Street harassment: fighting back with ingenuity

“Really?” we responded in incredulity. This was a ninth-grade personal development and health class and our teacher had just told us that catcalling, wolf whistling, and sexual name-calling were indeed forms of sexual harassment. “And therefore illegal,” she concluded. For someone who had first been whistled at when only eleven years old, I hadn’t even thought to question its dangerous implications.

For individuals with wavering self-esteem, especially in regards to body image, street harassment presents itself as an alarming paradox. On the one hand, you are revolted by this direct invasion into your personal space. It is afterwards then chilling to think of the images that the perpetrator must be toying with in their mind as they watch you walk down the street. “Degrading” seems too superficial a label. On the other hand, there is that tiny spark of validation and self-worth that comes with the unwanted attention. The relief: “At least someone finds me desirable”. These conflicting emotions eat away at you like acid.

The rates of such abuse are shocking. A recent survey conducted by Runner’s World found that, when running, 43% of women experience harassment. Equally concerning, the changes in behaviour are coming from victims, and not from the instigators. Whether it be altering their running route or deciding to run with others, females (or those who are perceived to be female) feel the need to protect themselves within public spaces. If it’s walking to a nightclub or returning home with groceries, regardless of situation, the presence of street harassment is constant.

Street harassment is by no means a local phenomenon. It is a universal cancer residing within a cross-section of societies. Consequently, the responsive call to arms has also been globalised. Originally founded as a platform for documenting experiences of street harassment, the website Hollaback! decided to expand into an app in 2010. The app serves as a tool in which incidents of street harassment can be reported and marked on a map, allowing app users to see geographical clusters of harassment. Based in New York, Hollaback has gradually come to encompass 52 cities around the world. Over in Beruit, the app Harass Tracker has been launched by Sandra Hassan, Myra El Mir, and Nay El Rahi in order to encourage victims to report incidents of sexual harassment. Additionally, the app raises awareness around the unacceptable nature of street harassment. Looking towards the southern hemisphere, Colombian university students are recycling old plastic bottles to use as streetlights. Hence making streets and alleyways safer for women at night. It is therefore clear that communities will not remain voiceless. It is a universal refusal to be silent which is electrifying to witness. This solidarity illustrates the strength of women and the LGBTQIA community in their fight to reclaim space.

It is certainly not ideal that the victims of street harassment have felt the need to take it upon themselves to form their own protection.  Undoubtedly, more must be done to change social and cultural norms surrounding street harassment, especially initiatives derived from governments. Nevertheless, the advancements made by individuals ready to fight for their rights are encouraging. These practical approaches to a worldwide problem demonstrate that respect is not earnt – it is a human necessity.

Photo by Ted Eytan (Anti-Trump protesters in Washington, DC)