“For as long as I can remember, strange men and boys have said things to me on the streets” – such was the opening of Maggie Hadleigh-West’s documentary on street harassment, War Zone, almost twenty years ago (1998). In 2014, a video entitled ‘10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman’ went viral in a few hours, featuring numerous men harassing a young woman as she walks through New York City, thus bringing much needed attention to the issue of street harassment (Tran, 2015: 186). But it also reveals that not much has changed since the 1990s, and that street harassment is still part of women’s everyday lives (Kissling, 1991: 451), despite a growing international social movement denouncing and fighting this phenomenon (Logan, 2015: 196). Using a feminist lens, this essay will focus on street harassment as a form of gender-based violence against its prime victims, women, although it is acknowledged that they are not they only targets – gay and bisexual men also experience street harassment, among others (2015: 202). It will try to assess the successes and failures of feminism in addressing this particular form of sexual violence directed against women. With this in mind, I will firstly clarify what is understood by street harassment and what are its commonly accepted characteristics, and show how it significantly impacts upon the lives of women as individuals, but also has significant consequences for society as a whole (Bowman, 1993: 535). I will in a second section analyse current feminist strategies in understanding and remedying to it, and finally, I will show that despite some successes, many obstacles remain on the path of change.
Analysing street harassment through feminist lenses – an underaddressed form of gender-based violence despite its negative pervasive effects
On a daily basis, women in public places – regardless of their age, weight, clothing, or race – are the targets of “catcalls, unwanted touches, crude comments about their appearance or sexual predilection, and all other manner of harassment” by men from every race and socioeconomic background (Sullivan et al., 2010: 237). Despite its presence in every society, street harassment has been virtually ignored in sociological and psychological literature until the 1980s (Packer, 1986: 331), even by feminists, entirely focused on grave concerns about workplace sexual harassment, sexual assault and domestic violence (Logan, 2015: 197). But this might be “a bit of a mirage”: if there are only a few studies exclusively focused on it, scholars have written about it, sometimes under different appellations as the term ‘street harassment’ is not universally used (ibid). Nor is there an agreed, consensual definition of street harassment. Although many scholars have come up with different definitions, the one coined by Deborah Tuerkheimer appears quite satisfactory for the purposes of this essay: “street harassment occurs when a woman in a public space is intruded on by a man’s words, noises, or gestures. In so doing, he asserts his right to comment her body or other feature of her person, defining her as object and himself as subject with power over her” (1997: 167). Accordingly, street harassment is best understood as a gender-specific harm rather than unrelated and isolated incidents (Tran, 2015: 188), as part of “a continuum of violence against women” (Sullivan et al., 2010: 238).
There is strong evidence that street harassment causes serious and insidious negative effects on a woman’s emotional wellbeing and makes her feel unsafe and unwelcome in her own world (2010: 238). Street harassment can indeed be regarded as a “daily onslaught of sexual objectification”, as women are seen regularly as a collection of physical attributes and body parts valued only in terms of how much pleasure they provide the viewer (2010: 247), with comments such as “it’s like if you see a nice car, you’re gonna look at it” (Hadleigh-West, 1998). Because of these repeated occurrences, women tend to regard themselves as sex objects, to experience body shame, to chronically monitor their sexual appearance, and links have been established with depression and eating disorders (Fairchild and Rudman, 2008:343). Through street harassment, women learn to associate their bodies and sexuality with powerlessness, shame, fear and humiliation (Tuerkheimer, 1997: 187), and therefore experience psychological harm. Furthermore, surveys show that women fear rape more than any other criminal offense, including murder (Sullivan et al., 2010: 245). Some research suggests that women’s high fear of victimisation (rape) may stem from daily experiences of minor victimisations likely to be ignored because of their non-criminal nature – typically, street harassment (Fairchild and Rudman, 200: 343) – which reminds them that they are under constant threat of sexual violence (Tuerkheimer, 1997: 187). Because of this fear of rape, women see their physical and geographical mobility restricted, as they are forced to alter they behaviour (changing routes, clothes, avoiding to go out alone at night etc.) (Deirdre, 1994: 145). Street harassment is therefore “perhaps more pervasive […] than other expressions of violence against women”, as “it damages our self-esteem, restricts our geographic mobility, and sabotages our efforts to achieve control over our public lives” (di Leonardo, 1981: 51). However, if all agree that street harassment is a problem for women in general, each has suffered its harm in her own way (Tuerkheimer, 1997: 168) – it is crucial to avoid perpetuating gender essentialism by acknowledging that a woman’s experience cannot be isolated and described independently of race, class, sexual orientation, and other realities of experience (Deirdre, 1994: 157).
