It’s Friday, and we all know what that means! Interviews with your favorite badass feminists and activists. Whether social media queens and kings, creative artists, sex educators, or just kick-ass personalities, these people harness righteous anger, instigate movements and inspire culture change. We’re here to honor them and their work, but more importantly, to highlight how we can all get up, plug in, and Just Start Doing.
So without further ado…
Here’s anti-street harassment expert Holly Kearl .
Holly is the program manager at the women’s equity nonprofit the American Association of University Women. She is also the founder of the website stopstreetharassment.com and author of the book Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women. She regularly gives talks and writes articles about street harassment and recently founded the First Annual Anti-Street Harassment Day, on March 20, the First Day of Spring.
Let’s start off by defining street harassment – What is it and why should we care? How many people are affected? Who is affected and who’s doing the harassing?
Street harassment is sexual harassment that happens between strangers in public places. Most women everywhere in the world have experienced street harassment, commonly in the form of whistling, kissing noises, vulgar gestures, leering, unsolicited comments about your appearance, sexist or sexually explicit comments, demands for sex, blocking your path, following, masturbation or flashing, groping, and purposely rubbing up against someone in a sexual way. Street harassment can escalate to rape. In some cases, it’s escalated to murder.
There aren’t enough studies on the prevalence of street harassment, but the studies that exist show it impacts anywhere from 80 to 100 percent of women. I conducted informal online survey of 811 women from 23 countries and 45 US states and found that 99 percent reported experiencing forms of street harassment.
Gender-based sexual harassment in public spaces is largely perpetrated by men against women. While some women on occasion may harass men in public, gender inequality means that the power dynamics at play, frequency of the harassment, and the underlying threat of rape is rarely comparable. For these reasons, I primarily focus my work on men harassing women, though I certainly don’t believe anyone should have to face unwanted attention from strangers in public. While public harassment motivated by racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, or classism— types of deplorable harassment which men can be the target of and sometimes women perpetrate—is recognized as socially unacceptable behavior, men’s harassment of women motivated by gender and sexism is not. Instead it is portrayed as complimentary, a joke, “only” a trivial annoyance, or women’s fault because of what they were wearing or the time of day they were in public. One of my goals is to change the social acceptability of gender-based street harassment. Despite what the larger society thinks, this kind of harassment has a very real impact on women’s lives by reducing their sense of safety and comfort in public and thus influencing them to limit their time in public.
How did you get started in street harassment research and education? Was there a specific experience – personal, academic or professional – that confirmed your passion for this work?
While researching a master’s thesis topic I read about a new website called HollaBackNYC that encouraged women to share their stories about street harassment online. I had never heard the term street harassment before, but I immediately recognized it from my own life. In public places, men I do not know have honked and whistled at me, made sexually explicit comments, followed me, and one man even grabbed me sexually when I was on the street. In college, I experienced this type of harassment daily. I rarely talked about it and hadn’t made the connection that it was a form of gender violence
When I wrote my thesis, I found almost no books on the topic, so, a year after I turned it in, at the suggestion of my parents, I decided to start writing a book to help fill that gap. Each time I receive stories from women for my blog or when a woman shares her story in person, they reconfirm my passion for this work. Often it is their first time talking about street harassment, sharing their stories, and finding validation for being upset about what happened, and they remind me why this work is necessary. And each time I face harassment or one of my friends or family members does, it reminds me on a very personal level why this work matters and is important
As a street harassment expert, have you had any experiences or discussions or learned something that really surprised you about this subject?
Last month I came across a report on the website of the U.S. Department of Transportation that talked about how as early as 1909 people were advocating for women-only cars on the new transit system in New York City because of men harassing and soliciting women. I suspected that harassment on public transportation was nothing new, but it still surprised me. More than 100 years later, men harassing women on the New York City subway system is still a huge issue and that is why anti-harassment PSAs launched in 2008. But clearly we need to do more.
What are the consequences of street harassment, immediate or long term, on both a personal level and a broader community level?
The consequences of street harassment are actually quite serious. The more often a woman experiences harassment, or the scarier her experiences, the more likely it is she will take preventative actions like avoiding going near the place it occurred, avoiding being out alone at night, altering what she wears, and generally distrusting men that approach her. On the extreme end, I found that some women move neighborhoods because of harassers (almost 20 percent in my survey) and change jobs because of harassers along the commute (almost 10 percent of the women in my survey). Street harassment results in women limiting their time in public spaces and limiting their access to the resources there. Scholar Cynthia Grant Bowman calls this the “informal ghettoization of women” to the home. Women will never achieve gender equality with men as long as harassment keeps them from having that equal access to public places.
What do you think are the root causes of street harassment? What aspects of our culture facilitate or condone this behavior?
Some of the root causes for street harassment include societal disrespect for women, the objectification of women, and unhealthy definitions of masculinity that encourage men to harass not only women but also other men, particularly men who do not seem to adhere to traditional definitions of masculinity. The media truly is a prime example of this — from marketers that use women’s bodies to sell products, to industries that value women’s looks more than their brains or talents, to commercials that tell men what “real men” do or don’t do.
