On Women’s Equality Day, Americans celebrate the rights women have gained. Since the passage of the 19th amendment 90 years ago, women can vote, attend any institution of higher education, enter every job field, participate in all sports, own property, control when and if to have children, and run for president. I am grateful for these rights. I also feel a responsibility to help women gain additional basic rights as we strive for full equality.
Earlier this month I received a disturbing story for my blog Stop Street Harassment. A female employee said that male customers regularly sexually harass her at a retail store in Vicksburg, Mississippi. When men began following her to her car, she felt so unsafe she bought a taser. Her manager refused to act so she plans to quit her job to move near her family.
In another recent story submitted to my blog, a woman from Chicago, Illinois, shared how a group of young men on the sidewalk surrounded her as she walked to the subway. They made sexually explicit comments, hissed in her ear, and one groped her buttock. She says these kinds of encounters impact her clothing choices, commuting routes, and the time of day she leaves her home. She wrote, “I feel as though the right to walk freely in public spaces is one I’ve been denied.”
Until women don’t have to move, change jobs, or plan their travel routes, as the Vicksburg and Chicago women and countless others have had to do, because of male harassment and the threat of male assault, women will never achieve full equality. Public places will never be safe and welcoming for women as long as men make sexual and sexist comments, whistle, leer, stalk, masturbate at, and grope them there.
Formal and informal studies show that no matter their age, sexual orientation, race, class, dis/ability, or body type, most women experience this kind of harassment, termed street harassment. This includes 100 percent of women in a 1995 Indianapolis study, 100 percent of women in a 2000 California Bay Area study, and 99 percent of women in an informal online survey I conducted in 2008.
In lieu of laws or societal concern about their plight, women practice scores of strategies at different times to avoid harassment and assault. From my informal survey of 811 women I found that on at least a monthly basis, 37 percent consciously try to wear clothes they think will attract less attention, 46 percent avoid being out at night, and 49 percent change routes on at least a monthly basis. Almost all women practiced these and other strategies at least a few times. Most alarming, just like the woman in Vicksburg, 19 percent have moved neighborhoods because of harassers, and nine percent have changed jobs because of harassers near their workplace or along their commute.
Disappointingly, aside from a few local governments, activist groups, and feminists, American leaders and citizens are doing nothing about this widespread problem. Unlike public harassment motivated by racism or homophobia, harassment motivated by sexism is treated as a joke, a compliment, or a trivial annoyance and women may be blamed for “causing” it. Songs like Katy Perry’s “Starstrukk,” Allstate insurance’s woman jogger mayhem commercial, and Facebook groups like “Grab An Ass Day” reflect these attitudes. This must change if we want gender equality.
I suggest American government leaders and activists learn from other countries’ recent efforts to end street harassment and take their own action. In Cairo, Egypt, Parliament is considering an anti-sexual harassment law that would include public spaces. In Delhi, India, the government and NGOs are conducting studies of different areas of the city to find out what makes women feel unsafe so they can address those issues. This summer local activists and the government of Wales sponsored “One Step Too Far,” a television ad about sexual harassment in public and at work aimed at men that aired during the World Cup.
Can you imagine the positive impact of these or similar initiatives if they were implemented in the United States? The very act of national leaders acknowledging street harassment to be a problem would lead to crucial change.
The responsibility for ending street harassment also lies with each of us. At an individual level, we can all talk and learn about street harassment because problems that are ignored stay problems. We can stand up for women being harassed and report harassers, teach boys to respect women, and empower girls to know how to deal with harassers. And crucially, men who harass women need to stop.
I hope that before another 90 years pass all women can safely enter, use, and enjoy public spaces. Only then can we hope to achieve gender equality. On Women’s Equality Day, let’s all commit to do our part.