Any woman who dares to exist in public spaces can recount dozens of instances of sexual harassment. From leering and whistling to stalking and groping, all are damnable and all too familiar.
I myself found several stories of harassment boil to the top of my brain while engrossed in Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates, the book inspired by the Everyday Sexism Project website. In a chapter on sexism in public spaces, Bates recalls a harassment case from the early morning hours of a workday (yes, sexism never sleeps) on her bike ride to the office. Mid-pedal, she is yelled at by a group of men at work along the sidewalk and, as a result, almost ends up in a car wreck. Shaking, she stomps over to call their supervising manager by the number on the company vehicle. Luckily, the manager on the end of the line takes her report seriously and files the incident.
I slammed the book shut and looked up at my sister sitting across the table. “Did you know you could report a catcalling case by a construction crew by calling a managing officer and it would, at least…count for something?” I asked.
“I’d never thought of that,” she said.
Neither had I. Supposedly the phone number of a building company exists on the side of a semi truck in 256-point font for a reason, but I often don’t recognize the need to report cases of public sexual harassment the same way I might with other sex discrimination cases, even though they are just as serious. When sexual harassment happens, I recognize the bitter taste in my mouth and the anger in my heart; but more often than not, I see it as another bullet of rape culture that someone as small as myself could never patch.
Worst-case scenario - I feel as though there was something I must have done to deserve an unwanted comment, wink, or touch. Comments from the women in my life such as, “Are you sure you want to be wearing that in public? You don’t want to hurt yourself” or “Don’t forget to bring your mace—don’t want to put yourself in a dangerous situation,” only fuel a fear that a catcall is my fault, or in fact a compliment.
But sexual harassment is neither of these. Sexual harassment in public spaces is a violation of consent and a form of sexual violence. No matter if the harasser physically grabs someone or stares predatorily, they overstep the boundaries of individuals trying to go about their day. Hollaback!, a global organization fighting street harassment, defines sexual harassment in public as “a power dynamic that constantly reminds historically subordinated groups (women and LGBTQ folks, for example) of their vulnerability to assault in public spaces,” producing a feedback loop of sexual objectification in ordinary spaces. No one consents to this type of behavior in any form, and it shouldn’t be seen as tolerable in any light.
Stop Street Harassment, another organization that fights public sexual harassment and catcalling, commissioned survey research that found 65 percent of American women had experienced street harassment. Among reporting women, 23 percent had been sexually assaulted, 20 percent had been stalked, and 9 percent had been coerced into sexual activity against their will. Public sexual harassment is nonconsensual and a form of gendered violence.
The prevalence of sexual harassment in public seems daunting in the broader scope, so here are some things you can focus on to fight against sexual harassment in public spaces:
- UNDERSTAND that no one is invited to make unwanted comments, looks, or gestures to your body or personhood without your consent. Ever. Clothes can’t talk, and they certainly can’t give consent. Harassers aren’t paying anyone a compliment: they are committing sexual violence. In a world where victims are blamed for harassers’ actions, remember the activists and growing social movements who are striving to dismantle rape culture and fight for justice for victims of sexual violence in the moments where dangerous public situations suck away all hope.
- KNOW the appropriate steps you can take to deal with public harassment. Stop Street Harassment provides a comprehensive list of actions those being harassed and bystanders of the situation can take.
Individuals dealing with harassers can assess the situation before them to see if an assertive or dismissive response is most appropriate. Depending on the circumstances, schedule, or general unwillingness to deal with sexism at any point in time, individuals should counter with a verbal response. Don’t feel the need to respond to any more bullshit than need be, but always stay confident and firm, and stand your ground.
Bystanders have the responsibility to intervene either indirectly by distracting the harasser and aiding the harassed person out of the situation (such as with the “fake friend” tactic), or directly by verbally condemning the behavior or calling authorities for assistance. Bystanders should also check in with the harassed person to see if additional help is wanted.
For reporting procedures, individuals can report harassers to the police, transit authority, or metro hotlines, or report the harasser to their employer (as in the example with Bates).
- REMEMBER that public sexual harassment is nothing small: it’s sexual violence and a crime that needs to be taken seriously. Advocates on the ground, in educational institutions and programs, and in the legislatures will continue to fight to secure justice from this form of violence—so never dismiss its severity, even when external sources try to label public sexual harassment as trivial. While one case of sexual harassment may seem like a small blip, remember that these micro-aggressions collect to form a normalization of such behavior, so remain steadfast in the notion that each instance is intolerable. Constant reminders of sexism in public spaces are draining, but resorting to apathy toward street harassment is no solution. That being said, allow yourself room for self-care and recovering as you see fit.
Public sexual harassment is a part of our sexist, rape culture society - but it can be countered with small steps. If you don’t consent to comments or actions from others, then such behavior is never invited.