Street Harassment: Is It Ever OK?

Street Harassment

via Flickr user M.V. Jantzen

Yesterday I was walking the dog to the park. It was hot, over 80 degrees and sunny. Summer had finally hit London and I was welcoming it by wearing a dress without a jacket for the first time all year.

Along the ten minute walk, I experienced what women around the world experience every day: men leering, winking, making kissy faces and hollering at me from their cars.

Every time the weather turns nice, dresses come out of closets and women collectively cringe as they walk down the street to choruses of hoots and whistles. It’s annoying, disturbing and downright threatening, so when I got home I tweeted a little rant:

Street Harassment

I then got into an interesting discussion with fellow travel blogger Raul, of the I Live to Travel blog. He was concerned that when it comes to travel these things are often just a cultural misunderstanding. He wanted to make clear that, even though harassment is wrong, we shouldn’t impose “our way” on other cultures.

This is the blog post where I spell out how that thinking is completely wrong.

First let me say it should be the right of every human being to walk down a street unharassed. Marginalizing women (or any group) by treating them like objects is not “culture” no matter how ingrained the behavior.

From a simple “Hey Gorgeous!” to public masturbation, I guarantee that whether you live in NYC or Kansas or Bali or Capetown the women in your community experience this crap all the time. From the time we hit puberty, being out alone in public has meant being vulnerable.

Street Harassment

As Raul suggests here, sometimes there could be true cultural differences to consider.

For instance, I know that in Paris catcalling is a common flirting practice for young men. But the fact that it’s a cultural tradition didn’t stop women from protesting their country’s pervasive sexism in the streets last summer. In fact, in the wake of the Strauss-Kahn scandal women’s support groups in France registered a 600% increase in harassment complaints. Just because it’s a part of everyday life doesn’t mean women want it to stay that way.

“I didn’t go a single day without 10 to 15 dudes following me and whispering every single Asian-language word they knew while trying to grab me and pull me into their disgusting arms.” That’s a writer from Rookie Magazine describing her daily commute in France. She had to allow extra time to get to work because of men blocking her way.

A collection of harassment stories from Rookie magazine.

And here a young woman from India talks about how she is forced to deal with harassment in her country: “I purposely buy clothes that are too big for me. I purposely go out wearing baggy clothes because I feel that when I wear something that shows skin, men stare at me more. Actually, they stare no matter what I wear, but even more when I am wearing something revealing. It should not be about what I wear.”

There are thousands more stories like hers on the Hollaback website. The organization is dedicated to stopping street harassment around the globe by standing up to it’s perpetrators and educating the public on how it is NOT OK.

Women from hundreds of different cultures are shouting for this to stop. It’s coming from them, from us, from every woman or man who is sick of not being able to walk down the street without being harassed.

It is most certainly not our American values forcing them to change.

As nineteen-year-old Afghan protestor Noor Jahan Akbar said last year: “Women’s safety is not a western idea, even in the time of Prophet Mohammad, women were safe, they could do trade, they could go out, and that’s what we deserve.”

Read about Afghan women protesting harassment in 2011.

This is not to say men can never flirt with women ever. It’s probably best to do that sort of thing in a cafe, bar or club where people are more receptive to social interaction, but even approaching a woman on the street to give her a compliment isn’t off limits. If it’s in a respectful and genuine manner it can be a lovely gesture that would probably make even the hardest city girl blush.

Street Harassment

Raul had a cute story about his Latina Aunts loving “piropo” from men, but that experience is not universal. Inti Maria Tidball-Binz, the leader of Hollaback Buenos Aires, shared her thoughts on that practice: ”For many of us in Buenos Aires ‘piropos,’ or ‘catcalls’ are aggressive and intrusive.” It’s also possible that what once was an endearing way for a boy to get a girl’s attention has now turned into full-on harassment. Whatever the case, some people obviously don’t want to put up with it anymore.

When I told Raul I was writing this post he said he thought a good question to consider is where the line lies, since “we all agree the harassment side of the line is wrong.”

Women from Delhi to DC have their armor on when they walk down the street because they have to. You may not think a simple “Hey, gorgeous!” or wink would be offensive to them, but it could be. You don’t know what else she’s already endured on her way to the subway.

