“You got great legs, baby!”
“I’d tap that!”
Street harassment — sexual harassment experienced in public spaces — is an aspect of most women and teenage girls’ daily lives and can be the cause of intimidation, fear, sadness and anger.
Street harassment ranges from catcalls and wolf whistles to groping and public masturbation. Although sexual harassment is against the law in the workplace and in schools, there is little on the books to address sexual harassment in public spaces, and laws that do exist (such as indecent conduct) may be hard to apply, given the anonymous nature of the crime.
Street harassment exists under the umbrella term of sexual violence — with acts such as elder sexual abuse and child sexual abuse — yet for many people street harassment doesn’t seem to be “as bad” as other types of sexual violence. So some guy paid you a compliment when you were going for a run? Big deal.
But it’s the “big deal” response, and the idea that such comments are compliments, that are the problem. Those “compliments” make men — especially men in groups — feel more powerful. They make women feel watched and intimidated. This is the result of a culture where men are expected to act a certain way (as sexual aggressors), and women are expected to respond (as sexual gatekeepers). Street harassment is a problem, and it’s an aspect of rape culture.
You may have seen the term “rape culture” recently — perhaps regarding rape perpetrated in Steubenville and India. Rape culture describes a culture where sexual violence and rape are perpetrated often and where those acts are expected and considered the norm. It’s a culture where victims are assumed to have inspired the crimes against them, instead of asked what they need for support. Rape culture exists because of prevalent attitudes about how men and women are supposed to act: Men are supposed to be strong and want sex; women are supposed to be delicate and resist sex or give into sex under pressure.
In short, rape culture is our culture.
Rape culture is in everything we consume — from the TV we watch, to the magazines we read, to the posts on Facebook we see. It’s what makes us ask victims questions like “What were you wearing? Where were you?”
We ask these questions of people whether they were raped or who just heard, “I’m gonna get me some of that!” yelled from a passing car while pumping gas.
If we continue to think that street harassment isn’t a big deal, we support the same culture that allows for sexual violence. If we continue to think that some people don’t deserve to walk safely down the street, that it’s OK for men to yell at a 14-year-old girl that she’s got great legs, at what point do we hold anyone accountable for sexual violence?
We can start by asking men and boys to say no to street harassment. Street harassment, like bullying, often happens in groups, where the group mentality allows individuals to act in ways they may not if they were alone. If one man or boy stands up to his friends and says that he’s not going to treat women that way, the impact could create a ripple, where men and boys will think twice before they join in on harassment.
We can also work to redefine our expectations of masculinity and femininity. Gender norms – the way society expects men and women to act — are what help perpetuate the spectrum of sexual violence, from street harassment to sexual assault to child abuse. Gender norms also make street harassment of LGBTQ folks (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) acceptable — many of whom experience street harassment because they may not fall into what society sees as properly masculine or properly feminine. If we shift what it means to be “masculine” and “feminine” and just accept everyone as people, we’ll go a long way.
And finally, let’s let each other walk down the street safely. Everyone has the right to feel confident and good about how they look. Why should they feel any less? We should all be able to share public spaces without feeling intimidated or bad about ourselves: Let’s work together to make that a reality.
Cara Courchesne is the communications and outreach coordinator at the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault. She is a native Mainer and has worked for anti-violence nonprofits in Maine since 2007. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.