How we choose to frame street harassment matters

By Laurel Long for Hollaback Bmore!

In January of 2011, I started working on an undergraduate thesis on street harassment. This began with me reading everything I could get my hands on about street harassment. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of academic literature on the topic; what few articles do exist tend to be on the blogosphere, which is not a source a student can frequently cite for a paper. This shows street harassment, with its accompanying terror, is made invisible by the academy. Therefore, it is likely not mentioned in Women’s Studies or Sociology classes, limiting students’ likelihood of considering the subject of relevance. Yet, perusing academic literature, one can find articles on every aspect of sexual harassment in the workplace and school environments. Who benefits from street harassment being left off the table? Not women.

Anyone who has written a serious academic paper knows that it is your job to explain exactly why your findings are relevant. Clearly, street harassment is of importance because it (negatively) affects so many women, but it is also significant as it plays a role in keeping women subordinate to men. I believe it’s important to not just hold individual men accountable for their behavior, but to step back and look at what role men’s street harassment of women and other target groups plays in a patriarchal society. We need to ask: why is street harassment used as a weapon against women? In my opinion, part of the answer to this is that it keeps public space marked as male territory. It also is part of a larger set of male violence against women, as the reason women are afraid of what might seem like minor cat-calling to men, is that sexual innuendos are backed up by the threat of sexual assault. Many women, including street harassed women, are survivors of sexual assault, battery, and rape. As Turkheimer notes, “A hierarchy looks very different from the bottom than from the top.” Thus, in order to help women feel comfortable sharing their experiences of street harassment, I limited my groups to women only.

Several of my participants proposed “raising your kids right” as a way to prevent street harassment. However, children do not exist outside of the society in which they live. When there are rewards for harassing women—respect from peers, affirmation of a dominant, heterosexual identity—how one is raised doesn’t get to the root of the problem. It also doesn’t take into account that street harassment is one part of a male-centered, male-identified, and male-dominant society. Nor do parental actions do anything about the fact that there are zilch consequences for almost all street harassers. If men gain from harassing, and can do so with impunity, what incentive is there to stop?

Most women I interviewed did not think that legal measures against street harassment can be feasibly implemented. One reason for this is that street harassment is currently such a vague, subjective term. Yet, sexual harassment in the workplace and schools is prosecutable, although women do not monolithically agree on what constitutes sexual harassment. While I am also wary of involvement of the legal system, I do think having a law in place says that women matter and that we cannot be hurt in this way. Even having signs up about such a law might ward off some men from harassing women and other target groups. We need to remember that once issues such as incest and battery seemed overwhelming to deal with. Think how far we have come legally on these issues in a matter of decades. Then think where we can be in another few decades with the issue of street harassment. Re-starting consciousness raising (CR) groups to talk about street harassment and other issues that affect women’s lives would no doubt be helpful as well. As long as we keep quiet about street harassment, declaring it not important enough to talk about, it will never be defined as a problem. I am positive that we will figure out a way to deal with the problem posed by defining street harassment when working to end street harassment. Don’t take that to mean I need to be ordered to “smile, baby,” just because I am optimistic about the direction of this movement.


Note: You can find Laurel’s entire thesis right here.

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