“We need to change the society that lets street harassment occur”

An op-ed I wrote about street harassment was published today by the Christian Science Monitor. Here is an excerpt, I hope you’ll read the full article!

While the prevalence of street harassment may be new to many men who read or hear about it, it’s not to women. For generations, grandmothers, mothers, aunts, and older sisters have shared tips and advice to girls to try to keep them safe from men: Don’t go out alone after dark. Memorize a fake phone number. Carry mace. Dress conservatively. Ignore them.

But it’s time to go beyond that well-intentioned advice which makes women feel less safe and often doesn’t work. Given how widespread street harassment is, those tips have the effect of limiting women’s access to public spaces. It keeps them on guard, off the streets, and dependent on men as escorts. No country has achieved equality and no country will until women can navigate public places without experiencing or fearing street harassment.

Four key steps

As a first step, everyone must acknowledge that street harassment is not a compliment, a minor annoyance, or a woman’s fault. It’s bullying behavior. The harassment is often directed at teenage girls and young women because it’s assumed they are too young to know what to do or how to respond, especially when the harasser is an older, larger man. And often the harassers are correct.

So, second, we need to give girls and women real help. We need to teach them empowering, assertive responses, self-defense, and how to report harassers. Ignoring and avoiding harassers changes nothing. It is disempowering and limiting.

Third – and perhaps most important – we must focus on potential and current harassers. We have to stop looking the other way or saying “boys will be boys” when we see harassment. Fathers, brothers, uncles, and friends need to stop trying to bond with other men through objectifying, harassing, and raping women. And just because men have the ability to access girls’ and women’s bodies through pornography, strip clubs, mail order brides, and brothels, doesn’t mean that they should.

Organizations like Men Can Stop Rape, the Coaching Boys into Men program at the Family Violence Prevention Fund, and the global Man Up Campaign all focus on healthy definitions of masculinity and teach boys and men how to respect themselves – and women. These initiatives are fantastic and need our support, and we need more organizations like them so we can reach every young man.

Finally, we need to change the society that lets street harassment occur. We must challenge comments, forms of media, and policies that disrespect and discriminate against women. We must challenge all gender-based violence and harassment; it’s all interrelated.

The problem may be massive, but each of us has the power to chip away at it right now. Learn more about street harassment, share a story, talk to someone about it, and find and share strategies for dealing with it and ideas for ending it.

If you care about the current and next generation of girls, if you support equality, if you believe in human decency, then don’t sit by. Do something.

In short, street harassment must end.

2 Responses to “We need to change the society that lets street harassment occur”

  1. Marty Langelan says:

    Congrats on a great op-ed, Holly — this is so clear, and you are so right!

  2. Margaret says:

    Excellent article!

    I think what angers me the most about street harassment is that people are so quick to accept that ‘women shouldn’t walk alone at night’ or ‘talk to strangers’ or basically feel safe in public. This sort of thinking legitimizes bullying and abusive behavior, and succeeds in stating that abusive men deserve to roam the streets with greater freedom than women. It is amazing how deeply-rooted this sort of thinking is. It MUST change.

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