“Saturday night at 1:30 a.m., I was walking to my apartment from the train. It’s about a 10 minute walk, so I was already very alert and armed with pepper spray just in case. I experienced 4 (4!!!) different incidents of harassment on my way home. I think what upset me the most about it was that I was alone and already nervous about my walk home, but to add disgusting sexual catcalls in the mix just enraged me. How dare these strangers make me feel so afraid and nervous walking through my own neighborhood in my own city. I want it to stop. I want to feel safe enough to take the train home instead of paying for a cab that I can’t afford.”
The above narrative, shared by a contributor to the website Stop Street Harassment, recounts an all-too-common problem that millions of women experience every day: street harassment. Whereas workplace harassment laws offer legal protection to victims of harassment at work, there are few rules – and even less enforcement – regarding sexual harassment on the street and in other public spaces. Stop Street Harassment was a leading catalyzer for the second annual International Anti-Street Harassment Week from March 30 – April 5, part of a coalition-led movement to advocate for women’s freedoms on the street and on public transit. Anti-Street Harassment Week also marks the beginning of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which ends Wednesday.
Stop Street Harassment’s tagline, “My body is not public space,” speaks aptly to the problem. Street harassment is an impediment to our salud, dignidad y justicia. No one should have to feel unsafe, targeted, or humiliated in public. When women are worried about being groped, catcalled, or worse on their daily commutes, it’s a safety issue and a human rights issue.
Stop Street Harassment is one of many groups initiating community dialogue and leading advocacy efforts to promote change. Hollaback empowers people who have experienced street violence and harassment to courageously share their stories on an online platform.
The Hollaback movement offers women and LGBTQ folks both a network of support and an opportunity to hold their harassers publically accountable—which is especially important given that police and law enforcement officials have traditionally ignored these issues.
In fact, a key moment in Hollaback’s history occurred when Thao Nguyen went to police with a video of a man publicly masturbating on the subway, they said nothing could be done, but when she posted the video on Flickr, the media and public took note. That Nguyen was able to both film and make this video public would not have been possible without modern technology and social media tools. Emily May, the founder of Hollaback, has said that technology provides a unique and unprecedented platform to apprehend street harassers and give voice to its targets. Hollaback has since expanded its work through logging testimonials, contributing to research, and publishing a Know Your Rights toolkit and app, becoming a principal voice in the discussion surrounding the fate of sexual harassment laws in New York and beyond. In fact, representatives of the organization are holla’ing back in 25 different countries, 71 different cities and 14 different languages worldwide.
Meanwhile, the artist Tatyana Fazlaizadeh has addressed street harassment in its home setting – the street. Her mural project, Stop Telling Women to Smile, is also a hollaback to street harassers consisting of larger-than-life mural drawings of women with powerful phrases like “Stop telling me to smile,” “Women are not outside for your entertainment,” and “My name is not Baby” emblazoned on their portraits, and posts them around New York City, and across the nation.
However, as Nguyen’s video clearly demonstrates, harassment continues unabated underground and on public transit. Every day millions of women must risk their own safety by walking home or taking the subway at night. According to the Atlantic Cities article, “Will Women Ever Feel Completely Safe on Mass Transit?” women are more likely to be dependent on public transit than men, and much more likely to be harassed. According to the same survey, of people who witnessed someone being harassed on the subway, 93% of the victims were female. Any woman who has traveled home late at night will have heard a concerned friend, family member of significant other ask, “Are you sure you don’t want me to call you a cab?” But for women who work nights, can’t afford to take cabs, or live in areas where access is difficult, the problem compounds itself.
At the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH), the anti-street and transportation harassment campaigns hit home. Feeling safe in public is an undeniable part of women’s health psychologically, emotionally and physically. And street harassment disproportionately affects women of color, LGBTQ individuals, and low-income communities.
Stereotypes can play an especially harmful role for Latina women. In the Cosmopolitan article, “I’m Not Your Mami,” Tanisha L. Ramirez writes about the offensiveness of men harassing her on the street by calling her “mami” and playing on hyper-sexualized Latina stereotypes. Her peers’ advice? “Cover up.” These infuriating shame tactics do nothing to address the problem. “Often times, piropos [catcalls] make me feel as if my sole purpose in life, while out in the world, is to be appraised and praised by men,” Ramirez says. These comments are not about making women feel attractive, they are about making them aware of their place. Street harassment is a microcosm of a much larger problem of gender inequality. Men objectify women not to compliment them, but to demean, intimidate and demonstrate their power over them.
But the success of this year’s Anti Street-Harassment Week and mobilization of concerned citizens worldwide hint that the tide may be changing. This year, over 25 countries participated in Anti Street-Harassment Week and mainstream news outlets took note of the week’s events – and the movement is continuing to expand rapidly. As advocates for women’s health and reproductive freedoms, as Sexual Assault Awareness Month continues throughout the month of April, we must take this problem seriously and continue to support efforts to ensure women’s safety in the street. Hopefully policy-makers, local law-enforcement and harassers themselves will no longer be able to ignore this daily impediment to women’s rights.
Laura Weiss is the Development Intern at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.