Street Harassment: Catcalling and Rape Culture

Women should be able to wear whatever they want, walk out in public and not fear being harassed. 

This week is the 2nd annual International Anti-Street Harassment Week.  Founded by Holly Kearl, International Anti-Street Harassment week has the goal of bringing awareness and energy to the movement to end street harassment of women globally.  Street harassment is commonly defined as “any action or comment between strangers in public places that is disrespectful, unwelcome, threatening and/or harassing and is motivated by gender.”

Street harassment is what most women experience when they leave the house to walk to the subway or are when they are making a quick trip to the corner store.  It can be everything from a catcall to a compliment and at worst it can be threatening language or a flurry of unwanted sexually explicit comments.

It’s what happens when women walk by one or a group of men who yell out comments about their physical appearance, “Damn, girl! Look at them sexy legs!” or even “Smile!” which some men consider harmless compliments that should be perceived as flattery.  When women don’t respond to the “compliments” many of them are then attacked for being “stuck up” and the label “bitch” is frequently thrown out when a woman’s behavior doesn’t meet the man’s expectations.  The open hostility that results from women rejecting this unwanted male attention can lead to violence.  From Steubenville, to New Delhi, the issue of rape culture and gender-based violence can no longer be ignored and street harassment is directly linked.

“The purpose of the week is the same as last year,” Kearl told EBONY.com, “[I]t’s an opportunity for the amazing groups that address this issue year-round to collectively speak out together and for individuals who care about this issue to have the chance to speak out too.

“With the issue of street harassment, we’re still largely in the awareness-raising stage: we’re documenting that it happens and that it negatively impacts our lives.”

As we reported last year, by the age of 12, 1 in 4 girls will experience street harassment in the form of unwanted attention in public; by the age of 19, that number is nearly 90 percent.  Street harassment can turn a casual walk up the block into a gauntlet of unwanted attention that can bring on feelings of anger, fear, shame, and anxiety. 

Constant unwanted attention while walking down the street on the way to work, school, or simply to run errands can be very distressing and even more so to the nearly quarter of women who are survivors of gender-based violence and sexual assault.

Constant unwanted attention while walking down the street on the way to work, school, or simply to run errands can be very distressing and even more so to the nearly quarter of women who are survivors of gender-based violence and sexual assault.

Increased awareness is a critical component in any movement attempting to change cultural norms.  This week, “several groups across the world are now in charge of a tweet chat each day of the week on a variety of topics, including the harassment of LGBTQ individuals, harassment on public transportation, and how men can be good allies [on] this issue without dominating or taking over the conversation or effort,” says Kearl.

The issue of street harassment is directly connected with the issue of rape culture.  “Street harassment is about exerting power over someone, treating them with disrespect, and it’s often about sexually objectifying someone without their consent. The same can be said about sexual violence and rape. Street harassment is on the same spectrum of violence as rape and it can sometime escalate into rape. For rape survivors, it can be re-triggering.

"The acceptance of street harassment, the portrayal of it as a compliment or a joke, creates a culture where it is normal to disrespect someone or to comment on them or to touch them without their consent. That culture helps make rape okay and lets rapists get away with their crime,” says Kearl.

The hope is that women will one day be able to move freely in public spaces without constantly worrying about comments, insults, and even compliments from strangers.  “She could say hello and smile at both women and men without worrying if her politeness and friendliness will be “taken the wrong way” and encourage unwanted attention from men. She wouldn’t have to hide behind headphones, sunglasses and a scowl to deter harassers,” says Kearl.

And for men who are wondering why they shouldn’t compliment a stranger passing by them on the street?  Joe Vess of Men Can Stop Rape has great advice, “Compliment the women you know instead. They will appreciate it more and you will be able to pay them a genuine compliment because you know about who they are as a person, not just what they look like.” 

Kearl hopes this week can raise awareness and allow people all over the world to see street harassment as a serious problem that needs to be addressed instead of a problem of women "being too sensitive."   

“Women do not walk down the street to be commented on by men.