When Street Harassment Is More Deadly Than Catcalls

front-street-harrassment-600x826Recently in Florida, a 14-year-old girl was walking down the street when a man in an SUV pulled up beside her and offered her $200 to have sex with him.

When the girl refused, he pulled her by her hair into his vehicle and choked her until she lost consciousness. Then he dropped her on the ground and ran over her multiple times, only stopping when witnesses intervened. The girl was airlifted to a hospital and stabilized. The man has been arrested and charged with attempted murder and kidnapping.

Lest you think outrageous incidents like these are an anomaly, a few weeks ago, a man in a car pulled up next to a woman running in California and offered her a ride. When she refused, he backed up and hit her not once, but twice, dragging her behind him the second time. She sustained non-life threatening injuries, and the suspect is facing charges of second-degree assault and hit-and-run.

It’s not just men in cars who harass and harm women. In Georgia, a woman was walking alone at night and three men approached her, trying to talk to her. She ignored the men and, without warning, they pushed her to the ground. Two men held her down while the third man sexually assaulted her until a passerby scared them away and helped the woman home.

These seem like extreme stories. But in a survey of 811 women, 75 percent reported they had been followed by a man they did not know, more than 50 percent had been sexually touched, and 25 percent had been assaulted. Nearly one in four of these women said their street harassment experiences began around age 12 and nearly 90 percent said they had been harassed by age 19.

Since whistling, comments such as “Hey, baby” and demands for a smile or a phone number are the most common and visible forms of gender-based street harassment, it is easy for many people to dismiss the problem.

“Get over yourself.” “It’s a compliment.” “What’s the big deal?” “If you don’t want to be harassed, don’t go outside.” These are examples of what I’ve been told for speaking out, while others, like activist/writer Soraya Chemaly, have been told to “lighten up” and that the behavior is just “flirting.”

While people may think it is a stretch to connect catcalls with assault and attempted murder, sometimes catcalls escalate into something worse and women never know when that might happen.

More importantly, both catcalls and assault are forms of entitlement. The (primarily) male street harassers believe they have the right to access girls’ and women’s bodies. They feel they can say and do whatever they want, and if women don’t comply, well, then they’re a bitch or ugly, and the men may feel justified in grabbing them, throwing trash at them, assaulting them or running them over.

As a leading expert on this topic, I’m often asked what people can do to avoid harassment. This is the wrong question. Girls and women already change their lives in myriad and often impractical ways to avoid harassment, such as changing routes and routines and even moving neighborhoods–and such tactics don’t always work.

We need to ask instead how we can stop harassers and how we teach men to stop acting entitled to women’s attention or bodies.

Here are three ideas.

  1. Call out, interrupt or distract friends who are harassers. Many harassers (including women) only harass in groups and they may be trying to impress their friends or get a laugh. Friends telling them it’s not funny or cool can influence them to stop. This video includes many ideas for what to say to harassers, and Stop Street Harassment’s website offers tips.
  2. Report and protest cultural content that encourages street harassment and assault and portrays it as OK. The YouTube channel Simple Pickups (with more than 1 million subscribers) is one example; it teaches men how to make vulgar and threatening comments and to grope women they don’t know, including such lines as, “What is the biggest c*ck you’ve ever had up your a**hole?” and “This right here means you like to have your face ji**ed on.” It’s never okay for someone to speak like that to someone without their consent. Sign this Change.org petition asking YouTube to take down the channel.
  3. Break the cycle of harassment and talk to kids, especially boys, about the issue. Often, when kids start out as harassers, they are mimicking what they’ve seen among male relatives or older friends, or they are trying out what they’ve seen in the media (including kids’ cartoons and online porn). Talking to them at a young age about what street harassment is and how to interact with people respectfully in public spaces without being a harasser is extremely important to help counterbalance those messages. Here are three resources to help: The Futures Without Violence program Coaching Boys into Men provides men with a playbook/toolkit they can use to talk with boys about street harassment, domestic violence and sexual violence; the Roger’s Park Young Women’s Action Team compiled their work on addressing gender-based violence with boys in the “Where Our Boys At?” toolkit; and Jake Winn, a Peace Corps volunteer and youth development facilitator in northern Azerbaijan helped his male students make an Anti-Street Harassment video as well as developing a companion lesson plan.

Street harassment is not a joke nor a compliment, and it’s time for everyone to commit to stopping it.

Photo taken from Stop Street Harassment.

Holly_Kearl

Holly Kearl is the founder of the nonprofit organization Stop Street Harassment and author of two books about street harassment, including the just-released  50 Stories about Stopping Street Harassers. She also works as an international consultant for the United Nations’ Global Safe Cities Initiative.

