Top Ten Myths of Street Harassment


Myth #1: Street harassment is a First Amendment right.

Not so fast.  Legally speaking, harassment falls under “sexual assault” in most states. Take a look at National Women’s Health Information Center’s definition the Washington’s Office of Crime Victims Advocacy’s definition, or the Center for Disease Control’s definition. All of them specifically mention that even sexually-charged language hurled at an individual who doesn’t want it qualifies as assault, along with obscene phone calls, stalking, groping, any force genital contact, any forced sexual acts and rape.  Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 specifically outlaws sexual harassment in the workplace, and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission clearly states, “Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.” The National Institute of Mental Health outlines all the various definitions of sexual violence – many of which never require a perpetrator even touch his or her victim.

And then of course, there are plenty of laws against hate speech. But really, it comes down to a single simple golden rule: “treat others as you would like to be treated.” Now, is it really that hard? We didn’t think so.

Myth #2: Street harassment is a cultural thing.

Simply put, street harassment happens in every country in the world.  So no, it’s isn’t cultural.  But there is something deeper to this question.  In our experience what people really mean by this question is: “is this a men of color thing?”

This question is a dangerous one, because it perpetuates the myth that men of color are sexual predators which simply isn’t true. In New York City, where we have the longest history of posts with pictures, the racial breakdown of harassers perfectly mirrors the racial breakdown of the city itself.  This is consistent with all forms of gender-based violence.  Harassers, like rapists, come from all racial and class backgrounds.  And this is because harassment is deeper than the color of our skin or the income brackets of our neighborhoods. It’s about an international culture when gender-based violence is simply seen as OK.  So yeah, I guess it is a “cultural” thing.  It just happens to be everyone’s culture.

Myth #3: It’s only a harmless compliment/flirting.

If it’s a compliment, it’s not harassment.

But we understand some of you nice guys may want some more guidance so as not to offend. So here we go:  if a man approaches a woman in public politely, strikes up a conversation with her, receives a clear rejection and respects her wishes, that’s not harassment.  Street harassment happens when words and actions are obviously unwanted and non-consensual. It’s forceful. It’s dehumanizing. It’s propelled by a sense of entitlement and profound disrespect for others.  Perpetrators don’t want to give compliments or forge mutually beneficial connections; they want to intimidate and bully others. They resort to insults, stalking, threats or acts of violence when told to leave.

If you’re hoping to get your flirt on, there’s many different ways to do so without coming off as a creep!  Comments on a shared experiences (“this coffee is the bomb”), conspicuous books (“I haven’t read that yet, is it any good?”), cute accessories (“that watch is sweet”), or current events are all things that make us swoon.

But here’s a word to the wise, nice guy: you may not have created this world of street harassment, but you’re living in it.  And the object of your affection has been socialized in it. So if your flirting is met with resistance, hesitation, or downright rudeness, don’t take it personally.   Just say sorry, keep it moving, and remember the 80% of the 811 women Holly Kearl surveyed who said they constantly have to look over their shoulder. The 50% who have to cross the street and find alternate paths to their ultimate destinations. The 45% who feel as if they can’t go in public alone and the 26% who feel as if they have to lie about a significant other to get perpetrators to leave them alone. The 19% who had to move and the 9% who needed to completely change jobs just to avoid street harassment.  And if the rejection pisses you off, take it out on the harassers and get involved.

Myth #4: That’s just how men are. Deal with it.

Hardly.   Hollaback! was founded by three men (and four women), a third of our board is men, and half our donors are men.  Not to mention, most men don’t street harass. It just happens to be that those who do seem particularly vocal.  Respect, after all, is neither a “masculine” nor a “feminine” concept. It’s a human concept.

Myth #5: Street harassment is fine as long as the harasser is hot.

I don’t care how hot you are, hearing things like “Girl, do you want to be my pony,” “I want to taste you,” or “I want to fuck you in the ass.” from random strangers will always be scary.  After all, a fetching face can’t make up for a disrespectful, entitled core.

Myth #6: We secretly enjoy street harassment.

If we enjoy it, it’s not harassment. Duh.

Holly Kearl’s surveys noted that women took no issue with gender-neutral greetings, compliments, sentiments and smiles. Once things started veering into discussions of physical attributes, however, many saw these comments as reductionist, if not outright threatening.  For those who experience harassment often or who have histories of sexual assault, street harassment can feel like ripping a scab off.

Myth #7: Look at what she’s wearing! If you get harassed, it’s because you were asking for it.

Because street harassment occurs all over the world – including countries enforcing a strict dress code, or ones that are simply too cold to dress revealing – one cannot levy any real blame on what people choose to wear.  Holly Kearl’s research and the thousands of stories on the Hollaback! site show that it doesn’t matter if you’re wearing a parka or a burqua, harassment still happens. That’s because harassment is not about sex, it’s about power.

We believe that you should be able to feel safe, confident, and even sexy when you walk down the street, and that street harassment is never, ever, your fault.

Myth #8: Street harassment only happens to the young and hot.

Like we said before, street harassment isn’t about sex. It’s about power.  If street harassment was about getting dates it would be what author Marty Langlan calls a “spectacularly unsuccessful strategy.”  Instead, street harassment is about “putting people in their place.”  Sometimes it’s sexual, sometimes it’s racial, sometimes it’s homophobic, and sometimes it’s all of the above.  If you’ve been harassed, submit your story.

Myth #9: Anyone who complains about street harassment is a man-hating, bra-burning psychofeminazi who hates freedom/needs a boyfriend/needs sex to loosen up/ugly.

People who experience street harassment hail from a diverse variety of nations, races, religions, political views, relationship statuses, education backgrounds, sizes, sexual orientations, gender identities, ages, abilities, socioeconomic brackets – and so on and so forth. Truth be told, just about the one thing we all have in common is a distaste of street harassment in its many ugly forms. We want to see a safer, more equitable global society. We want to live our lives without succumbing to fear. Don’t you want that too?

Myth #10: As long at it’s not violent, it’s not harmful.

Sexual violence exists on a spectrum. On the mildest end sit verbal harassment. On the most severe end sits sexual assault and rape. Although these experiences aren’t interchangeable, harassment carries many of the same traits as other forms of sexual violence, and can cause considerable mental and emotional damage. For individuals previously victimized by molestation, sexual assault, rape or other acts of sexual violence and exploitation, even a seemingly “harmless” sexual comment potentially serves as a trigger. And once this trigger gets activated, it can mean anything from traumatic flashbacks to panic attacks. Depending on the individual, such a disruption could mean hours or days of recovery. Acts on the least severe side of the scale leave no physical scars, but that doesn’t mean they can’t hurt those on the receiving end in other ways.

This page is adopted from myths originally written by the smart & savvy leaders of HollabackHOUSTON.