A High Schooler Speaks Out on Street Harassment

8650965971_b853deeea1I’m walking down the street, on the way to school or to a friend’s house. I could be wearing sweatpants or a short skirt; it doesn’t matter. Inevitably the words are flung at me by someone I’ve never seen before, men alone or laughing with their buddies:

“Hey baby, smile for me!”

“Mmm, sexy. Nice legs.”

“I’d tap that ass.”

Sometimes it’s even more obscene: crude gestures, even threats of sexual violence. Even the less explicit comments that some may view as a compliment trigger the same feelings for me: First, I’m momentarily flattered to be noticed, but after that initial, fleeting feeling, I start to feel degraded, sexualized and objectified. It feels all wrong. I’m only 16 years old, and these leering men are all much older than me. I think to myself, “They don’t even know me, but they feel it’s OK to comment on my body like it’s public property?” It makes me feel like I’m not in control of my own body, like my mind doesn’t matter and my body exists solely to please others.

Growing up in New York City, girls have to learn to deal with street harassment from a young age. It turns simply walking down the street into an anxiety-inducing experience. Whenever I’m out walking, I have my guard up. I try to drown out these comments by listening to music on my iPod.

I shouldn’t have to feel uncomfortable in my own skin and unsafe simply walking down the street, but I feel powerless to stop the harassment.

I spoke with several girls my age from different parts of New York City, and our experiences were similar. Desiree, 17, from Brooklyn, said, “[The] first time I experienced harassment was when I was 15 and a man pulled out his penis in front of me and my friends after school.” She doesn’t wear skirts anymore since that’s what she wore when she was first harassed, and she always travels with friends or a guy at night.

According to a 2008 study of 811 women conducted by stopstreetharassment.com, almost one in four women had experienced street harassment by age 12 and nearly 90 percent by age 19. The website defines street harassment as “any action or comment between strangers in public places that is disrespectful, unwelcome, threatening and/or harassing and is motivated by gender.”

To find out more about how this behavior affects young women like me, I spoke with Holly Kearl, author of the book Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women.

Kearl told me that street harassment isn’t just a nuisance, it can be illegal. It becomes a police issue “if it’s threatening language, if they’re threatening to do something to you, follow you, grab you. …” She acknowledges that it’s not always clear if the behavior constitutes a criminal act, especially if it’s not a direct threat, but it can still feel threatening.

Of course if someone touches you, if the person is engaging in lewd behavior like flashing, public masturbation, or rubbing against you, that’s illegal and should be reported. Kearl also encourages women to report someone who follows them. “Police don’t always take things seriously, but if you have the time or energy, following can apply under stalking laws.”

For most young women, though, street harassment is so disorienting the first time it happens that the idea of reporting it to police wouldn’t even occur to us.”I think it’s a very hard age to be dealing with street harassment because a lot of teen girls are just discovering their sexuality, and the main first sexual attention they’re getting is from random men on the street who are their dad’s or grandfather’s age,” Kearl said. “They are adults, so how are you supposed to respond? It’s a challenging situation.”

Some men think their comments are just compliments, and that women should be flattered. Kearl said that from her research, the line is drawn at comments about appearance. Most women do not feel comfortable with men on the street commenting on their appearance in any way.

Everyone was OK with a smile or hello or talking about the weather … things that are gender-neutral you can say to anyone.” However, “Where they drew the line were comments about their looks.”

Here’s a video that Youth Communication made, asking men why they harass women:

Kearl noted that cultural beliefs may be at play in situations where street harassment is considered acceptable. “The belief that this is just how it is for women normalizes it and makes us more accepting of it, so women and men are less likely to seek out and challenge it, thinking that there’s nothing we can do,” she said. “A lot of what I’m doing is saying, ‘No, we can do something.’”Lenny, 17, told me that some of his cousins participate in street harassment. He thinks they do it because “they want to look cool… possibly even to fit in. A lot of people in my culture [I’m black] view street harassment as a good thing. They say it helps your social life and improves social skills such as conversation and humor.”

While some cultures may normalize street harassment to a greater extent than others, no culture is really exempt, she added. “I think every culture pretty much sees it as OK, unfortunately. We have cartoon characters that promote harassment, boys that go googly-eyed when they see a girl, music videos and commercials … it’s part of the U.S., part of our culture.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

Photo courtesy of Women Worldwide via Creative Commons 2.0.

This story and video originally appeared in YCteen, a magazine written by New York City teens. YCteen is published by Youth Communication, a non-profit organization that helps marginalized youth develop their full potential through reading and writing.

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Comments

  1. This is amazing… a take on artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s Stop Telling Women to Smile project. http://www.womenyoushouldknow.net/stop-telling-women-to-smile/

  2. I’m a 76 year old woman and i have memories of street harassment from 60 some years ago. I’m glad it’s being talked about.

  3. Sheila C. says:

    Try being a fat woman walking down the street. You will get plenty of attention, but it’s of a completely degrading kind. Instead of “complimenting” my body by flirting with me, men of all ages and genders feel free to laugh, point, grunt, elbow their friends, stare and follow along behind me making booming sound effects or mooing. I’ve had teenaged boys yell names at me from their cars as they drove by. I’ve had old men walk behind me at the grocery store saying “boy, is she fat!” and I was supposed to ignore this like it was all fine with me. The idiots who would do this to any woman need to be glad I’m by nature a peaceful soul and I wasn’t packing.

  4. I am 42, and like Bobbie I have memories of this happing to me as a young girl, the sad part is I am 42 and it still happens. Thier are many times when I just want to scream out and tell them to go back to the garbage can they came from, I have stood up for myself and as soon as you say something back or ignor these types of people, They turn it on you and make you look bad, call you names, and so forth. So in 40 some years I have learned to just keep quite and smile. Sadly smiling just causes them to do it more, So your damed if you do and damed if you don’t. I have been told I should happy guys notice me. I dont want to be noticed for my looks in a rude way. I want to be noticed for me all of me, my mind, my self worth and my accomplishments.
    Sometimes even at work, stores (malls) gas stations, Post offices and many other places where things like this shouldnt happen it happens. I like the girl in the story says, Dreads to go out. I have even stopped wearing clothes that fit and have traded them in for baggy t-shirts, baggy pants.
    And yes when any man tells me they would tap that, I do feel threatened and afraid. What happens when they stop just voiceing those words or feel that if its okay to say that and the girl dont get upset, what stops them from taking it as its socially acceptable to tap that with out permission.
    Sadly, while every one eles in the world has Rights, we as women are still trying to be heard and still fighting for our rights to be human. If we stand up for our rights then we are labled as, whistle bblowers, Gay, dyke, femminist, trouble maker, slut, whore, bitch, usless, used up, and my favorite one, which I have heard many times on job interviews and from many men, “your to smart for your own good, why cant you be like other women and just find yourself a man, that is the way it is and you need to accept it”
    Here is my question to man ” What if it was your daughter? That is right I have asked this before and I always get this answer, ” my daughter knows her place and shes better then that.” What makes your daughter better then any one eles?”

  5. This is an everyday thing for me especially on public transportation. I try to be very loud and clear with these people. Just yesterday some guy said ” Hey pretty lady. You look good. You look real cute in that skirt….etc” and I stopped him and said ” I DIDNT ASK YOU LEAVE ME ALONE”….its demeaning and belittling because he knows it makes me uncomfortable and afraid, he just likes to feel he has any amount of power over me to compensate for his lack of power. I’m tired of it so I let him kno. That’s fair

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