- Posted October 24, 2013 by
Street Harassment: Part of the United States Culture Since our Early, Formative Years
- dsashin, CNN iReport producer
My first experience with street harassment was walking home from high school in suburban Southern California back in the late 90s. Men in a pickup truck followed me at a walking pace, blowing kisses and making vulgar gestures I didn’t even understand as a 14 year old. I had to cut through the neighborhood to reroute around the road they were on so they couldn’t follow me anymore. Fast-forward ten years and I was living in a more urban setting of Center City Philadelphia, and men were harassing me on my subway ride home after law school. I again re-routed and got off a stop early so they wouldn’t know my home stop. One of the men followed me off the train, waving goodbye to his friend, while shouting at me and laughing. He followed me for almost 4 blocks, making vulgar, sexual comments. It wasn’t until he realized I was headed straight towards the police station that he finally left me alone.
I was scared during each of those experiences, and they stuck with me, obviously, since I can close my eyes and relive them now after all this time. When I told people these stories, it became clear that the mindset around the behavior was that it was just "boys being boys". When I was 13, I was told I was being dramatic and should be able to just brush it off, it was “a rite of passage”. When I was 23, I couldn’t “take a compliment”, and was “lucky he hadn’t assaulted" me.
Shortly after that incident when I was 23 years old, I got involved with Hollaback!, an international organization dedicated to ending street harassment. The next year, I started HollabackPHILLY, where I currently serve as Director. The Hollaback! network, comprised of 64 branches of anti-street harassment activist organizations spread out over 25 global cities, collects first-hand accounts of street harassment while working toward changing local cultures to be less permissive of gender-based harassment and violence. At HollabackPHILLY we’re focused on innovative and engaging public programming to educate the community about street harassment, the consequences of the behavior, and ways we can improve our interpersonal relationships to make the streets feel safer. That work also involves extensive research into the history of the problem, as well as the history of anti-street harassment activism, because unfortunately, this history has been endlessly repeating since our country’s inception.
Throughout my research, I have read hundreds of stories about street harassment in the United States, spanning over more than 200 years. The types of harassing behaviors described 200 years ago, and the way those behaviors make the harassed person feel, are so similar to the modern experience that they could easily be stories submitted to HollabackPHILLY last night. The experience hasn’t changed, nor has the discontent with how widespread and unchallenged the behavior remains.
And these story submissions aren’t all from adults: sadly, we also get stories of harassment of children as young as seven years old. In the Spring of 2012, HollabackPHILLY hosted a community workshop with FAAN Mail Co-Founder, Nuala Cabral, during BuildOn’s alternative spring break for high school students. At the workshop we talked about street harassment with a group of high school girls and some boys, and heard the stories of the harassment they get as they walk to and from school. Their words were so powerful that we had them write a PSA script drawing on their experiences (the video recording of which is available above). Once again, lest you think this is a new phenomenon, if we rewind almost 150 years to 1880 Virginia we can see that school-aged children have historically been the target of street harassment, or “mashing” as they called it back then. In the 1880s and 1890s Virginia legislators were approached by schoolgirls, their parents, and the administrators of the all girl schools in the state about “mashers” lurking outside the schools. Principals and parents wrote to the legislators discussing the impact the harassment had on the students, and how it impacted their studies and senses of security. Some legislators took the matter seriously, advocating for a bill banning the mashers from being around the grounds, because the girls deserved to feel safe and comfortable as they sought their education. Unfortunately, the bill was ridiculed across the country and ultimately did not pass.
The same concerns for the safety of our girls and LGB and trans* youth as they walk to and from school are shared by parents and school teachers today, in cities all over the world. Throughout HollabackPHILLY’s anti street harassment workshops, and confirmed by stories collected through the website, high school and middle school students describe vulgar and menacing things said to them as they walk to and from school, and how it makes them uncomfortable and fearful. Harassers often specifically ask their age, confirming they’re under 18 years of age, while continuing to make the vulgar comments. While street harassment discussions usually discuss the impact harassment has on women and girls, the harassment of LGB and trans* folks is just as frequent, and more often (and more quickly) escalates to hate speech, violent comments, and actual physical violence.
Sexual harassment shouldn’t be a rite of passage into adulthood. It shouldn’t be an inevitable lesson for which we have to brace our children. It’s time we stopped giving the harassers a free pass because continuing to do this means we accept that our country’s women, LGB, and trans* citizens are subjected to a hostile environment whenever they leave their homes. Accepting it as inevitable means we embrace that "boys will be boys" is an excuse to never teach our youth how to respectfully interact with one another in public, and how to demand respect. It’s time that we shifted our culture from one of impunity surrounding gender-based violence, to one where we stand up for, and beside, each other in solidarity, condemning street harassment as unacceptable.
For more about FAAN Mail, visit http://faanmail.wordpress.com/
For more about buildOn, visit http://www.buildon.org/
For more about HollabackPHILLY, visit http://philly.ihollaback.org/