The first time a man harassed me on the street, I was 13. I had just gotten my braces off and was learning how to tame my hair with a curling iron. I could barely fill out a training bra, and I hadn’t even started my period yet. The man, probably in his late 30s, let out a low whistle and told me he “liked the way I walked,” while following me through the mall parking lot.
In the decade since then, I’ve been catcalled more times than I can count. I’ve been called “dyke” or told to “go fuck myself” (for not responding to said catcalls), been followed home by men on foot and in cars, had a man whisper in my ear that he “wanted to make me come,” had a man stare me down while grabbing his genitals, and been called “slut,” “cunt,” “whore,” and “bitch” for doing little else than wearing a summer dress and walking from my home to the train station.
In response, I’ve second and third guessed outfit choices, waited until morning hours to run errands, skipped out on late-night plans, and taken longer routes to avoid potential danger. But street harassment—sexual harassment that takes place in public spaces—happens at various hours of the day, and it doesn’t matter if I’m wearing sweat pants and sunglasses or a dress and heels.
It has nothing to do with flattery. It has everything to do with power. As advocacy group Girls for Gender Equality writes, “People who harass others are acting in a way that communicates aggression, hostility, and a desire for control. They feel powerful by making someone, who they see as inferior, feel scared or uncomfortable.”
My stories are a tiny fragment of a much bigger picture. A 2007 online poll conducted by the Manhattan Borough President’s Office found that 63 percent of women had been sexually harassed, and one-tenth had been harassed on the subway or in the train station.
Another study, published by the Rogers Park Young Women’s Action Team in Chicago in 2003, reported that 60 percent of young women ages 10-19 felt unsafe walking in their neighborhoods. Eighty-six percent of them had been catcalled on the street, and 36 percent said it happened daily.
In a 2000 telephone poll conducted by Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates, 87 percent of American women between the ages of 18-64 said they had been harassed on the street by a male stranger, and 84 percent “considered changing their behavior to avoid street harassment.” Women have learned to operate with a baseline level of fear, one that dips or peaks depending on our surroundings. We’ve learned to change what we wear or where we go or how we behave. The female brain is always observing, always scanning, always ready to fight or flight.
For a long time, victims had few resources other than the police for reporting street harassment. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Emily May, executive director of the anti-street harassment organization Hollaback!, said, “There’s a bigger conversation and trend that’s worth thinking about, and that’s that police have their own history of sexual harassment. People don’t feel safe going to the police, especially in communities of color—they won’t care, or they’ll just harass [the victim].” When there was a serial groper assaulting women in Brooklyn in 2011, “police passed out pamphlets telling women not to wear shorts,” May said.
Now, thanks to smartphones, reporting street harassment is getting easier. With the Hollaback! app, free on iPhone and Android, users are able to quickly report a harasser, upload a photo (if you can safely snap one), map the incident, and learn more about how to better respond to street harassment (as a victim or a bystander).
“Street harassment has nothing to do with flattery. It has everything to do with power.”
“When you submit a report, it goes to our city site leaders or to us if there isn’t a leader in that city,” May explained, adding that Hollaback! has volunteers in 25 cities. “We approve the report and map it. Then we use that information with we meet with legislators, or we turn it into research, or we elevate it to the media.” In New York City, Hollaback! users have the option to send a report directly to their City Council member.
Other organizations are making it easier to find out state street harassment laws, so victims are armed with legal knowledge before making a report. Stop Street Harassment published a state-by-state guide called Know Your Rights: Street Harassment and the Law, available via free PDF. “While laws will never be THE answer,” they write, “they can influence societal attitudes about what is and is not okay.”
Hollaback! and Stop Street Harassment are two of several groups trying to not only improve awareness of laws, but to change them. “In New York City, we meet with legislators as advocates for educational campaigns and legislative changes,” May said. “The Department of Health does an annual survey of 10 thousand New Yorkers, and it’s used to set policies. We want one question on that survey about street harassment.”
May also said that New York mayor Bill De Blasio is a supporter of Hollaback!. The organization is working with his administration to increase awareness and bystander intervention.
Street harassment is a global problem, with organizations around the world trying to stop it. In Egypt, for example, independent initiative Harassmap uses online and SMS reporting combined with a mapping system. It also provides support for victims of harassment and assault.
March 30-April 5 is International Anti-Street Harassment Week, and April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Meet Us on the Street, the organizer of Anti-Street Harassment Week, suggests a few simple ways to get involved: post anti-harassment signs or chalk messages, share your harassment story with someone or post it online, educate others about street harassment, change your social media profile photos to a Meet Us on the Street image, or participate in a rally. If you’re in New York City, Hollaback! is hosting an anti-street harassment rally in Washington Square Park on Saturday, April 5, from 1-3 PM ET. International events are listed here.
You can also find or share street harassment stories via Twitter and other social media. Search #endsh or #endshweek on Twitter and you’ll find hundreds of stories (from men and women) about their experiences. “The compelling thing about [sharing your story] in public is that you’re not just telling your best friend, you’re telling thousands of people,” May told The Daily Beast.
“Storytelling is valuable in all its forms,” she added. “That’s how movements start.”