Happy 30th anniversary, street harassment

March 31, 2011

Sometimes it can feel like street harassment activism is new, that the problem is new. But it’s not. Email, online articles, blogging, tweeting, and texting help us hear about it, talk about it, share our stories and help amplify our voices, but it’s something activists have addressed for decades.

For example, as early as 1909, many individuals, including those at the Women’s Municipal League, proposed women-only cars during rush hour on the New York City subway. They thought sex segregation would “assure that women were not forced to cope with ‘the fearful crushes,’ and with sexual insults, and that they would not have to safeguard themselves from men’s sexual aggression.”

The women-only subway cars did not come to pass but a few years later, once there female police officers, one of their duties was to look out for sexual harassers on the subway and streets. And of course today, there are anti-sexual harassment PSAs on the NYC subway thanks to pressure from groups like New Yorkers for Safe Transit.

I first saw the term street harassment in 2006 on the sites of The Street Harassment Project and HollaBack NYC. It’s especially surprising I’d never heard or read the term before since one of my majors as an undergraduate was women’s studies and my master’s program was in public policy and women’s studies. I was well versed in gender violence issues like rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, and sexual harassment in the workplace, but I hadn’t heard the term before or even a discussions about it even though now I know street harassment happens at a more frequent rate for women and girls than sexual harassment in the workplace or schools.

Was that because it’s a new term?


During my research for my thesis and then my book on street harassment, I was surprised to learn that the term had been around since at least 1981. Anthropologist Micaela di Leonardo wrote the article “Political Economy of Street Harassment” for Aegis Magazine on Ending Violence Against Women that year. When I asked her about the origin of the term, she said it came out of the rape crisis movement in the late 1970s and that, to her knowledge, (and to mine, after years of research) she was the first one to use it in a printed publication.

When I read her article, I was upset and a bit disheartened: thirty years later, her article is 100 percent relevant. Someone who didn’t know when it was published and read it may think it was a current article.

Pockets of activists have been working on this issue for decades, but street harassment still occurs, it’s largely socially acceptable, it’s not widely discussed, and its occurrence is frequently blamed on women when it is discussed.

On the other hand, had there not been activists working to address street harassment for decades, I shudder to think how much worse the problem would be today. Thanks to them, at least there is a name for the problem, there are articles and books and documentaries and a growing number of activists and people speaking out. Our work today builds on the work of women and men from decades ago. As frustrating as it is to realize we are fighting the same battles, thank goodness they started the battles instead of just letting it go.

On this, the last day of Women’s History Month, on the 30th anniversary of the first publication of the term street harassment, I encourage you all to read “Political Economy of Street Harassment” (it’s only six pages).

Let the article remind you how long women have been speaking out on this issue. And let it inspire you to speak out and to do MORE. To use technology to your advantage. To use your voice to your advantage. To keep working to change the social acceptability of street harassment and taking action in our communities to end it.

As I continue to battle on, I hope that street harassment will become so socially unacceptable that by 2041, no one reads articles and blogs from 2011 and thinks, wow, how relevant, this could have been written today. Let’s work together to get there.

48 hours of harassment in Budapest

March 31, 2011

This weekend was a special one for sexual harassment. In the past 48 hours, all of the following have happened to me:

1) A group of man make kissing noises at a woman in a skirt. I am with my friends and (not too loudly) say, “Oh wow. A woman in a skirt. Never seen one before.” The men harass and follow us for a block.

2) I am walking with a male friend. A young man walks up to us and asks my friend if I am his girlfriend. Male friend says no. Upon realizing that I am un-owned, young man turns to me and says, “Hey Bitch. Can I cum on your face?” I stop walking, look him in the eye and say loudly and seriously, “What the fuck did you just say to me? That is not funny. It is NOT funny.” He walks away.

3) I get off a public tram in the middle of the afternoon. A man scans me up and down. I tell him to fuck off. He follows me down the street towards my house. I turn, stomp my foot and scream in his face: “WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU? YOU NEED TO GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM ME NOW!” He shrugs and walks around me. I have to stop and wait for him to pass my house so I can go home safely. The street was full of people. Not a single person said anything at all.

Did I defend myself? I guess. Did it affect any of these idiots? Doubt it. But I shouldn’t have to do anything. I shouldn’t have to weigh defense against ruining my evening by making a public scene. I have a life that is mine and it goes outside. How dare anyone try to scare me back into my chilly apartment?