As it says on the Hollaback site, “Rather than deliberating the gray areas of street harassment, treat everyone you encounter with respect.” Is it really so hard to treat a woman on the street the same as you would a man? The answer to that is no, no it isn’t.

Street Harassment

A poster in NYC - via Flickr user arimoore

So it’s time to stop defending this ridiculous practice as “culture”. Lots of despicable things used to be a part of everyday culture in the States, but that doesn’t mean they were ever ok. And let’s not forget that some of the worst offenders can be in Western countries. The map on the Hollaback site has a lot of little stars in the US and UK!

Read about an American woman punching a stranger in the face after being harassed.

So hollaback, stand up to the harassers, and be sympathetic to victims. Slowly we can change this behavior and make the streets of Planet Earth safe for people of both genders, one country at a time.

Hollaback Map

If you’d like to continue the conversation on Twitter, I’m @kitwhelan and Raul is @ilivetotravel. Or use more than 140 characters and spill your thoughts in the comments.

UPDATE (Friday 6:52 GMT): I want to be extremely clear that I am not saying that my fellow blogger Raul supports street harassment. He and I got into an interesting discussion where he brought up the common view that much of what we consider harassment is a matter of cultural differences. Obviously I (and many women) disagree and that’s what spawned this post. I have nothing but the utmost respect for Raul and, though we’ve never met in person, we chat on Twitter often and I consider him to be a travel friend.

UPDATE 2 (Friday 10:40 GMT): There’s an interesting discussion about this post happening on Reddit. Head over there to read more opinions & stories from women around the globe.

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  • http://gabbingaway.wordpress.com/ Sophie

    This is a brilliant post, and so true. I hate that feeling when you are wearing a dress or something tight and a guy shouts or blares his horn at you. In the past it’s made me feel so embarrassed, and tearful, like I’ve done something wrong, it’s terrible in this day and age, no matter where in the world. I always hate that you have to ‘expect’ it when you go abroad, as though somehow if it’s been doing in a hot exotic place then it’s ok. Surely the biggest sign that it’s wrong is that the women in these countries protest it themselves.

    I’ll be checking out Hollaback, thanks for pointing that out :)

    If you’re interested, check out this website by a UK writer and journalist Linda Grant: http://athousandreasons.com/

    It’s an eye-opening record of things women have had to, and still do, deal with in their day to day lives.

    • Kit

      That site is powerful & infuriating.

      It’s so frustrating to be left feeling powerless and embarrassed when you’re just trying to walk down the street. It’s made better by knowing you’re not alone & there are so many amazing people around the world trying to stop it. Thanks for reading Sophie!

  • http://www.runawaybrit.com Runaway Brit

    I agree with you, it should be the right of every single person, no matter their gender, race, age, appearance etc… to walk down the street unharrassed, but sadly it’s true that as soon as the sun comes out and girls are not layered up under coats and scarves, unwanted attention can become a big problem for women.

    As a woman who is rather well-endowed, I have had to put up with leery comments shouted at me ever since I was about 13 years old (yes, even being a young teenager did not stop builders, or groups of men, cat-calling me like they would a stripper). In Paris I took to wearing a ring on my wedding finger to stop the harassment from men on the tubes, strangely it worked! I do not have supermodel looks, or an incredible figure – I do not have bags of self-esteem or dress even remotely provocatively, and I am MORTIFIED when somebody yells at me in the street. I do not find it complimentary or flattering, in fact I check myself and my outfit wondering what made that man think so little of me.

    When I travel, I am sensitive to culture – I would not wear shorts or tank-tops in a Muslim country for example, but even so, the very fact that I am a Western woman has led to street harassment which is not on. I have dressed accordingly to respect other beliefs than my own, and I expect to gain that respect back. Things don’t change if we sit back and say ‘Oh, but it’s culture’.

    • Kit

      Precisely! I relate to everything you said.

      I have dressed extremely modestly when in Muslim countries, but that didn’t stop men in Egypt from leering. One cornered me in an elevator (luckily I was able to run out) and another masturbated to me behind his desk.

      There is nothing you did to cause such behavior. Not the way you dress, walk, or look. It is simply an unacceptable behavior that some people have yet to learn is wrong. Hopefully things are slowly getting better.

