Being fully clothed in public is sadly not enough to protect women from violence. Last week, street harassment finally received the attention it deserves in the first worldwide Anti-Street Harassment Week. About 150 organizations participated in some form of public action. From the Chalk the Walk campaign in Alabama, to youth demonstrations in Nepal, women and men took to the streets to raise awareness in their communities that streets harassment happens and it isn’t okay.
Part of the awareness campaign was to make victims aware of this phenomenon. Believe it or not, several victims don’t realize that street harassment happens to them. Walking from one end of the street to another without being interrupted is unfamiliar to many. Harassment may come in the form of unneeded attention, coarse comments, obscene gestures, or physical aggression towards the victims, and so frequently it is so common that it goes unrecognized.
We either choose to ignore the problem in a rush to get to work, or simply don’t confront the behavior while it happens to others, making all the wrong assumptions, like that men are natural aggressors, and that women like being sought after and coerced.
Victims, on the other hand, may feel as though they are being judged, negatively labeled, or forced to worry about their sound mind or their safety. . Many start to feel insecure about their sexual identity or their body type. Worse, they may internalize it as being their fault. “I must be wearing something revealing to get his attention”, and “Something must be wrong with me that I look this way” are some common self blaming statements made by victims, who also often feel that they may need the attention in order to feel comfortable with themselves.
The situation is so bad that unfortunately several women journalists can’t seem to see the difference between the effects of sexual harassment on women and women’s own desire for their bodies. We are unable to see how might street harassment be anxiety-provoking, much less how it can be a dissociative experience for its victims.
Last week, however, was a time for much contemplation. It was a time for reclaiming spaces of harassment with victims' voices. It was a space for activists and common people to think hard about their actions moving ahead.
So, what will you do if this were to happen to you, or your loved one? What can you do if you see it happen to others around you?
My answer is simple: Learn to take action.
There is a whole lot you can do to keep street harassment from affecting you or people around you. Street harassment happens when a person uses their sex and gender based assumptions and biases to gain power and control over someone else in public space. It is considered a criminal act that can be prosecuted in several countries.
Here are some good strategies. If you are being harassed, you may want to confront the behavior of the person as unacceptable and tell them to stop. Try to be vocal and get public attention, so others can witness the behavior and come to help. Collect evidence of the harassment by making a video of the aggressor or by taking a picture. Contact a public law enforcement officer to make a complaint, and utilize phone apps or texting services (ie. Hollaback!, HarassMap.org, or SMS to 6069) to document the incident, and notify the larger anti-violence community about the harassment.
If you are a bystander you should know that you have less pressure on you than the person who is being victimized. Calling an end to street harassment for someone else also ensures your safety. So, the much known phrase is worth repeating that “when you see something, do something.” Dr. Brain Martin, a professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia, offers a valuable suggestion.
If it looks like someone is bothering a woman, just walk up to her and ask her, “is someone bothering you?” That question alone may deter a harasser who believes no one will intervene. Also, it will keep your attention on the victim and allow you to be empathetic. If the victim says yes, and the harasser does not leave or persists harassing, tell the harasser to stop or simply call others for assistance (like the police, a transit authority worker, or other people nearby).
Even if you do not intervene directly, there are things you can do to help. If you see a victim being harassed by the assault, then you can document the assault for them with your phone and call the police for help. If the harasser is at a bus stop, subway station, or train depot, report him to the transit authority employee or file a complaint through an online or phone-based system. In New York City, you can call NYPD’s Sex Crimes Report Line at 212.267.RAPE to report any form of sexual harassment experienced on the transit system. Chicago, and Boston have similar anti-sexual harassment Public Service Announcement campaigns. Make eye contact with others around you who also witness the incident and can help you take action.
Calling street harassment a crime is important. It is a form of control exerted on someone’s sense of wellbeing and safety. It's important we identify the problem for what it is, and give control back to the victim.
This kind of awareness and activism allows for us to come to see the facts of the matter, to understand the impact harassment has on victims, and to recognize what all we can do to put an end the course of violence on our streets.