Street Harassment: Why You Should Chalk Your Walk

beautiful charming womanCyclist Peter Sagan thought it would be funny if he pinched a nearby bottom.  So, while sitting at a podium at a cycling event, he reached out and cheekily, no pun intended, did exactly that.  Lots of laughs and great photos ensued.

All in good fun, right? I mean, the underlying idea that he was entitled to treat a woman like a sex doll and completely ignore the idea that she might not want him to do this or that he might need her consent before using her body this way for his and everyone else’s pleasure, profit and entertainment is just so dull and humorless. Besides which, her entire existence on the podium with him was to be a commoditized accessory and things like this happen everyday. Usually we call actions like his street harassment, unless it’s the enforcement of religious rules or school uniform policies, and we go about our business with nary a second thought.

I hate to admit it, but sometimes getting harassed on the street feels good.  Men who seem harmless and genuinely nice compliment me and it makes me happy because it is nice to feel attractive.  Besides, as a 47-year-old who, like all women, has spent an entire lifetime internalizing sexist and objectifying messages about women, beauty, aging, usefulness and purpose, it’s thrilling to feel like my shelf-life has been extended. What a conflict between my emotions and my intellect. Easier to just not make eye contact. Something I found out roughly 60% of American women do.  I don’t though, because street harassment is not just a pet peeve it’s a serious problem that women, parents, teachers, the police trivialize.

Here’s the thing: Every time this happens, some guy says “Smile, baby!” or, as happened recently when what appeared to be a baby-faced 22-year-old walked by my sister and unabashedly announced after checking us out for half a block, “Damn, you two look good…for women your age,” I remind myself that being objectified isn’t actually flattering at all and that the tiny lift I may get is like a hit of a drug with crippling side effects.  It feels good, but is bad for us.  I, for one, would give up every “nice” flattering comment to eliminate the hatefully crass and jarringly violent ones. I know that for every “Hey, beautiful,” directed at my daughters now, there’s a more malevolent comment lingering around the corner. And, each time a randy trucker, callow twerp or prominent athlete exercises cultural entitlements in these ways without being challenged it’s a loss for all girls and women.

Men comment freely, touched hair and arms and legs uninvited, expose themselves and daily engage in harassment that women work their lives around.  They take up disproportionate public space in this way and it’s more than a nuisance.  I remind myself that harassment is a symptom of a culture that gives boys and men entitlements to feeling like my face and body is there for their enjoyment and that my rights to free movement, public space, safety are commensurately disproportionately restricted.

“Harassment restricts girls’ and women’s access to public places,” explains Holly Kearl, author of the book, “Stop Street Harassment.” “This is not what we want for the next generation of girls. This is a time for people to raise awareness about the issue and create community-based solutions to make public places safer for everyone.”

Most women don’t even think about it. But, regardless of race, class, ethnicity, education, age and especially, clothes, all women experience varying degrees of street harassment. More than 90 percent of girls and women surveyed internationally report being harassed. In the United States, surveys have indicated that 60% of women do not make eye contact in public in order to avoid engaging people who might harass them and 24% don’t exercise outside for the same reason.  If you ask many of these people, they won’t say they’re being harassed because they are limiting their behavior as an adaptation.  The same thing happens every time a woman changes her commuting routine, parks in a distant lot because it is better lit, crosses the street to avoid a construction site.  A recent PolicyMic article by Elizabeth Plank revealed that in France fully 25% of women are fearful in public spaces. These numbers are evident the world over and far worse in some countries, like Egypt, India and Tunisia, where the unrelenting quality of the harassment is paralyzing to women.

Harassment is one of the more invisible and subtle weapons in an arsenal that includes a broad spectrum of violence used to enforce a male domination reliant on gender binaries.  So goopy and anachronistic sounding, those words. But, nonetheless accurate and apparent when you consider the degree to which members of the LGBTQ community, people who transgress and so blatantly embody challenges to gender and sex binaries, experience harassment.

Not only does harassment limit our movement in public, but it has seriously negative spillover effects, not the least of which is that targets of harassment are acculturated to be fearful of men, because they can never be sure which men will move from benign to credibly dangerous behavior. In addition, girls who are frequently harassed as early as when they are 10 and 11, are more likely to become preoccupied with appearance experience body-shame. The effects are compounded for girls of color.

The week of April 7-16th is International Anti-Street Harassment Week and it should be taken seriously as a matter of equality, access to public space and civil rights. “Meet Us On The Street” is the rallying call for International Anti-Street Harassment Week, a movement started by the Kearl, founder of Stop Street Harassment.   Organizations like Stop Street Harassment and Hollaback, which created crowd-sourced, mobile technology applications for documenting and locating harassers, are finding creative ways to confront the problem.

This Sunday, as part of the week’s many events, Collective Action for Safe Spaces in DC, has planned an anti-street harassment sidewalk chalking to take place immediately after an empowerment workshop on responding to sexual harassment in public spaces, hosted by Lauren Taylor of Defend Yourself. Even if you can’t attend, you could always get your own supplies and chalk your walk.

Meet Us On The Street takes place April 7-13 and the organizers and partners involved have a full slate of activities, protests, rallies and a great toolkit that can be employed year round. An essential component with street harassment, as with anti-rape programs, is engaging boys and men as allies, which is included in these programs.  As far as I can tell, given my experiences as a woman and the mother of three teenage girls who at 13, 13 and 16 are already well-versed with street harassment, it is never too early to educate and empower boys and girls about why this is important and how to deal with it.

Contributor Soraya Chemaly is a feminist activist and writer whose work focuses on the role of gender in culture, politics, religion and media. She is a regular contributor to RHRealityCheck, Huffington Post, Fem2.0, The Feminist Wire, BitchFlicks and Alternet, among other media. She has appeared as a guest on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, Sirius XM progressive radio, Voice of Russia, and is a frequent HuffPost Live Panelist. Follow her on Twitter at @schemaly, Tumblr or  Facebook

  • Marti Teitelbaum

    When I was pregnant with my first child, I passed a construction site daily on my way walking to work. For a couple of months I got pleasant greetings and smiles from several men — which I responded to in kind. Then one day when I walked by, there was a new guy with the men I was used to seeing. He called out obscene remarks, and the other men, who had been friendly and polite for so many weeks, all joined in and competed with him to yell the most disgusting remark to the obviously pregnant young woman I was.
    I changed my route and never walked by again. But I felt such great disappointment in those men that they would change their behavior to something ugly simply because of one new guy.

  • Michael

    My first, unthinking response to a lot of what’s posted here- you’re making a big deal out of something very small.

    But then I think about my own experiences- I’m a slim, straight, small-framed man with long hair. I like the way I look and I dress well. But there have been too many times over the years that stupid males have honestly mistaken me for a woman and directed these sorts of comments at me: wolf whistles, sexy this and that, addressing me as “dear” or “ladies” when I’m with friends, touching my hair, my buttocks…
    Those are not isolated incidents, these were all straight males honestly thinking I was female, and this happened in Australia and the USA.

    I have to say I felt the same things as described in the article- fearful, overly body concious, worried about how my hair, clothing, and body language looked to be drawing such attention, changing my route to avoid certain types of people etc.

    So, it turns out I can empathise very much with the content of this article, and I do realise that this sort of harassment would be much worse for a young woman.

    From my experience the insight I’ve gained is that it happens more when men are in groups (they become bolder for the dumber stuff like whistles), men seem to see the shape or “impression” of a person and not the person themselves when they’re doing this so I’d guess that it comes from a pretty primitive place, short circuiting the normal thinking process somewhat, so I’d conclude men that do it are stupider than normal, regardless of social status or education level.

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