But street harassment goes further than that, and is reflective of how gender, as a social construction, shapes the unequal relations of power between men and women. Street harassment perpetuates gender roles that place males in a superior, dominant position to females (Sullivan et al., 2010: 242). It does so by serving multiple functions of social control, the first one being the reinforcement of spatial boundaries: it marks women as trespassers in public places that ‘belong’ to men, and reminds them of their possible punishment for such trespassing – violence and sexual assault (Kissling, 1991: 454). Women are assigned as sole members of the private sphere and men as proprietors of the public sphere (Bowman, 1993:541; Ilahi, 2010: 59). It is part of a larger theory of social control through ‘sexual terrorism’: men controlling and dominating women through fear of rape and sexual assault (Kissling, 1991: 456). It therefore embodies and perpetuates women’s sexual subordination, acting like a “constant and inescapable reminder of male dominance and the vulnerability of women to harm” (Tuerkheimer, 1997: 167, 188). Furthermore, is heterosexist, in the sense that the harasser assumes that his victim is heterosexual (Sullivan et al., 2010: 242). Street harassment thus reinforces the mainstream heteronormative, androcentric conception of the world, fulfilling men’s sense of “heterosexual patriarchal obligation” to “protect civilisation itself” by harassing women, especially when they are not perceived as sexually available to heterosexual men (Logan, 2015: 205). As Sakia Gunn’s story demonstrates – a 15-year old girl that was harassed at a bus stop and stabbed to death when she declined the harasser’s sexual advances and said she was a lesbian (Boykin, 2003) – lesbians are being “disciplined for defying feminine and heterosexual norms and for having the temerity to place themselves out of the harasser’s sexual reach” (Logan, 2015: 201). In short, the street becomes yet another forum that perpetuates and reinforces the gender hierarchy (Deirdre, 1004: 142).
Feminist strategies in tackling street harassment: successes, obstacles and reasons for a lack of change or ‘boys will be boys’
Understanding why street harassment is so prevalent in our societies is the first step to fight back. Street harassment is often explained as an expression of patriarchal power (Sullivan et al., 2010: 246), and as a ‘male-bonding’ practice – men harassing women to ‘impress’ other men (Packer, 1986: 331). But for Micaela di Leonardo, the patriarchy is a “catch-all answer” and we need a political economy approach to understand why street harassment occurs in the first place. She argues that since the end of WWII, women have been increasingly more geographically mobile, both in time and space, and employed in paid jobs in addition to the unpaid job at home, therefore “cutting down on the quality of the services given to the men in their lives”, who have themselves felt disempowered and challenged in their male status because of successive economic crises and the rise of feminist activism (1981: 54). Street harassment is therefore part of an overall male backlash against these factors, a “quick and dirty means of regaining male ownership of public places” (1981: 55). Although it can be dangerous to reason from effects to intentions, this hypothesis has explanatory power (Bowman, 1993: 541), perhaps now more than ever. The second step is naming this daily ‘annoyance’ – we should not underrate the power of naming and articulating the nature of gender-specific harms in terms that reflect “the true source and experience of our subordination” (Tuerkheimer, 1997: 170), for naming is never random or neutral (Kissling, 1991: 457). This process of articulating our experiences and giving meaning to them in order to overcome them is an integral part of feminist methodology (Turkheimer, 1997: 174). We need a feminist strategy because it is by making explicit that our gender specific suffering has its roots in our sexual subordination that our harms become visible to the male culture that does not see them (ibid.). By speaking of our suffering that we often trivialise or deny, by acknowledging the legitimacy of our experiences, we encourage others to do the same, we show other women that they are not alone in their suffering (ibid.). However, it should be done in a way that avoids constructing women solely as victims and perpetuating their powerlessness (Chubin, 2014: 179; Smith, 1994: 123). Concretely, these strategies have been implemented through a variety of initiatives, most of them from civil society activists. For instance, as women do not feel encouraged to report harassment to authorities, which often ridicule or ignore them, Hollaback! – an activist movement created in 2005 – created an online community where women can post pictures and stories of their harassers, and feel safe speaking out against street harassment (Logan, 2015: 253-255; Hollaback!, 2015: 1). The Internet and other technologies now play a central role in the battle against street harassment (Logan, 2015: 199). In Bangladesh, a smartphone app has an on-screen button that if pressed turns the phone into a shrill rape alarm, and provides a map collecting data from users showing the areas where harassment is at its worst, in the hope not of creating no-go zones for women but of alerting the authorities so that action can be taken (Marks, 2014). Others turn to alternative tools, like Fiona Elsgray who uses creative and poetic transcription as an innovative opportunity to combat the difficulty of translating gender-specific harms and enable “the apprehension of differing subjective experiences of shared social realities” (2014: 509), or Maggie Hadleigh-West whose documentary War Zone has been shown extensively on college campuses to raise awareness (Darnell and Cook, 2009: 267). Few institutions have addressed the issue of street harassment so far. The United Nations launched in 2010 a ‘Safe Cities Free of Violence against Women and Girls’ programme, which has rapidly grown since then and directly targets street harassment as a form of gender-based violence against women, a significant achievement (UN Women, 2015: iv).
