Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Street Harassment: Women and the Dangers of Public Spaces

Can we be held morally responsible for our actions? If we are dealt a set of experiences and characteristics shaped by our formative childhood years, are our adult choices not a series of actions pre-determined by those characteristics or influenced by them in some way?

The problems arise when actions affects other people - and societal norms demand laws and social conduct that respects and protects the safety, both physical and mental, of each of its citizens. So although we may have impulses, desires and thoughts that would lead us to act in aggressive manners, for the social cohesion and growth, we cannot allow those actions to run amuck. Except, it seems, when it comes to violence against women. Half of Canadian women will report being physically or sexually abused after the age of 16. On average, every six days a woman is murdered by her partner. Yearly, 40 000 arrests are made due to domestic violence, about 12% of all violent crime - but since only 22% of incidents are reported - the cases of abuse are much higher.




These atrocities are publicized and not to be taken lightly. But abuse begins much earlier, much more acceptably, much more prevalently, right outside our front door.

For women (and members of the LGBTQ community), stepping outside sometimes feels like walking into a soft war zone, an incessant battlefield.
Welcome to street harassment.

Take last week. The sun has now been shining in still freezing Toronto for all of two days, and already:

"Hey sweetheart, how you doing? You're looking good today."
"Hey girl, you look good. Come on, give me a smile."
And then:
"You don't want to say hi? Fine, keep walking bitch."


To those among you that don't believe me, turn to the woman on your left and ask her. Turn to the woman on your right, and ask her. Still, in your privilege, you will feel that we are lying. That it can't possibly be at every turn, every step of the way, that it can't possibly be that bad. That maybe, we should be flattered. 

There are plenty of definitions of street harassment widely available on the net. My preferred is from Micaela di Leonardo, author of 'Political Economy of Street Harassment' (1981):

“Street harassment occurs when one or more strange men accost one or more women… in a public place which is not the women’s worksite. Through looks, words, or gestures, the man asserts his right to intrude on the women’s attention, defining her as a sexual object, and forcing her to interact with him.”

I hear someone now: "Well, what were you wearing?"

We must move beyond my clothes. We must move beyond the blame being placed on me. We must move beyond believing this his harmless 'flirting'. To even ask this question is a remarkable example of male privilege and expectations on how women should dress and act. And if your so-called flirting scares people, then that is the problem, not the other person.

I was wearing my long canada goose coat, jeans, winter boots, thick scarf, big sunglasses. Women all bundled up or women wearing shorts and a t-shirt all experience harassment. And these 'innocent and harmless' interactions quickly devolve into more dangerous behaviour - as many of the links and examples below will demonstrate.


This fantastic site has research done from Istanbul, Poland, Boston, Canada, the UK, New York and India where extensive surveys of young girls through to older women demonstrate that street harassment occurs to every class, shape, age and look of women. I hope this puts to rest the (very male) notion that 'only pretty women' get harassed (therefore its really not his fault; she was so pretty).

The New York Times recently conducted a survey in which women - all respondents, all 200 of them - said that they had been harassed too many times to count and that it was consistently "brushed off, like a fact of life." Since the survey went out in the beginning of April 2014, 200 more women have come forward to voice their experiences, and this website has many statistics on the high percentage of women experiencing harassment. It was quite clear:

"The stories had a common theme: a sense that street harassment is not considered a legitimate safety concern. Readers told stories of harassment in all neighborhoods and of all kinds, including frequent catcalling — unprompted passing comments like “Hey, beautiful” or “Hi, sexy” — but also of being followed, stalked and groped in public places."

I've written before on the extreme negative impact this has on women. The access to public spaces is predominantly a male privilege. Street harassment further entrenches the reality that women are not welcome in public spaces and the consequences are clear: women fear going into public spaces and therefore cannot participate actively in what public spaces provide: participation in a political forum and access to economic activity.

For these reasons, the United Nations has made street harassment a human rights issue, has included it in the 2013 UN Commission on Women and has launched a global defence program called the Safe Cities initiative that has expanded from five pilot cities, including Cairo, Quito in Ecuador and New Delhi and has since expanded to 20 more cities. The project had created community collectives that work with authorities, provided trainings and workshops, and worked on developing and implementing new policies for urban areas and public spaces to be safer for women and girls.


The prevalence, insidious and unrelenting nature of street harassment causes women to do many of the following: constantly being on guard and aware of their surroundings, crossing the street when men are coming in the opposite direction, wearing more clothing than they'd like, avoiding eye contact, being out alone or being out at night, pretending to talk on a cellphone to avoid interactions. I've done all these things, and more: always restricting actions or movements and being aware of your body due to the harm, the stares, the words that may come to or at it.

Women and girls must be allowed to safely enter into public spaces without fear to do the most mundane of things, but street harassment impacts a woman's entire life: where she goes when she leaves the house, her routes to work or to the gym, whether she participates in outdoor events, protests, marches. Whether she feels comfortable, whether she feels normal and like she is a part of her social surroundings.

And for those of you who still think, its just a few words, let me give you numerous examples of how quickly those words devolve. In fact, let's not link them. The ever impressive and implacable Soraya Chemaly recently asked: "Is a man running over a 14 year old girl for refusing him sex serious enough?" Let's put them in bold typeface right here:


  • In San Francisco last year, a man stabbed a woman in the face and arm after she didn't respond positively to his sexually harassing her on the street.

  • In Bradenton, Fla., a man shot a high school senior to death after she and her friends refused to perform oral sex at his request. I

  • In Chicago, a scared 15-year-old was hit by a car and died after she tried escaping from harassers on a bus.

  • Again, in Chicago, a man grabbed a 19-year-old walking on a public thoroughfare, pulled her onto a gangway and assaulted her.

  • In Savannah, Georgia, a woman was walking alone at night and three men approached her.  She ignored them, but they pushed her to the ground and sexually assaulted her

  • In Manhattan, a 29-year-old pregnant woman was killed when men catcalling from a van drove onto the sidewalk and hit her and her friend.

  • Last week, a runner in California -- a woman -- was stopped and asked, by a strange man in a car, if she wanted a ride. When she declined he ran her over twice.

This must be, I imagine, the way the first decriers of domestic violence felt, back when the home was still locked in the private sphere and police and neighbours turned a blind eye. Not our business. Not really happening. Nothing we can do. That's just the way it is.

Of course this is not true, and what a failure to ourselves and humanity would it be if we simply shrugged our shoulders and let the the abuse continue. There's a great poem on this by Martin Niemoller entitled 'First They Came...' about turning a blind eye to abuse until it happens to you... I'm applauding the growing number of male allies and organizations aimed at educating young men about pride, ego and confidence, and promoting truth, friendship, collaboration and support among men and women. No gendered problem is ever resolved through a one sided approach. We need you to come on board.

You can practise restraint. You can see women not as sexual objects but as persons just wanting to go about their day. You can tell your friend to stop thinking its cool to catcall to women, or make vulgar remarks on their bodies. You can call out bad behaviour. And if you do want to approach someone, sign up to a dating site. And if you absolutely can't help yourself (no seriously, help yourself), approach with only nice, polite things to say and with the full knowledge that you will probably be refused. And if you are, thank her and walk away. She is not destroying your ego just as you are not destroying her self worth. A little more kindness is good for all of us.


The pictures throughout this post are from this brilliant street campaign, and you buy the tshirt here.

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