Elevate Difference

Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women

Street harassment is rampant in all parts of the world—from New York City to Tokyo to Cairo—yet it is still accepted globally. This largely ignored problem is thoroughly discussed and analyzed in Holly Kearl’s book entitled, Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women. Defined by Kearl in the first chapter as “unwanted attention” in public places, street harassment includes and is not limited to “physically harmless leers, whistles, honks, kissing noises, and nonsexually explicit evaluative comments,” but also extends to “more insulting and threatening behavior like vulgar gestures, sexually charged comments, flashing, and stalking, to illegal actions like public masturbation, sexual touching, assault, and rape.” Many (if not most) women experience it; very few men know about it.

The second chapter explains the context in which street harassment occurs. If a young girl, perhaps wearing a short skirt, walks alone on a street at night and is sexually assaulted, she would most likely be blamed for the assault, right? Wrong, Kearl tells us; her clothing and time she chose to walk outside is not her fault that she was sexually assaulted. As someone who lived in a small town in Morocco for half a year, I can attest that I wore conservative clothes yet still experienced men whistling and throwing rocks at me in the light of the day. Therefore, Kearl explains, street harassment is a power dynamic that shows which gender wields more power and control in a given society.

Yet street harassment is not just a gendered issue; it is multi-layered with race, socioeconomic status, gender expression, and disability, as Kearl writes in the third chapter. It is “a global problem,” as the title of the fourth chapter states. It not only happens in cities, it is more likely to happen wherever women are alone and/or traveling in public by taxi, public transportation, and on foot.

More than Kearl’s analysis and extensive research about the topic, the quotations that she includes throughout the book helps the reader to understand why street harassment is a big problem. These quotations are from Kearl’s surveys of people (the majority women) who experienced sexual harassment in public places. You can read more information about her surveys online. These written experiences illuminate women’s views and thoughts about harassment which Kearl explains in the fifth chapter that can vary from woman to woman.

Women view street harassment differently and therefore they deal with street harassment differently. Kearl notes in the sixth chapter that some women choose to ignore it; others choose to directly address the harasser. A missing link in solving the street harassment issue, as explained in the seventh chapter, is to include male allies by educating and engaging them that street harassment is not okay. Equally important in combating this problem is empowering women and raising public awareness, which Kearl gives specific ideas and suggestions as to how to do this in the eighth and ninth chapters respectively. Finally, in the tenth chapter, Kearl notes that we must make street harassment an issue. If we shrug it to the side and ignore it, we are making a statement that street harassment is okay.

I suggest that everyone—women and especially men (because street harassment needs male allies)—pick up a copy of Kearl’s book to understand the complexities of street harassment and why it should not be ignored any longer. More importantly, though, after reading Stop Street Harassment, think about what you can do to stop street harassment in your own community. Because street harassment is not going to go away—and the time to take action is now!

Cross-posted at Gender Across Borders

Written by: Emily Heroy, November 12th 2010

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