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.