And by the way, I live in Europe. And I was wearing long pants and two sweaters in all of these incidents.

– Whitney

Location: Budapest, Hungary

Share your street harassment story today and help raise awareness about the problem. Find suggestions for what YOU can do about this human rights issue

“This guy then ran after me and chased me”

March 31, 2011

Last August I was walking home after a gig and as I live in Manchester City Centre I’d always been comfortable walking home on my own as its fairly busy. Sometimes you’d get wolf whistles or lewd comments from groups of men, but nothing that made me feel threatened.

Then last August, as I said, I was walking home from a gig when I got to Market St, which is close to where I live in the Northern Quarter. It was midnight so not as busy as during the day but still a fair few people around so thought I’d be ok, as I had been hundreds of times beforehand.

I’d just got to where the escalators from the foodcourt area, and I noticed this guy who was hanging around the seats near the escalators. I had a bad feeling in my tummy about this guy so I put my head down and quickened my pace. He seemed to notice me and pick on me as he came over and looked at me, I’ll never forget that look in his eyes, he was psycho! He obviously could tell I was intimidated and he said, “Run love, run” and I did. I always thought if i was in a situation like that I would stand up for myself but in reality I was terrified and just ran.

This guy then ran after me and chased me all the way up Market Street. When I got to High Street I had to stop to get my breath and I thought he had got bored but he hadn’t and he was chasing me still. So I ran along High Street and it was only that I bumped into someone I knew who walked me to my building that he didn’t catch up with me. What freaked me out even more is that about half an hour later, i was watching out of my bedroom window and I saw him cross the road in front of my building.

The incident really freaked me out and I’m still having anxiety problems related to this.

– Katie

Location: Manchester City Centre, United Kingdom

Share your street harassment story today and help raise awareness about the problem. Find suggestions for what YOU can do about this human rights issue

Men Can Stop Rape…Men Can Stop Street Harassment

March 30, 2011

Joe Vess speaks at the Stop Street Harassment book event at GWU in 2010

In a way, I owe street harassment a lot. It’s never done anything personally for me, and I’d eliminate it in a second if I could, but I really should acknowledge my debt to it, in full disclosure. Here’s the story.

Seven years ago I was living in Chicago, as oblivious to harassment and other forms of violence against women as I always had been. Sure, I knew it happened, and it was bad, so I didn’t harass anyone or rape anyone. So that made me a pretty good guy.

Around that time I was dating someone, and as things got more serious and we shared more and more about our lives with each other. She started telling me about how when she would go out running in the morning, or the afternoon, or on the weekends, she would get shouted at or whistled at or guys would say something to her. And she didn’t like it; in fact it made her really angry.

I was a little puzzled when I started hearing these stories, and my confusion stemmed from a few things. One, I’d never been harassed so I didn’t have a frame of reference. I’d never experienced it and never worried about it happening to me, so it ranked somewhere around lion attacks (not a huge problem in Chicago) on my worry list. Two, it seemed isolated to me. I didn’t connect it to other forms of violence against women, so even though it happened to her regularly I didn’t think about the threat of it as yet ANOTHER thing she had to deal with on a daily basis, along with the threat of physical violence, harassment, discrimination and more.

What my 2004 self could have used was a primer on understanding harassment and why it’s a problem; I didn’t have one, but I hope these points below will help us as men understand the issue a bit more, help us better challenge harassment when they see it, and better support women in our lives who are harassed.

It’s not about you, #1: One of the most common things I hear from men when we talk about harassment is that “it wouldn’t bother me.” That’s not the point, because it’s not directed at you, it’s directed at women. Whether or not it bothers you, or even bothers all women (because the other thing I hear is “some women like it”), is irrelevant. It definitely bothers many, many women and, if it bothers a woman you care about and who matters to you, isn’t that enough? Because we don’t get to choose who it happens to; the next person could be our friend or mother, sister or girlfriend, daughter or niece.

It’s part of a bigger problem: Even if you don’t think sexual harassment is a big issue, maybe you think rape is a big issue, or stalking, or domestic violence. It’s important to remember that they’re all related. Men who degrade women and treat them like objects in one context, such as walking down the street, often degrade women and treat them like objects in other settings.