Comments

  1. I’ve had success distracting harassers by looking past them with curiosity or surprise, like there’s something very interesting (or dangerous) going on behind them. Like a head fake in basketball. They turn, see nothing and realize they’ve been had. Breaks the power spell.

    • Cory Barclay says:

      That’s a really awesome strategy, Janet. I just played it through in my brain and was like (if I were a woman): “Oh shit, look! There’s an eagle,” or “Watch out! Your post is falling!” and as they turn their head, you escape into the wind.

  2. I came across a couple the other day. I was driving by. She was standing on the side walk, he was riding his bicycle in very tight circles around her, slapping at her and yelling at her. I stopped the car dead in the middle of the street and honked at him… he started yelling at me and riding toward my car. He actually hit my car with his fist several times. But he rode away from her and left her alone. I asked her if she needed help. She said no, but thank you. I get the feeling the guy was her boyfriend. I told her she could do much better than him and drove away. My boyfriend actually gave me hell for stopping, said the guy could have really damaged the car. I just turned to him and said, “Yeah, and he could have really damaged HER, too. I’d much rather he punch the car.”

    Women should not have to fear leaving their homes simply because they are women. For some reason, it’s becoming more and more acceptable to treat women like piece of property, without even the social niceties of pretending it’s not okay.

    • sandrasam says:

      Good for you! We should all support each other like that. And for your boyfriend…. you too deserve better!

  3. I don’t know where to begin. A guy running over a 14-year-old girl deserves to be put away for a long time. He’s dangerous and unlikely to change. A friend and I were harassed recently while walking our dogs by a man who refused to restrain his big dog, letting him run up unleashed into the street and letting whatever happened, happen. Luckily the dog wasn’t as ill-mannered and mean-spirited as the man, although my friend (who has 2 very small dogs) ran home with her little dogs. This is the same guy who was very respectful of my husband when he walked our dog past his house. Tom thought he was the kind of guy who “leaves you alone if you leave him alone.” He had no idea — two small women get treated very differently than a 6 foot 5 inch man.

  4. These stories make you realise that it is not just Pakistan where women are raped and murdered in public and it doesnt matter what you wear, whether is a hijab, school clothes, running clothes or normal street wear women are harrassed from an early age. I remember men calling out dirty things to my daughter when she was 12 infront of me and I used to get so angry! We were just riding our bikes!

  5. Love #3 in the ideas section. It’s inspiring what other people are doing about this!

  6. I wish every guy could learn about the Theology of the Body by Blessed Pope John Paul II. It talks about the human person, human dignity, and human sexuality. How we are made with dignity and we need to protect every persons dignity. How authentic love is the willing the good of the other. That lust is sacrificing the other person for yourself, while love is making a sacrifice for the other person. Lust is self-gratification, and love is self-donation. Lust enslaves us to our own passions, while love demands us to learn how to say no to lust to set us free to honor the person. I hope more men and women look into this because it is SO beautiful and would open our eyes more to the dignity and value of humans. It is amazing all the beauty we hold, and how it is worth the sacrifice to respect each other rather than jump at a person and use them against their will. Love does not impose your will on the other. Lust see’s people as “something”, while love see’s people as “someone.” Anyone interested can look up Christopher West on youtube about the Theology of the Body. He does a forward of it and I just reeeally, really hope people look into it! You can also find the actual documents of John Paul II if you google “Theology of the Body. We are all craving for authentic love, but our society is polluted with all this lust and its destroying the way we view each other and i’m tired of it being this way. We all hold mystery and we need to approach each other keeping this in mind. Love, respect, dignity, and value. We all have this and it is so worth learning to love a person. Not because we have to, but because we want to. When we learn that we all deserve respect, dignity, love, and value, we will certainly want to love others! What is authentic love? It is to long for what is good for the other person…to will the good of another. If those men had no been blinded by lust they would have seen those girls dignity. Again, please look up Theology of the Body. It is sooooo beautiful, I wish all men could learn about it. And of course women, too. Stay safe, love authentically, and God bless! :)

  7. some good ideas here…
    tell them you have HIV that you got from the last asshole that raped you.
    and sign up for self-defense training: https://www.graciekids.com/
    girls are often trained to be nice. they also need training to resist and fight as necessary. in aikido, one uses the energy and momentum of the attacker to floor him.
    turn your fear into determination.

  8. Meghan O'Flaherty says:

    I’m nearly 70-yrs-old, overweight and gray-haired, and this still happens to me. When I was young it was “Hey, Baby….” Now it’s “Hey, Granny…” but it doesn’t stop. It is all about power – the power to intimidate and terrorize. Thank you for this article, more people need to speak up.

  9. We definitely need to put the focus back on men rather than women when it comes to sexual harrassment. Educate boys to value women and girls while we educate girls about ourselves and boys/men.