I also see a lot of reinforcement of these ideas from generation to generation. From older women or mothers who tell girls that the harassment is a compliment or that they should just learn to avoid it or ignore it, to men who harass women in front of their sons or try to bond with sons or younger brothers over objectifying and harassing women. Over and over, I encounter people who believe street harassment is a compliment and this really reinforces street harassment, silences women who experience it, and give men a free pass to continue to do it.
In my experience, street harassment can be a really scary and dehumanizing experience. It’s also really frustrating because it happens so abruptly and we’re so conditioned to keep to ourselves in public spaces, it’s hard to know how to react safely and effectively at the time harassment occurs. What can victims do to counteract harassment and reclaim power? Can you recommend some strategies for our readers?
At minimum, it’s really important for targets of harassment to recognize that it’s not our faults and that nothing we’ve said or done is causing the harassment. This is a societal problem. Recognizing it’s something most women deal with can inspire, enrage, and empower us to do something about it.
In general, thinking about something you can say or do that challenges the behavior of the harasser in a non-violent, non-aggressive way (no insults or profanity because that is more likely to escalate the situation) works well. Turning what the person said into a joke, simply telling them to stop or back off, asking them how they would feel if a man treated his sister/mother/girlfriend/wife/daughter that way, or announcing to people around you what he just did are all examples of what to say.
Also, if the person works for an identifiable company, report them to their company! I’ve read several success stories from women who have reported construction workers or delivery truck drivers and the harassment stopped. And if you’re on a bus or subway, report the harasser to the driver or transit manager. I’ve also received several success stories where harassers are kicked off the bus or told to leave the subway car.
Are there opportunities for victims to pursue legal action against street harassers, here in the United States or elsewhere around the world? Are there any individuals or organizations working to make this happen?
Yes, often if the harassment is extreme enough that it makes you fear for your safety or fear attack, depending on the state or city laws, you can press charges for public harassment. The limitation is that this usually requires repeated harassment and threatening behavior. Also, since there are often laws against public lewdness, if someone flashes or masturbates on you, you can report it. And if someone gropes you or assaults you, then you can report it under assault charges.
On an international level:
- The Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights is working with members of parliament to pass a new anti-sexual harassment law that would include harassment occurring in public spaces.
- In Delhi, India, there is a law that encompasses a lot of street harassment behaviors. Since January, police have been cracking down on harassers (“eve-teasers,” as they call them). During the second week of January, I read that they arrested 26 harassers in one area for “passing lewd remarks at women.” There have been a lot of suicides among young women in Bangladesh because of street harassment. In response, last year the police started actually enforcing a law that encompasses street harassment behavior, and last spring the first harassers were arrested under it.
- Since last spring, the UK Anti-Street Harassment Campaign (ASH) is lobbying politicians to take on the issue of street harassment and pass better laws.
What can our readers do to stop street harassment and prevent it from happening in the first place? What can men do to support efforts to end street harassment?
It’s so important to break the silence on this topic, so just talking about it, sharing stories, and sharing strategies is essential. Talking specifically to young women or young men you know is really important in preventative work: let them know what is or is not acceptable and teach them how they can respond in an empowering way so they do not feel victimized.
In my book and on my website I really break down what we can do into four main categories: educating men, empowering women, raising awareness in our communities, and creating anti-street harassment campaigns.
Men can learn about this issue from the women they care about. Ask a woman what experiences she’s had and how they have impacted her life. Men can be good bystanders when they see harassment occurring, though it’s important to use non-violent, low aggression tactics rather than inadvertently escalating the situation. And, most important but also the most difficult, they can challenge sexist talk and not promote or reinforce harmful gender definitions.
What is unique about your approach to street harassment and how do you work with other organizations to the same ends?
A lot of the work that I do is raising awareness about street harassment and providing ideas to people for how they can help end it. My website and book are depositories of knowledge on the subject that include resources. I take a comprehensive approach to street harassment in my work, including a historical perspective, exploring the intersections of gender + race, class, sexual orientation, dis/ability, examining that through a global lens, acknowledging that not all women view street harassment the same way, and looking at why some men are street harassers and how definitions of masculinity treat that harassment as socially acceptable behavior. In fact, a lot of what I do is idea sharing. I collect what people have used and done and share those ideas so other can find inspiration for taking on street harassment in their community. One example of this collaborative aspect occurred when I met with Emily May of HollaBack and Oraia Reid of RightRides in 2009 to interview them for my book. I mentioned some of the activism going on internationally, including that Egyptian women were developing a system so people could report harassers via cell phones. Emily and Oraia loved the idea and a year and a half later, the HollaBack iPhone and droid apps were released. I work with other organizations to promote their work and include them as resources for others. I’ve also had the opportunity to collaborate with groups like Girls for Gender Equity, and Men Can Stop Rape for community events on street harassment, and I hope there will be more opportunities for collaboration in the future.
If you’d like to participate in the first ever Anti-Street-Harassment Day, on March 20th, more information here!