It's time for an honest conversation about street harassment – when it starts, how far it can go, and the ways in which it can be avoided. After the now infamous video of a woman being catcalled over 100 times while walking for 10 hours in NYC went viral last week, #NotJustHello started trending on Twitter. Women from all over the world shared their stories of having been harassed on the street, some from frighteningly young ages. I asked people on Twitter to retweet if they were sexually harassed before the age of 18. Aside from the disheartening number of retweets (this is probably the only time a huge number of RTs can be described as "disheartening"), the ages of people responding were horribly upsetting. For some, instances of street harassment started when they were as young as 6 years old. The average age was between 9 and 12.
Imagine, for a moment, experiencing years of street harassment before you're even old enough to vote. Before you can drive a car. Before your first pop quiz, or sleepover, or date. Though discussions of street harassment tend to focus on adults, most victims have already been leered at, propositioned, verbally abused, groped, or even physically injured by the time they turn 16. It's time to talk about how urgent this issue really is. Street harassment is annoying, degrading, offensive, and even scary when it happens to a person of any age – but when it happens to young women and little girls, it can come to define their sense of how they view themselves, their bodies, their worth, and their safety in public environments.
A quick Google search yields several heartbreaking examples, like the 14-year-old girl in Florida who was kidnapped and run over after refusing to have sex with a strange man who offered her money. Or the woman in Queens whose throat was cut by a stranger/would-be suitor in the lobby of her apartment building after refusing to talk to him at 5:20AM. Some truly tragic cases wind up like Maren Sanchez, who was stabbed to death after she said no to being a classmate's junior prom date . Or Mary Spears, a young mother who was shot to death for saying no to a stranger in a nightclub . There are cases like Jasmine Thompson, a cheerleader shot in Florida for refusing to perform oral sex, and Shayla Raymond who was chased into the street in Chicago by a group of harassers, and was causing her to be fatally hit by a car . These are just a few examples. You can find endless others (it's dizzying, and nauseating.)
To be clear, street harassment, and the violence that can spin off from it, isn't something that only happens to ciswomen. In fact, transwomen face an extra layer of danger, being much more prone to attack. You need only look at the Cece McDonald case to understand that street harassment can escalate to violence for anyone, and when it does, the law may decide that a victim has no right to self-defense (which is an entire issue unto itself, which undoubtedly deserves an in-depth conversation of its own.) The point, harassment can happen to anyone. Cis, trans, able, disabled, lesbian, gay, or bisexual; name a marginalized population and there will be no shortage of stories of harassment (or worse). Yet women (regardless of other intersecting identities) report an almost universal experience of harassment when they are in public—and, increasingly—when they are online.
As a culture, we tend to blame victims of sexual violence for not seeing the warning signs, for being in places where they might be at risk, or worse yet, for not being clairvoyant enough to know that someone is a predator. "Stranger danger" lessons taught to children as completely valid precautions, but then are reinforced for women as they approach adolescence and adulthood as a way of reinforcing the idea that something as simple as walking to school can feel like running a gauntlet of creeps – and that the responsibility is on the woman to stay safe. Where are the memorable rhymes taught to men at a young age in an effort to internalize their responsibility not to harass? They don't exist, and that is a fundamental portrait of the problem when it comes to the issue of "Who is responsible for the safety of women?"
We teach women in particular to be careful who they say "yes" to, because if they say "yes" to the wrong person and something terrible happens, it's their fault for not knowing better. But when the risk of saying “no” is injury or death and the risk of saying "yes" is injury or death, what is the right answer? Instead of burdening women with the impossible task of sussing out the intentions of every human she encounters (and blaming her for her own experience as a victim when she is inevitably unable to do so with total accuracy at all times), shouldn't we be teaching men to be responsible for their actions, and beyond that, to stop viewing women as objects who are obligated to receive their words and/or physical advances?
Because a huge part of the problem is that men are programmed, from birth, to see women as blank slates for them to project their expectations and desires onto. They think that saying "hello" to a woman on the street is an innocent act, but that's because they've never looked beneath the surface to examine why they are saying that, what they're hoping to accomplish by saying it, and why exactly they feel that it's acceptable to verbal come into another person's personal space to begin with. They think it's innocent – how do you ward off a problem that many think is harmless?
Looking at some of the comments I receive whenever I talk about harassment online, or the reactions to #YouOkSis or the catcalling video, there's always a contingent of men (and sometimes women) who swear that catcalls are flattering and that comments alone aren't problematic. These are the people who believe that only when people resort to violence does catcalling become a problem, so why be afraid of anyone that speaks to you? The problem with that logic is that no one knows which catcallers are harmless, and which ones will respond with violence. Societal norms mean that some people who are targets of street harassment are viewed as more disposable than others, largely based on gender, race, ability, and class. As a result, women who already have reason to believe that the police aren't on their side are left with little more than hope and a fast pace. Avoiding street harassment is about as feasible as never going outside. The time-worn tricks of headphones, claiming to have a partner, or simply doing your best to ignore what's happening haven't solved the problem.
We need new solutions, starting with those who are not participating in the harassment and refuse to condone it or encourage it with their silence. Whether that is victim focused bystander intervention like #YouOkSis, PSAs with catchy slogans like the “Cosplay Is Not Consent” campaign that was popular in convention spaces this year (I suggest “She's walking, not shopping for your attention. Leave her alone.”, but I'm biased), or laws that penalize the behaviors that come before the physical violence.
Much like traffic school can be a consequence for bad drivers, anti-harassment classes certainly couldn't hurt. Street harassment works the same way as online harassment: sure, most people making unwanted comments probably aren't going to do anything more egregious, but all it takes is the knowledge that it could escalate to make every instance of "lesser" harassment instill fear. It's time to start building a culture where women's safety is everyone's responsibility, starting with understanding that there is no such thing as "just" hello.