One day, during my freshman year of college, I was walking down the street in rainboots and sweatpants. Yeah, totally asking for it, right? I walked past an older man, who said, and I quote, “I wanna sex you up.” Yeah, like that awful 90s song. And while I have to admit the reference was kind of funny, what that man did wasn’t funny at all. Especially because he stopped, followed me for a few steps and told me in more explicit detail exactly what he’d like to do. I’ll spare you.
I was just walking down the street. I wasn’t asking to become an object in some stranger’s sexual fantasy, and I definitely wasn’t asking to be verbally violated. And unfortunately, this is just one of many, many stories I can tell you about street harassment. They range from the ridiculous to the threatening and scary, but they all have one thing in common – they were all unwanted interactions, in which I felt objectified and violated.
I know I’m not alone. For women and LGBT people, street harassment can be a constant problem. Over the past few years, people have turned to the internet to bring more attention to this issue, so common but so often ignored. One of the leaders of this movement is Holly Kearl, who founded Stop Street Harassment, a website that allows people to share their stories and learn more about street harassment. I had the chance to interview her about her website and her book, Stop Street Harassment. Read on for more about bystander intervention, social media activism, and Anti-Street Harassment Week.
How did Stop Street Harassment get started?
The back story is that I had to do a master’s thesis for my graduate school program, and I ended up writing it about street harassment. This was in 2007, and my thesis focused on websites and how people were using them to deal with street harassment. About a year after I turned in my thesis, I realized that two of the websites I liked the best were gone. So I basically started Stop Street Harassment to fill that void and to be a place where people could find resources and information about street harassment, and also share their stories. That was in 2008, and from there it’s really grown as there’s been more of a need for dialogue around it, and action, and research. I wrote my book in 2010, and now I do a lot of speaking on the topic, too.
How would you explain street harassment to someone who doesn’t know what it is, or hasn’t experienced it?
I would say that it’s unwelcome words and actions between strangers in public spaces, often motivated by gender. Or, maybe even an easier way to say it is that it’s sexual harassment that happens in public spaces between strangers. I think it helps to give an example, because it is sort of abstract. So I’d say unwanted leering, or sexually explicit comments, or someone continually asking for your phone number or for a date after you’ve told them no. Being followed, or being groped on the subway.
There’s a section on the Stop Street Harassment website about bystander responses – what tips would you give to bystanders in street harassment situations?
One of the most common things I hear from people as far as why they don’t get involved is that they’re not sure if street harassment is actually happening. You know, maybe it’s two people who know each other and it’s consensual. So I think one of the things that’s pretty easy to do if you have that concern is just ask the person you think is being harassed, “Hey, are you ok? Do you need any help?” And then you can go from there. If they say yes, hopefully they may tell you what they need help with.
Sometimes in other situations it’s very clear that someone is yelling at people, or making people feel uncomfortable. So again, you can ask, and empower that person by saying “Do you need help? What can I do?” Or if you don’t have the opportunity to do that, you may be able to get someone else around you to confront the harasser.
A lot of times, you don’t have to be confrontational. You can provide a distraction or interruption. Maybe even ask the harasser what time it is, or when the next bus is coming. Something that’s pretty non-confrontational but does interrupt the situation and can give the person who’s being harassed a chance to get away.
One other good example that I’ve heard from a number of people who’ve shared stories on my site is pretending like you know the person being harassed. Walking up to them and saying, “Hey Susan, I can’t believe I haven’t seen you in so long.” And pretend like you don’t even know this person is harassing “Susan.” And lead her away by saying, “Oh let’s go over here and catch up,” or, “Can I walk you home?” Just try to get them out of that situation. Again, you’re not being confrontational at all, you’re kind of playing dumb. That’s worked in different situations.
Over the past few years, the dialogue surrounding street harassment has really grown online, on blogs, websites, and social media. Do you think that has created change?
Absolutely. Most of the work that I do is online, and it’s putting information out there, and really making visible what is so often, and has for too long been, an invisible problem for most of us. I think that social media has been incredible for connecting people around the world, and for letting us do a lot of idea sharing, too. There have been quite a few different tweet chats and campaigns that people around the world can participate in. I think that it helps legitimize the issue, when they can say, look, it’s happening in every single country, and all these different demographics, and rural communities, and cities. Because people have stereotypes about why street harassment happens or where, and so having this way to connect globally is really powerful.
And now, people even get arrested, or companies take action because of social media. There are some examples of each of those. I think it was about a year ago, a man took a photo of another man who was exposing himself on the subway. He took a photo of the man’s face and tweeted it, and it spread. People kept retweeting it, and the police were actually able to arrest this person who had exposed himself because of that photo and because of social media.
And for an example of a company changing, there’s a company called Yes to Carrots that makes lotions and creams, and they’re based in San Francisco. Someone took a photo of packaging they had on one of their products that basically invited street harassment and portrayed it as a compliment. And then that person tweeted the picture. Myself, and Hollaback, and a group in D.C. called Collective Action for Safe Spaces, and other individuals started tweeting about that and saying, this isn’t ok. It’s not a compliment. I also put something on my blog. And that same day, Yes to Carrots apologized and decided to stop using that packaging.
As you mentioned, a very common defense of street harassment is that it’s a compliment. Do you have any tips about how to talk to people about street harassment, and spread that message that it’s really not acceptable?
When I did my very first book talk, I had several people participate with me, including someone from Men Can Stop Rape. And I really liked something that he said there on this topic. A man in the audience asked how he was supposed to compliment women if he can’t say things to them on the street. And this speaker’s response was, compliment the women that you know. Because they’ll actually appreciate it, and you know them. You can give them a real compliment. Whereas if you’re just saying something about the way someone looks, if you don’t know them, that’s really objectifying them. You’re just seeing their outside.
I think that talking to people about consent is helpful, too. It’s just such an important topic that we just don’t have enough conversations about in our society. You can’t just walk up to someone and start saying whatever you want to them without getting their consent. Because you don’t know what’s going on for them. You don’t know if they’re late for something, you don’t know if someone in their family just died, you don’t know if they’re a rape survivor, and approaching them could feel really scary. So I think trying to get people to think about it from the perspective of the person they’re approaching, rather than from their own perspective, is important. And it can be really hard.
Anti-Street Harassment Week is April 7 – 13. How can people get involved in that?
Groups of people around the world are taking some form of action to bring attention to street harassment, so it’s really open-ended. I have a list of suggestions, but people can get creative with what they want to do. At minimum, I encourage people to share their stories, again, to make visible what is often an invisible problem. I think it’s especially powerful for women to share stories with men in their lives, because too often the men that we care about and who care about us don’t know that this is happening to us. I think that they would be upset, and they might start calling out their friends or other harassers, because it would become personal to them.
Something that a lot of college groups are doing as a more concrete action is sidewalk chalking. Pro-respect messages, or anti-street harassment messages. Some groups will have people going to places where they’ve been harassed, and writing something like “I was harassed here. I reclaim this spot.” Which I think is really empowering. And I think it brings concrete attention to it. It lets people know, this isn’t some abstract issue that happens out “there.” This is happening where you are, where you live.
Garnet is a student at Columbia University in New York City. She is “that person” who starts dancing at a party when everyone else is standing around, and if there were a Facebook stalking Olympics, she would be a gold medalist. She also loves cheesy 90s music, and almost died of happiness when Vanilla Ice retweeted her. Once. Follow her on Twitter @garnethenderson.