The other part of it is that for women, harassment is merely one of the most visible parts of an iceberg of violence and the threat of violence they have to deal with daily, so don’t minimize it. Sexual harassment seemed weird and isolated to me, but because I always thought about it in isolation. I didn’t think, “what if that happened to me a couple of times a day, every day, my whole life,” which is the proper context for it.

It’s not about you, #2: Another thing I hear from men is this plea: “what if we just want to talk with a woman, to ask her out, to strike up a conversation with her?” My response is to ask, “Why do we as men assume that we have the right to just go around complimenting random women or talking with them?” Maybe she doesn’t want to talk with us for any number of a million reasons, all of which are perfectly valid and none of our business.

If you want to compliment random women, sign up for speed dating. Harassment is never about complimenting women, and it never has been. You may respond, “But I’m not trying to bother her, just be complimentary.” In that case, see above; it doesn’t matter what your intent is, it matters how what you do is received by her. This can be hard for us as men to hear, but intent doesn’t matter in this case.

There are things you can and should do: Since sexual harassment is often visible and public, it’s really easy for men to challenge it and take action to end it. Some basic things you can do are:

  • Don’t do it. Simple and easy. Most guys already don’t though, so luckily there’s more we CAN do if you’ve already got this one down.
  • Don’t laugh or go along with harassment when your friends or others do it. Harassment is often just as much a demonstration for other men. If someone harasses a woman and looks to you for validation, don’t laugh or smile in support. Instead…
  • Call out and challenge others who do harass women. If it’s your friends, tell them that you’re not ok with harassing women and that it bothers you. Tell them they can’t do it if you’re around. If it’s a stranger, tell him it’s not ok and he should stop. Or call the police or report it to the proper authorities; harassment is a crime.
  • Talk with the women in your life. Ask them about their experiences with harassment and how it affects them. And ask how you can be supportive as they deal with it. Don’t joke, minimize, or tell them to ignore or get over it, but be empathetic. It can make all the difference.

Think about it this way; you’ve been handed a great opportunity to not only improve the lives of women you care about (and others you don’t even know), but you’ve also got a chance to help some other men unlearn bad habits. Take advantage of it, and see what a difference it makes.

[En español, escrito por MariaLujan Tubio]

By Joe Vess
Director of Training and Technical Assistance, Men Can Stop Rape

Men Can Stop Rape is an international organization that mobilizes men to use their strength for creating cultures free from violence, especially men’s violence against women. Since its inception in 1997, MCSR has led the call to redefine masculinity and male strength as part of preventing men’s violence against women. For more information, please see www.mencanstoprape.org

This post is part of the weekly blog series by male allies. We need men involved in the work to end the social acceptability of street harassment and to stop the practice, period. If you’d like to contribute to this weekly series, please contact me.

“Cultural machismo in Latino communities”

March 30, 2011

I would grow frustrated and nervous to walk to and from school as a high schooler, in the early 2000s. I would best describe myself, then, as a very conservatively dressed and studious Latina usually wearing a large backpack, casual jeans, my hair tied in a pony tail, and a baggy sweater to hide my large breasts. On a daily basis I would get cat-calls at least twice a day by much older Latino men who took the time to role down their driver’s side window, slow down street traffic, hang out of their truck or car, just to whistle or say, “Hey, mamasita!” All I wanted to do was flash my middle finger, but I was honestly too scared to do such a thing, not knowing what that man may do to me and also because I would usually walk by myself.

What disgusted me the most was the fact that a Latino man, that could have been my father’s age, felt the urge to address me in such a way that was abusive and clearly lacking any human dignity or respect. Because of my experience with constant verbal abuse in public spaces I felt certain that I would one day get kidnapped and raped. Fortunately, that never happened to me.

I am happy that today I no longer live in Southeast Los Angeles, specifically in the city of Cudahy, but I fear for those young girls and women who continue to interface (and some who accept) c

The questions I would pose to all those Latino boys and men are: Why do you think it is okay to cat-call or whistle at a female? Would you do that to your sister, mother, tia, grandmother or family friend?

– Anonymous

Location: Clara Street, Cudahy, CA

Share your street harassment story today and help raise awareness about the problem. Find suggestions for what YOU can do about this human rights issue