How to stop street harassment: safety and dignity in an urban society
One of the most overlooked issues plaguing women in today’s society is street harassment. How can it be stopped?
Street harassment is a real problem
Unwanted honks from men in cars, wolf-whistles, crude comments, or physical advances made by strangers towards women walking down the street are way too common, and make so many women feel uncomfortable every single day. For someone to be minding her own business and then suddenly have someone invade her thoughts or space by objectifying her is a terrible feeling. She may feel violated. She may feel in danger. She may silently blame herself for wearing a skirt that day, wishing she had worn pants instead. She may feel angry that he felt entitled to her body. Some try to become numb to the comments. Everyone reacts in their own way. But that doesn’t mean that street harassment is okay.
Some frank statistics on street harassment
According to an online research survey collected by the activist organization Stop Street Harassment, in a survey taken by a sample of over a thousand women, over 99% of participants reported that they had experienced street harassment in their lives. Among examples of these situations, 62% of women reported that they had experienced a man trying to block their path, 81% had experienced sexual comments being yelled at them by strangers, and 27% had been assaulted by a stranger in public. More statistics, and information on street harassment, can be found on http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/. So how can we stop this?
Steps to stop street harassment
The main way to truly stop street harassment is through dialogue, and a major change in the social values that normalize treating women as objects. Women and men need to discuss street harassment – why it isn’t okay and why it is a danger that promotes sexual violence. Let it be known that it is never a victim’s fault, and that the length of her skirt doesn’t entitle you to her body. Let it be known that honking a car at a woman because you like the way she looks doesn’t flatter her and instead often scares her. Let it be known that it isn’t acceptable to grab a woman on the street to try to get her to talk to you. Be an ally. If you’re a bystander and see someone else being harassed by a stranger, try to help. Ask if they are okay, or if someone is bothering them. That alone may deter a harasser, or make a victim feel safer. Indirect distractions are also another way to intervene without causing the harasser to become violent or confrontational, such as asking one of them for directions or pretending to know the victim and striking up a conversation. This be a huge difference, and potentially stop the harassment or prevent it from escalating to something even further.
Stop victim blaming
Until then, one can only try to be safe. You cannot control another person’s actions, and it is never your fault. You are not responsible for what comes out of another person’s mouth, and it is hard to prevent those comments. There is a current stigma in our culture that women who wear more revealing clothing are “asking for it” when they are catcalled or harassed, but that is completely false. Is wearing a long black puffy coat, wide-leg work trousers, and ballet flats asking for it? Because women get harassed when they are wearing that too. It is not their fault, and what they are wearing does not grant either invitation or immunity to harassment. However, in terms of personal comfort, sometimes having a jacket or piece of protective clothing does help some women feel less vulnerable when they are walking alone – an attempt at a solution to shield themselves from the violating looks or calls from strangers.
Stopping street harassment in its tracks
So the best thing to do is try to be prepared. Use strong body language to convey that you are tough and do not want to be messed with. Be alert. Be aware of your surroundings. Be particularly aware of any risks for escalation, such as if you suspect that someone is following you. If you believe that someone is following you, try to find a crowded or public place. Turn into a coffee shop, and see if they follow. Ask for someone for help if you need it. Know that in any situation, you can use your voice. If you are approached or someone touches you without your consent, you can call them out on it. Say in a confident, clear, loud voice “Do not touch me” or “Get away from me.” Look them in the eyes, with strong body language, and show them how serious you are. If you are in a crowd with other people around, feel free to draw attention to the harasser to warn others, “Man in the red hat, I do not know you, don’t touch me.” However, Stop Street Harassment’s website recommends not to swear at them or become violent, for this may result in the perpetrator becoming violent.
Be prepared to stop street harassment
Take a self-defense course. Try to avoid unsafe areas, particularly when alone or at night. Traveling with a group is safest. These things may not necessarily prevent catcalls, although sometimes they may help curb them, but a predator is far less likely to approach or assault someone in a group – particularly if a male is present in the group. Furthermore, if you are approached, know that there are some legal options in place for more extreme cases of harassment. Snap a picture on your phone if you can, to provide evidence of the crime. Look up street harassment laws in your state, and see if there any in place. Some states such as Pennsylvania have made it so that following someone, even the first time, is illegal. Some states categorize groping as battery. Know that you do have rights, and that your safety matters. So stay strong, stay alert, and don’t let any of it get you down.