A few weeks into my first semester of college in California, I was standing on the sidewalk in front of a friend’s house when a man much taller and larger than my 5 foot 2 inch frame walked by with his male friends. He reached out and grabbed my crotch, laughing, then walked on. I was stunned and humiliated. The impact on me was immediate: I felt less safe in my community. I avoided that neighborhood, just a block from campus, for the rest of my four years.
Vocativ’s new short film about street harassment highlights this kind of physical violation. Jen Corey, Miss DC 2009, is one of the women featured and she shared how a man shoved her onto a crowded Metro car last year and then pressed his penis against her back. After she got away from him, she cried, traumatized by his assault. In just a week, more than two million people have viewed the video.
I wish mine and Corey’s experiences were anomalies. But they’re not. Corey told me she’s heard from many women telling her they were similarly violated. In a national study conducted by survey firm GfK this spring, 23 percent of all women in the United States reported being sexually touched by a stranger in a public space and 9 percent were forced to do something sexual. This constitutes millions of women across all racial and socioeconomic classes.
Physical violence, of course, is not the most common form of street harassment. In the national study, more than half of women had experienced verbal harassment and 20 percent had been followed. I relate. Hundreds of men have whistled and honked at me, called out to me (“Hey baby”), made sexually explicit comments, and asked personally invasive questions after I indicated I didn’t want to talk. There were days when I was harassed ten times in an hour. That adds up fast, day after day. Men have also followed me on three separate occasions, scaring me badly. The reality that physical violence can and does happen is what can make even a seemingly benign, albeit annoying or disrespectful catcall, unnerving for many of us.
Despite experiencing it so often, I didn’t learn the term street harassment until I was 23 because no one talked much about it. I felt like I had no recourse except to pretend to ignore it or try to avoid it. It limited my mobility, kept me home on occasion, and even impacted where I chose to study abroad in college and where I live as an adult (near a running trail and high school track so I can mostly run harassment-free).
But today, almost eight years later, street harassment is a more widely recognized term. The Internet is full of campaigns and ideas for dealing with it, from handing out Cards against Harassment to asking someone else being harassed, “You Ok Sis?” to putting up street art that says “Stop telling women to smile.” The fact that a street harassment video has more than 2 million views is incredible. This issue gaining visibility.
But just because it’s more visible doesn’t mean it’s always regarded as a problem. Look at the comments on the Vocativ video – or, no doubt, this article. Vocativ film producer Mariah Wilson said, “I am shocked by the anger and hatred that has poured out of some of the commenters who call our interviewees very awful names and generally denounce our video as being baseless ‘feminazi’ propaganda.”
There are people – mostly men but also some women — who say harassment happens because of how people dress. Wilson said, “A few commenters have suggested – in earnest – that all women should consider wearing burkas and the harassment will go away.” That won’t work though. A study in Yemen, where most women do wear burkas, found that more than 90 percent of women had been street harassed and most had been groped.
There are people who cry, “Freedom of speech!” as if the freedom to be safe in public spaces should be trumped by someone’s desire to comment on someone’s body. There are always people who portray street harassment as a compliment or “natural” when it’s not, or say “get over yourself” and “find something more important to whine about,” as if feeling safe isn’t important.
Sadly, with a few exceptions, most of our politicians, educators, and legal professionals are slow to recognize this issue or do anything to prevent it or address it. And then there are companies like Market Fair Mall in New Jersey, Lego, and Snickers (and more) that make light of it in their ads and marketing materials, YouTube who will not take down Simple Pickup videos watched by millions that show men harassing and assaulting women on the streets, and some law enforcement officers who laugh at harassed persons or tell them to “grow thicker skin” when they seek help.
So what will it take before street harassment – from verbal to physical – is taken seriously by all?
I’ve found the best way is for us to share our stories with everyone we can to make them more aware. Corey has, too. Most people who have contacted her have thanked her for speaking out, and in particular, dozens of men have told her they didn’t realize this happened and now will be looking out for it. And stay tuned for a second video from Vocativ; they too are committed to making this problem more visible.