Note to Readers: This blog contains slang for female genitalia often used as a term of abuse.
“Hey, hey sweet lips….HEY SWEET LIPS.”
Head down. Don’t engage. Walk faster.
“Hey sweet lips, come on over here.”
“Man, she ain’t no sweet lips. That’s just a white c**t.”
Jolt of anger. Heightened awareness. Pulse rising. Don’t engage. Walk faster.
While the victim-shamers may ask what I was wearing or how I was walking (because that should matter?!), let the record show that I was walking down a typical busy street to a friend’s house in Brooklyn. An evening to catch up with a friend was very quickly taken over by a complete loss of safe personal space as a woman. Does this happen often? Yes. Does this only happen to me? You’re kidding, right?
As a growing number of advocates are realizing the prevalence of street harassment, women are slowly gaining momentum to and the courage to start what I can only hope will be a movement. Young people like Caroline Tomkins are speaking out in New York City and literally putting a lens on the men who verbally and physically make her feel uncomfortable, unsafe, and vulnerable simply for being a woman. And social media movements like Twitter’s #YesAllWomen campaign continue to showcase the breadth of daily street harassment.
“‘I have a boyfriend’ is the easiest way to get a man to leave you alone. Because he respects another man more than you. #yesallwomen”
— Vincente Perez (@I_Am_SubVersive) May 27, 2014
Yet there are still new sources, even women in the media, defending this clear violation of basic human rights – as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts it, “the right to live in freedom and safety.” So what now?
WE RAISE OUR VOICES.
Internationally, studies show that between 70-99% of women experience street harassment at some point during their lives. So, basically all women. Every day, a woman is subjected to a disrespectful, unwelcome, and often threatening act motivated by gender or sexual orientation. And it is unacceptable.
Public harassment is typically motivated by racism, homophobia, transphobia, or classism—types of harassment that men have also experienced and women perpetrated—and is recognized as socially unacceptable behavior. However, men’s harassment of women motivated by gender is portrayed as as compliment, a joke, or a trivial annoyance. Women are often asked what they are wearing or what time of day it was, lending itself to a social acceptance of gender-based abuse. It is a commonality that we must end not just for women, but for girls.
According to a study from Holly Kearl, a national street harassment expert, 90% of women have experienced some form of harassment by the age of 19, and 1 in 4 by the age of 12.
This harassment makes most women change their life in some way, like avoiding locations where they had been harassed, no longer going places alone, and even moving neighborhoods or quitting jobs. – Holly Kearl
For some girls, street harassment is their first sexual experience, one rooted in behaviors of dominance, sexism, and violence. It is an action that takes away the sexual and reproductive rights women and girls deserve. In order for girls to be truly empowered to live the lives they choose, they must feel safe in their communities, in their countries, and in the world.
It is time for action. Time for workshops to inform girls and boys ages about the issue. Time to develop health education materials to educate harassers, targets, and allies about street harassment. Time to combat degrading stereotypes about women and girls that contribute to harassment not just on the street, but in any public space. Time to not worry whether girls will be whistled at and viewed as a sexual object on her way to school. Time to discourage boys from partaking in any behavior deemed as a compliment or joke that women and girls explicitly express as inappropriate. It’s time to end street harassment once and for all so women and girls can focus on the lives they want to live.
Lend your voice NOW to ending street harassment:
- Share your story with the Stop Street Harassment campaign.
- Start a Meet Us On The Street program in your neighborhood.
- Use technology, like iHollaback’s mobile apps or Harassmap, to track when and where street harassment occurs.
- Talk about street harassment openly with friends, family, coworkers, classmates, children, and neighbors.
- Raise awareness online through social media.
- Encourage men and boys to be a MALE ALLY and look for organizations like Men Can Stop Rape dedicated to create cultures free from violence.
Cover image c/o Ruth Orkin