Hey you, yeah you, have you heard about the coolest trend on the streets for men? Well if you haven’t, you better get in the know. For all those in the dark, it’s called street harassment (SH). Yep you got it-street harassment, targeted at women. For this post I am going explore the very nature of street harassment and just how cool it can be for everyone. Why don’t I first begin by explaining my first encounter with street harassment. I came into contact with SH around the age of 15 or so. I was living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin at the time and was quickly walking on my way to the 15 bus stop, when this older man maybe 45 or 50 years old stopped (more like hassled) me kindly and asked “Hey beautiful, why the frown? why don’t you smile, otherwise you’re going to get wrinkles on your face when you get older?” So I smiled back and thought what the heck, why not? I didn’t want to compromise my looks for those awesome old men. My so called beauty had been validated and my self-esteem had risen. Everyone lucked out on those street encounters. Back then street harassment didn’t seem so bad. The usual “Hey baby, what’s your name, can I get your number didn’t seem so harmful. But now as I grow older and have moved to Chicago, I go out in public more and I tend to hear more explicit remarks. For example when I ride by bike, I hear comments such as “Hey baby, can I get a ride with you?” or better yet “Damn baby, I wish I was that bike seat.” As of now, I can’t even ride my bike down my block without hearing a whistle or a smooching noise.
If you have not guessed by now, street harassment is not cool. In fact, it is against the law. It is a violation of personal space, essentially, one’s privacy. Street harassment has many defining behaviors gestures and comments but I believe that Cynthia Grant Bowman’s article “Street Harassment and the Informal Ghettoization of Women” defines it best by stating that it has defining characteristics:
(1) the targets of street harassment are females;
(2) the harassers are male;
(3) the harassers are unacquainted with their targets;
(4) the encounter is face to face;
(5) the forum is a public one such as sidewalk, bus, taxi;
(6) the content of the speech, if any, is not intended as public discourse.
She also notes of this working definition, offered by anthropologist Micaela di Leonardo:
“Street harassment occurs when one or more strange men accost one or more women… in a public place which is not the woman’s/women’s worksite. Through looks, words, or gesture the man asserts his right to intrude on the woman’s attention, defining her as a sexual object, and forcing her to interact with him”
As stated above, it is against the law as defined by Pennsylvania’s statute and comparable in ten other states, a person commits a summary offense when, with intent to harass, annoy or alarm another person:
(1) he strikes, shoves, kicks, or otherwise subjects him to physical contact, or attempts or threatens to do the same; or
(2) he follows a person in or about a public place or places; or
(3) he engages in a course of conduct or repeatedly commits acts which alarm or seriously annoy such other person and which serve no legitimate purpose
However, Bowman notes that many judiciaries (male) do not prosecute accused defendants on these charges simply because such incidents are too frequent for a justice system to handle them efficiently.
This is the result of society’s general acceptance of street harassment. Many people view or rather argue that when a man approaches a woman and and says sexually suggestive things or talks to her about her attractiveness she should take it as a compliment. But in actuality, it is not about complimenting one on their beauty. It is about power and control. Street Harassment detracts from women’s freedom. According to Bowman, when women are constantly harassed in public they hear the implicit (and sometimes explicit) message that women do not belong in public, where they draw more attention by their mere appearance, but rather in the private sphere, at home. She goes on to further argue that analysts have concluded that the intent of street harassers is to remind women of their gender identity in order to keep them in their private spaces and reinforce gender hierarchy. She concludes that street harassment has serious consequences for women and society. It psychologically disempowers women, which creates distrust between men and women, while reinforcing rigid gender roles, hierarchy, and the confinement of women to the private sphere.
I have become so fed up with my harassers and their intentions to keep me in my ‘place’ that I have begun to spit in their direction if I see one oogling or catcalling at me from a distance. To a certain extent this indirect action empowers me when men turn their heads away. I have also decided to take more direct action by writing up business cards that explain in great detail why it is harmful for them to stare and make sexually suggestive comments towards women and then hand them out when I catch one in the act. Hopefully this will encourage constructive dialogue between me and my harassers and between them and the harasser’s friends.
Until society’s general view of women as sexual objects for men’s pleasure is changed women, will always be seen as the lesser sex, always getting the short end of the stick in society. In order for that view to change though, a serious shift in the legal system will have to take place and that will only happen if more people are aware of street harassment and it’s psychological consequences and when more women become apart of the judicial system. Start talking and campaigning people.