But many obstacles remain to be overcome. The prevailing societal opinion on street harassment is that it is annoying, but not really “such a big deal” – it is just “boys being boys” (Sullivan et al., 237). Street harassment indeed tends to remain invisible because in a male defined world, it is not a harm that men suffer, and therefore, it is not a harm that men, or society as whole, recognise (Deirdre, 1994: 152; Gardner, 1995: 4). By keeping silent, women somehow become complicit in their own sexual objectification (1997: 191), and reinforce essentialist stereotypes of femininity and masculinity. Women who respond verbally or physically to men who harass them are seen as acting outside of their appropriate gender category of female (Ilahi, 2010: 58). But women have been socialised throughout their gendered lives to keep silent rather than confront, to be polite rather than rude, passive rather than aggressive, weak rather than strong – it is not so easy to “somehow leap out of our social context and become instantly ‘male’” to confront the harasser (Tuerkheimer, 1997: 192). Furthermore, because the mainstream male-defined culture views street harassment as an acceptable, natural part of a woman’s everyday life, some women see it as complimentary, in line with the general assumption that every woman wants to have her attractiveness affirmed by a stranger (Deirdre, 1994: 147-148). Criminalising street harassment could be envisaged, as it would symbolically state that the practice is morally wrong, or at the very least, socially undesirable, but many practical difficulties make it seem highly unlikely (Tran, 2015: 190). Japan has since 2005 established women-only train cars to be used during rush hours because of the issue of ‘groping’ in the subway, but such initiatives, although protecting women, do not address the root issue and seem to give up on the idea that societal change is possible (Fairchild and Rudman, 2008: 339). Only by raising awareness to the impacts of street harassment, overcoming the myth that ‘women are asking for it’, and fighting back through education of young boys and girls, can we hope to tackle this form of sexual violence against women (di Leonardo, 1981: 56).
In 1969, a Glamour article gave its readers lessons in how to act as responsibly beautiful women: “You’re walking along the street and a workman whistles appreciatively at you. You a. Ignore him; b. Tell him he’s being pretty fresh; c. Call a cop; or d. Smile in friendly acknowledgement and keep walking”. The ‘correct’ answer was d. (Gardner, 1995:23). In a 2015, the same magazine gave an alternative option to the same issue of street harassment: standing up for ourselves (Gay, 2015) – a proof that despite lasting difficulties, feminist strategies have achieved some change. Street harassment is a universal form of gender-based sexual violence against women. It is often unnoticed, or seen as trivial, despite its tremendous negative impacts of the wellbeing of individual women – fear, distress, disempowerment – and on society as a whole, reinforcing gender roles, hierarchy, and the confinement of women to the private sphere (Bowman, 1993: 542). Growing feminist activism has been successful in raising awareness and providing support to victims, but many difficulties subsist – the main one being overcoming these gender roles we have been socialised into since birth. “More than a nuisance, more than a threat, more even that the violence that sometimes accompanies it” (Logan, 2015: 1997), street harassment reveals, through feminist lenses, how gendered and socially constructed the world we live in is. To paraphrase Marc Tran, it is 2015, and “I can’t believe we’re still protesting this stuff” (2015:205).
Marie Penicaut is currently completing a Msc in International Relations at the University of Edinburgh.