by Erin Riordan
Sometimes as I walk down the street I forget to be cautious, to be constantly aware. I forget to adjust my actions, my motions, and my mannerisms to attract less attention, to blend in more. I forget that public spaces aren’t my own, that I am not safe there, that I need to be on guard.
Last week I was getting brunch with a friend in Dupont. I was in a fantastic mood- I hadn’t seen my friend in a few months and we got to catch up for two hours while eating delicious food. I left the restaurant feeling great, on top of the world. As I walked down the street I had a grin on my face. Then the man on the corner took a step towards me, and grinned back at me saying, “You are so cute. Thank you for your smile honey.”
I recoiled, my smile immediately wiped off my face. In an instant, I felt self-conscious and gross and weird and unhappy. My smile had been totally about me and my experience, but this man made it about him. This man, easily my father’s age or older, had no problem whatsoever with leering at me on the street, and passing judgment on my appearance, my demeanor, and how I was presenting myself to the world. This stranger had no problem establishing ownership over my body, as if it were not my own, but instead some form of public property subject to evaluation by whomever might like to pass judgment, establish ownership, exert power over my body and by extension over me.
The thing is, this is normal. That this instance of street harassment caught me off guard is really what makes this experience stand out. The first time I remember being street harassed I was all of 11 or 12 years old, walking in my neighborhood to the local pool with a friend. We were wearing our bathing suits and carrying towels, and as we walked along the sidewalk a pick-up truck drove by and a grown man leaned out the passenger side window, wolf-whistling and looking back at us as he drove off.
My friend and I were immediately confused. We were both in the midst of going through puberty, uncomfortable with our bodies and not ready to have them sexualized, and certainly not by a stranger on the street. I remember feeling uncomfortable and unsure, and somehow felt very separate from my own body, a stranger in my own skin. I didn’t know how to react, how to respond, how to feel about what had happened. I had no skills for how to handle street harassment, had never been warned that this would happen and would become a regular part of my life.
And street harassment is a regular part of life, and I still struggle to find a response to it. While studies on street harassment are somewhat limited, the best information out there indicates that between 80-99% of women[*] experience street harassment at some point during their lives. This can range from leering, honking a car horn, and whistling, to groping and sexual touching, public masturbation, and, at its very worst, assault. This and other research has indicated that for women and members of the LGBTQ community street harassment is a regular part of everyday life, something that is the norm rather than the exception.
Yet despite the astounding prevalence of street harassment, I have no good response to it. I have never been taught how to handle it, and have no skills or responses that I know to be effective in confronting street harassment. I would love to run up to each man who street harasses me and yell in his face, demand respect, demand dignity and common courtesy, challenge his misogyny and belief that I am less a person and more so an object to comment on. But I never do this. I never feel safe or secure enough, and I am left feeling infuriated and powerless and weak. Street harassment makes me feel that public spaces are not my own, and that when I walk down the street at any moment someone might objectify me, reduce me to an object that gives someone else sexual pleasure or a feeling of power. So instead of confronting it, I walk by, head cast down, hoping to end the situation as quickly as possible.
Conversations with my peers do not make me feel any better about street harassment. Outside of my circle of fabulous feminist friends, so many people dismiss experiences of street harassment. I mentioned one instance to a friend and started to talk about why it bothered me so much, only for her to respond by rolling her eyes and saying, “Oh God, not another one of your feminist rants.” Another time I was speaking with a friend about a man in Safeway who approached me while I was shopping and made inappropriate comments that made me feel uncomfortable. My friend told me that rather than taking offense and feeling disgusted I should have “taken it as a compliment” and “felt validated by it.” Yeah, thanks but no thanks. Street harassment is not validating, it is harassment, and it is a serious issue. By making comments like these and brushing the issue aside, it is devalued and delegitimized. This is part of the process of normalization that allows street harassment to be such a prevalent part of life.
For so many people, and according to statistics especially women and LGBTQ individuals, street harassment reinforces the notion that at any given moment we might be subject to harassment, objectification, threats, stalking, or even violence. Street harassment establishes and reinforces public ownership of women’s bodies. It reinforces the notion that women do not exist for themselves, but for others, namely men (see male gaze). It declares power over women’s bodies so as to disempower women and intimidate them. Street harassment is an expression of misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia. Harassment of LGBTQ individuals can be a means to challenge the legitimacy of LGBTQ identities, and is an attempt to reinforce heteronormative and gendernormative norms. Street harassment is inherently oppressive, and constrains the lives of people experiencing street harassment with consequences including depression, anxiety, PTSD, reduced sense of safety, and reduced access to public spaces. The consequences of street harassment are real, and it is a serious issue.
Beyond that, street harassment is a form of sexual assault, and needs to be acknowledged as such. Many instances of street harassment are microagressions that perpetuate systems and experiences of oppression. Then there are the 20% of women whose experiences of street harassment include assault. It is not unthinkable, and often very easy, for a catcall to escalate to a grope to escalate beyond that, to escalate to rape. This past summer, Liz Gorman, a photographer living in D.C., was walking through Dupont Circle at 3:30 in the afternoon. Seemingly out of nowhere a man rode up behind her on a bicycle, reached his hand under her skirt and inserted a finger through her underwear into her vagina, and raped her. He rode off laughing without a backwards glance.
After sharing her story in a blog post, Liz Gorman received responses from women all across the District indicating they had similar experiences with street harassment. Many other women reported being assaulted by a biker in a similar fashion to Gorman. Other women had experiences of assault that mirrored Gorman’s experience in other ways. Ultimately what this shows is that experiences of sexual assault and street harassment are common, and for many women are tied together. By allowing a culture of street harassment to exist, we normalize and make easier a culture where sexual assault is common and normalized.
The prevalence and acceptance of street harassment is problematic and has serious consequences for everyone, especially women and LGBTQ individuals. There are an increasing number of activist organizations rising up to challenge street harassment and change the culture it exists in. Hollaback! and Stop Street Harassment both do great work that includes research, activism, and awareness, as well as the development of practical tools to help combat street harassment. There is also a Shit Men Say to Men Who Say Shit to Women on the Street video that promotes awareness and encourages men to challenge the behavior of their peers who engage in street harassment. These are all strong examples of actions people can take to combat street harassment and destabilize a system that oppresses so many people, because ultimately it is everyone’s responsibility to not just refuse participation in the practice of street harassment, but when feeling safe, to challenge it as well.
[*] I did not include statistics for how many men or transgender people experience street harassment because I could not locate any statistics that detailed this information.