You’d look good on me” to groping, flashing and assault are a daily, global reality for women and LGBTQ individuals. But it is rarely reported, and it’s culturally accepted as ‘the price you pay’ for being a woman or for being gay.

The fact of the matter, however, is that if you ask some women how they feel about the comments they receive, there is an inherent love/hate relationship. In many circumstances, it can be sort of nice to have someone holler at you, tell you that you’re hot, or ask for your number.

However, there is a point where each person feels that a line has been crossed into unacceptable advances.

I’m not talking about being at a bar and sharing in mutual flirtation or friendly banter at the bus stop. Most of us know inherently what is innocent and what is problematic. Sometimes you feel it in your gut when the situation just isn’t right and begins to feel a bit threatening. Other times, there is absolutely no question when the line is crossed.
That was the case for Jenna Sauers over at Jezebel who recently wrote about a terrifying experience in a subway tunnel. A man masturbated in public, for her to see, for over 10 minutes. She called NYPD but it appears that no one ever came. Her story is a great example of how problematic street harassment is. She wrote,
Women are taught so many messages about how we need to behave in order to “prevent” sexual assault and sexual harassment in public spaces. How we need to look, how we need to dress, how we need to walk, how we need to make ourselves small and unremarkable, how we need to anticipate the behavior of others, how we must not “attract” the wrong kind of attention. Even though I resent that these messages fundamentally imply that women bear responsibility for insuring sexual assault does not occur, I still, almost in spite of myself, take all of these things into account when I get dressed and when I go out in public. To have already engineered your behavior to meet the threat of assault and then to still face criminal harassment just feels like an added injustice.
Like I mentioned, Jenna’s case is extreme. But when you really think about it, all street harassment is a problem. There is no reason that a woman shouldn’t be able to pass through her city or neighborhood without hearing lewd comments about her body or be subjected to groping from strange people on public transportation. That’s a huge violation of one’s autonomy, but oftentimes we accept it as a fact of life. This mindset must be reversed. No person, regardless of their gender, race, sexual identity, ability, or another other identifier should be afraid to simply exist in public streets. And the truth is that it is the same culture that normalizes more innocent comments which creates extreme situations like Jenna’s. So…what can we do? There are a few easy steps to help end street harassment:

1) Don’t participate in it! (Pretty simple, indeed.) This mean agreeing to not make unsolicited comments at others. We, as women, must also end our love/hate relationships with cat calls. Despite the momentary flattery associated with some street harassment, you’ve got to remember the bigger picture is much more scary. When you feel that you are able, do not passively accept these comments as sweet talk.

2) Hollaback for yourself. If you have a run in with street harassment (and even if you don’t and you just want to learn more!) check out their website. There you can share your story, pictures, and experiences. Hollaback! is using 21st century technology to create a crowd-sourced initiative to end street harassment. They’ve got some pretty great stuff going on over there. I would wager that most women have their own story of “walking while woman” and can see that there is a big difference between our experience in the streets and our male friends and family members’.

It’s about time for a culture shift, because as Hollaback! says, “Sexual harassment is a gateway crime that creates a cultural environment that makes gender-based violence OK.” If you don’t believe me, go back and read Jenna’s piece again.

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