Moving Past Street Harassment Awareness

By Emily Stephens

My experiences with street harassment are run of the mill. Catcallers are frequently fended off. Once, while walking near Washington Circle in D.C., where I go to school, a man grabbed my shoulder in broad daylight to say “hey”. I’ve done my share of walking past deserted construction sites and over vacant bridges quite late at night, clutching nervously at my bag and peering at shadowy corners.

anti street harassment week
This week is International Anti-Street Harassment Week! Photo credit: Meet Us On the Street.

This week is International Anti-Street Harassment Week. The wide scope and pervasive nature of street harassment seems to be well understood, at least by those who experience it on a regular basis: namely, as Everyday Feminism puts it, “cis women, trans women, genderqueer people, androgynous people, and femme-presenting men.” To the people who deny or minimize its existence: please educate yourself. To everyone else: how do we move past acknowledging the reality of street harassment and toward pragmatic solutions to reduce it? At first glance, it’s hard for non-perpetrators to find solutions. If you’re not participating in an action, after all, how can you stop it?

There are two primary methods. One is an intermediate step: providing services that reduce the impact of street harassment on those who experience. The other, working toward a worldview where harassers don’t exist or exist in small numbers, is long-term, less tangible, and perhaps even unachievable.

Check out some suggestions below:

1) If you experience street harassment, consider responding. This option is not for everyone and certainly shouldn’t be used at all times. You face a real risk of violence if the harasser escalates. Even if you do feel safe, responding is difficult. As someone who sometimes has trouble even ordering coffee, assembling an empowering reply and quickly stammering it out isn’t something I’m typically comfortable with. That’s completely fine; it’s not your responsibility to shame, educate, or call out the perpetrator. However, you always have the right to respond and demand they stop.

2)Be an active bystander. Watch this awesome video for ideas on what to say. Of course, this strategy is also predicated on your personal safety. But when you are able and if you feel comfortable, it can have a big impact on the harasser.

3) Support local organizations that try to make public spaces safer for women and other people who experience street harassment. In DC, the incredible organization Collective Action for Safe Spaces has started operating their RightRides program, which gives free rides to women and LGBTQ people trying to get home from somewhere in the city. You can check out the details of the nascent program here, or research similar programs in your own community. If you can do so, consider donating time or money to this type of program. Support from the local community is the only way this type of service can thrive and expand!

Of course, all the pickup services and active bystanders in the world cannot protect all people from the insidious reach of harassment. To illustrate this point, last week I was walking with two friends toward the Safe Rides shuttle service operated by my university, half a block away from the house I had been in. A man leaned out of an upstairs window making grotesque sounds clearly intended to frighten us. The service operated just as intended; unfortunately, even these types of services cannot insulate people who experience harassment from those who take pleasure in watching their targets squirm and be uncomfortable.

To stop street harassment, we need to end the social apathy – and, in some contexts, the outright social approval – associated with engaging in street harassment. When harassers know their actions will cause them to lose social capital or respect in the eyes of their peers, harassment loses its desirability. Once perpetrators stop outwardly engaging in acts of misogyny, they might begin to internalize the consequences of some of the harm harassment perpetuates. We need to reverse the socialization of children, adolescents, and young adults that says this kind of behavior is ever acceptable, period. For more specific strategies on preventing street harassment, rather than just ameliorating its effects, check out this fantastic Everyday Feminism article.

Also, take a look at all the events going on for International Anti-Street Harassment Week to see if any are happening  in your community!

By Emily Stephens

Hey everyone! I'm Emily and I'm a current junior at Georgetown University, studying Science, Technology, and International Affairs. I hail from Spokane, Washington and I like to bake bread.

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