You're walking down the street on your way to the corner store to pick up some seltzer, enjoying the fresh summer breeze, happy to be alive, when, suddenly, *record scratch*: Some passing jackass rolls down his window to hoot at you about your butt. Normally, you'd just feel angry and violated. But now, you can feel angry and violated and call Stop Street Harassment's brand-new hotline at 855-897-5910, or log on to secure chat, rather than having to endure boorish behavior alone. That's right, there's now a street harassment support hotline.
The idea is the brainchild of Holly Kearl, Stop Street Harassment's founder and the hotline's chief architect. As an organization, Stop Street Harassment provides a range of resources about street harassment, including statistics, street activism, educational materials, and modules for people interesting in taking educational action in their communities. Kearl tells Bustle that the idea for a hotline had been lurking in the back of her mind for some time, but when she found out that the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) was working on a project to host hotlines for similarly-minded organizations, she knew she had to make the idea a reality.
The hotline is hosted and staffed by RAINN, already internationally recognized for their sexual assault work, and staffers received additional training from Kearl and Lauren Taylor of Defend Yourself. Kearl points out that there's an unexpected benefit to using RAINN staffers — rape victims can be retraumatized by street harassment, and an experienced rape counselor can help them work through the experience.
One of the most frustrating elements of street harassment is people telling you it's your fault, because obviously whatever you were doing/wearing/thinking about made you fair game for being hassled by random strangers. That stuff can be internalized, and even Kearl, who's been working on harassment issues for years, sometimes falls prey to the "maybe it was something I did" trap. Staffers on the hotline are punching back on this problem, reinforcing that the only person responsible for street harassment is the person doing it.
Like rape counselors, they stress that street harassment is not the victim's fault, and work with victims to break down the stereotypes that may be making their experiences even worse. In our conversation, Kearl said that for about half the callers, this was all they needed. Others wanted legal advice about street harassment in their regions, and some wanted self defense tips and advice on how to deal with future encounters. Presumably, the hotline could also be called when someone is walking through a neighborhood where they feel particularly vulnerable to harassment and want real-time support.
The hotline is the first of its kind in the world, but hopefully it won't be the last.
The hotline is still new and not well-known yet, so they've had less than 20 callers, making it hard to identify broad patterns about the people using the service. But Stop Street Harassment is using word of mouth, a stickering campaign, and outreach to rape resource groups to spread the word that it's now up and running.
Of course, once word gets out, the demand will be there. In a national study, Stop Street Harassment found that 63 percent of women and 25 percent of men had experienced harassment, including leering, homophobic slurs, honking, sexist comments, blocking people's paths, and being targeted by public masturbators. In nearly 10 percent of cases, participants reported sexual assault, illustrating that there's a clear and very evident link between street harassment and sexual assault, which should come as news to exactly no one.
If that seems obvious now, that wasn't always the case, says Kearl, who has watched social attitudes towards street harassment evolve over nearly a decade of work. "When I first started working on this issue," Kearl tells Bustle, "people focused on rape didn't see the connection."
Now, thanks to Stop Street Harassment, Hollaback, and other organizations, the feminist community is much more engaged with the problem, and people are making explicit connections between street harassment and physical or sexual assault. Street harassment has led to multiple murders, and an untold number of rapes, but recognizing that has been a huge culture shift, because people tend to stubbornly cling to outdated beliefs about the world around them, especially when that's easier than dealing with problems like harassment.
It's also worth noting that street harassment is a big problem for both women and men — Kearl stresses that though women are the vast majority of street harassment victims, they're not the only ones. Trans and gay men may encounter harassment because they don't adhere to gender norms, especially when they're men of color, and disabled men, like disabled people of other genders, can be hassled for daring to be out on the street. Young people are also especially vulnerable.
"I especially thought about young people who face harassment when I worked with RAINN to have the IM chat option available since that may be a more comfortable method for them to seek help and support," says Kearl. "As kids and young people start heading back to school, they may face street harassment during their commute and I hope they will feel able to seek advice and help on the hotline."
She added that she first experienced street harassment when she was five years old, because apparently we live in a society where children are considered acceptable targets for being hounded down the street by people who really ought to know better. Especially for kids, talking about harassment, let alone admitting that it's happening, can be difficult, and the hotline creates a safe environment for them to talk and get help if they want it.
Kearl believes the hotline is the first of its kind in the world, but hopefully it won't be the last. Either way, with school starting up and more people on the streets trying to do oh-so-provocative things like get to class while the weather is nice, it's nice to know it's there.