  • http://leahtravels.com/site/ Leah Travels

    I think this is a well thought out post that raises concerns of many women throughout the world. If a woman doesn’t like to be approached in such a manner then it shouldn’t happen. Nobody should feel uncomfortable walking down the street. With that being said, I have not been bothered by the cat calls I’ve received. I make light of it, and depending on how it is given, I take it as a compliment. That’s just me. It’s certainly not a hot-button issue for me like it is for other women.

    One last thing I want to say, I personally know Raul. In fact, I met him and several other travel bloggers in Chicago the weekend before last. And before that, we met in Austin in January. We will meet again next month in Colorado. Raul is a wonderful man and never made me feel anything but comfortable. He is a gentleman, very kind, and considerate. I do not want anyone to think that he condones this sort of treatment or acts this way towards women. That is not who Raul is.

    • Kit

      I absolutely don’t mean to insinuate that Raul would ever condone this sort of behavior. He simply provided the inspiration for this post by airing the view (that many people share) that some street harassment is simply a matter of cultural differences during what was a very fruitful & respectful conversation on Twitter. Obviously I disagreed, which is why I decided to write this post to explain my views on this subject. I have nothing but the utmost respect for him.

      I think how you let the catcalls roll off is certainly commendable, because it’s not so easy for all of us. That being said, I believe you shouldn’t have to. While it’s nice to get a compliment, it’s also nice to walk to the subway without having to deal with anything unusual.

      • http://leahtravels.com/site/ Leah Travels

        I know you didn’t mean to insinuate anything of the sort, Kit. You’re far more responsible with your platform than to do something like that. I just didn’t want a casual reader to misconstrue who Raul is based on scanning and/or inference. Thanks, Kit.

  • dmf

    Ugh. I can’t stand the whole “I know one person that likes it, so it’s always ok” argument.

    Some people like to get punched during sex. That’s cool with me, if you’re in to that. Does that mean that I should reasonably expect that punching anyone during a one night stand is a good idea?

    Seriously, I don’t see how otherwise rational people don’t get this.

    • Kit

      That’s exactly why I wrote this post, to show people that say “Women in other cultures like it!” that in fact there are many women in many cultures who are standing up and fighting for their right to walk down a street unharassed.

  • http://lisafindley.wordpress.com Stowaway

    Wonderful post! Thanks for spreading the Hollaback site; I love that it’s meeting up with international movements to cut this crap out.

    For men who say, “But how am I supposed to show appreciation for a beautiful woman now? I have to watch everything I say!” I respond, “Women have to watch everything they say and do all the time, to keep themselves safe. It’s not so bad for you to have a little taste of it. You might even start treating us like people and find the freedom in that!”

    • Kit

      Thanks! Yes, it’s ridiculous when some people find it hard to engage with women in respectful ways. It’s not so hard!

  • http://a-sense-of-place.com ehalvey

    THANK YOU!

    And what is even the point of honking at me while I’m walking?? Am I going to run over to your speeding car to get your number? It doesn’t even make sense…

    I will say that most of the time, I don’t get freaked out. But I haven’t had the kissy faces or been cornered. Just honks, “ow-ows”, and, most randomly, a “you got a nice shape” from a group of lesbians.

    Either way, it’s not ok to treat another person as an object, and that’s the reason it’s irritating to frightening. If I’m just an object, I have no rights or ability to say no. Think I’m hot? Approach me like a person.

    • Kit

      Amen to everything you said! “Approach me like a person.” <– Should not be so hard!

  • http://www.chrystal-clear.com Chrystal McKay

    Thank you for writing this post. Street is the number one reasons I disliked Buenos Aires so greatly and finally quit my job and left the country. I couldn’t take it. It was non-stop from all the men, and it is so aggressive and invasive. It is NEVER appropriate. They say some South American woman like the attention – but there is a difference between attention and harassment. Polite compliments and gestures are appreciated. Cat-calls or grabbing your arm is NEVER ok in my books. AGain – THANK YOU for writing this post.

    • Kit

      Thank you for adding your voice to the post! I think it’s so important that people realize women from all cultures want this to stop. It’s not cute, it’s at best annoying and at worst dangerous.

      I’m so sorry you had to uproot your life over it. Hopefully you’re in a better environment now!

  • Rose

    I’m an erasmus student in Istanbul and made a campaign against sexual harassment of international women. If interested if can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NzAaqLcDN3k. Any comments or reactions are welcome!
    Greets,
    Rose