  10. These are horrifying stories, beyond words.

    This behavior unfortunately has been with us since the dawn of time and is a function of our reproductive programming. Our culture has to build boundaries in ways that guarantees and encourages respect for the other. We are awash in media content that objectifies women’s bodies and body parts and diminishes women’s sense of self-worth through alterations of model’s forms into unnatural dimensions. I am in my late 50′s so I grew up in an era where pornography was shrink-wrapped and behind the counter. The young men I know today grow up on a steady diet of Internet images that become fixed in their brains, requiring from them heroic efforts to dislodge and disengage these mental snapshots and erotic push buttons. Men are also awash in misogynistic hip hop and ghetto music that also diminishes women. And women themselves now dress in revealing ways that I find astonishing even in office environments. We are oversexed and under loved.

    This is tough stuff. How to break away from something so pervasive, powerful, predatory, and perfectly aligned with our basest passions. First, to allude to Bitsy’s introduction of theology, we are a fallen people so this kind of sin will always be present. Therefore, women have to do everything in their power to protect themselves and not encourage men’s base desires. Second, I agree totally with Bitsy. We have to raise up a theology of the body and a theology of the Other. Jesus calls us through multiple teachings to step back from our anger, our lust, our hatred of our enemies and see the Other for who they really are. This all arises out of our love for our neighbor, cosmically defined. We have to listen and truly see. We have to understand our emotions so we are not ruled by them. So that we have a choice.

    The other huge issue is who our culture says we are as men. Much of the misogyny arises out of a disaffected male African-American community that needs to assert its power and authority. Our culture has offered few healthy outlets for that overpowering need so men move into the spaces that are allowed. Rascism, in a perverse and soul killing way, lies underneath this pervasive misogyny.

    We need healthy models of what it means to be men. Our culture, our media, and social media tear down everything so we are left with tattered men and women where we once had heroes. We need heroes.

    • >> is a function of our reproductive programming

      It’s really not. Every man that shouts at and intimidates a woman in the street is making a choice to do that. Blaming biology is just an excuse.

    • I wish I could make men understand that responses like these are problematic.

      Do you understand that almost all of your commentary is made up of excuses? And racism? Everytime I read male responses to feminist articles I try to keep my mind as open and receptive as possible- but every time I read something like this, my mind closes a little more.

      As a college student, should I have to be afraid to walk by myself past groups of young men on campus? It’s really frustrating and makes me feel powerless to live in a society like this, and the fact that I have clinical depression which often clouds my judgement doesn’t help. It makes me feel as if there’s no point in living in a world which will always judge me by the fact that I am African American, the fact that I am a young woman.

      The fact that I have a disgusting, abusive father whose abuse mentally scarred me and drove me to an eating disorder and suicide doesn’t help- I don;t want it to be, but it is only one building block towards my distrust in men.

      And every time I read comments like this, it only adds another block, until and I can only take so much before I feel trapped with no way out.

      You make me wish I was dead.

    • If this was reproductive programming, every man would do it. That not every man feels the need to harass women on the street means your attempt at explaining this away using “logic” is not really all that logical.

  11. So many men see themselves as good guys and don’t realize that what they’re doing can come across as threatening – that even if they themselves “mean well,” women don’t have ESP and can’t be sure of their intentions. Recently I was walking down the street near my home and a man pulled his car over to talk to me. I’d met him once before, so briefly that I didn’t recognize him at first as someone I knew and didn’t remember his name. This was someone two or three decades older than me, who was a virtual stranger, and he was pulling over in his car… to ask me if I’d go out with him sometime.

    When I told him no, he very politely let it drop and went on his way, and I genuinely believe he didn’t realize how this could come across. But the two examples in this article show why any sensible woman should be leery of a man pulling over on the street to proposition her. Men need to be educated on how even well-intentioned interactions like this can make women very, very uncomfortable.

    • Yeah, I’ve had a guy my age come up to my a car before, tell me I was beautiful, and ask if I wanted a ride because I was carrying my groceries home. I told him no. He was just like ok, have a nice day and drove off. Honestly, I think he wanted to show off his car, it was a nice car. I’ve also had guys start talking to me and walking with me, and when I told them to leave me alone they apologized and left. Really, sometimes I think guys are just not thinking sometimes how their behavior comes across because if a person did that to them it wouldn’t intimidate or bother them. Don’t get me wrong, there’s been times I’ve had to pull a knife on guys following me, or roll my eyes at catcalls. But most men I’ve come across are just being bone heads and not thinking about what they’re doing. The majority of men I’ve had to deal with in the city come up to try and flirt. I wouldn’t call that harassment so much as unwanted social interaction and flirting so long as they politely leave me alone.

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