Street Harassment: The Uncomfortable Walk Home

16 Sep

Family, check out this piece from friend of the CFC Elizabeth Mendez Berry.

by Elizabeth Mendez Berry/ (this is a translation of a Spanish-language oped originally published by New York’s El Diario on September 14, 2010)

I was 13 when I was sexually harassed for the first time. On a sunny summer day, two men in a pickup truck followed me for several blocks, yelling obscene things they wanted to do to me. When I was 18, a catcaller chased me home from the grocery store; he tried to force his way into my apartment.

My experience is not unique: street harassment is an everyday problem, but one that’s rarely acknowledged. According to several studies cited by Holly Kearl, author of the new book Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women, between 80 and 99 percent of women have been the targets of aggressive, unwanted attention from male strangers. When she polled 800 women, Kearl found that 75 percent had been followed, and 57 percent had been sexually touched or grabbed in the street by male strangers, some when they were just ten years old.

This epidemic has serious consequences: University of Connecticut researchers found that “the experience of street harassment is directly related to greater preoccupation with physical appearance and body shame, and is indirectly related to heightened fears of rape.” In a country where one in three women is sexually assaulted in her lifetime, such fears are not unfounded.

Unfortunately, the average street corner catcaller is oblivious to this reality. Recently, a young man on a bicycle followed me up my own street. When I asked him to leave me alone, he was surprised and seemed even embarrassed, as if it had never occurred to him that a woman wouldn’t enjoy being chased at night. Though many catcallers don’t have nefarious intentions, they don’t put themselves in our shoes. Too often, it’s a long, uncomfortable walk home.

Despite the fact that it touches almost all women, gender-based street harassment isn’t considered a social problem in the way that, for example, racially-motivated street harassment is. Many believe that women should just relax and enjoy the commentary. And many of us do appreciate a poetic compliment from a respectful man. But the problem is that a “Good morning, beautiful” can instantly become “Go to hell, bitch” if the gentleman in question doesn’t take rejection well. In Washington D.C. last May, a man shot a young woman in the leg when she declined to give him her phone number. It’s an extreme example, but many women report that they have been threatened or even attacked by disgruntled harassers– I know several women who have had bottles thrown at them. The vulgar turns violent with a troubling frequency.

Ten percent of women report quitting a job in order to avoid a harassment-heavy commute. Street harassment also decreases its victims’ workplace productivity, and it makes them limit their time in public spaces.  Kearl argues in favor of creating laws against gender-based street harassment, the way there are laws against other forms of harassment. But women don’t just need legal protection. Until our society values women’s right to liberty and security more than men’s supposed right to objectify and intimidate us, girls and women will continue to navigate the sidewalks uneasily. This isn’t harmless flirtation.

*** Image from

16 Responses to “Street Harassment: The Uncomfortable Walk Home”

  1. Fiqah September 16, 2010 at 7:26 PM #

    This was a trrific read. I’m sharing it. Thanks, Ms. Mendez Berry and Crunk Feminist Collective!

  2. the antibride September 16, 2010 at 8:46 PM #

    perfect timing for me to read this. just posted this peculiar situation that happened to me this week:

    2 days walking to work, solicited 4 times for prostitution. and then! on my 2nd day of walking, a work truck drove by, hit a bump in the road and a hammer flew out of the truck 20 ft in front of me. i picked it up and walked with it the rest of the way. the 2nd time the dude with the benz tried to stop me, i held up the hammer and he took off.

    now i don’t necessarily believe that many people feel we should relax and enjoy the commentary (other than the folks making the calls), but i also don’t see anything changing to tell me otherwise. (more rant here:) i worked at a dive vegetarian restaurant in grand rapids, and was sexually harassed by the chef for months. in seeing that he had done this to other wait staff, i complained to the chef AND the owner, and when i went unheard and unsupported, i inevitably quit. this was 8 years ago and the chef is STILL there, still playing his same bullshit games. so i don’t eat there anymore and i make myself walk around the block so as not to pass the place (after all this damn time). and the fucked up thing? i still feel embarrassed when i tell people why i don’t want to meet them at the dive to eat.

  3. TKOEd September 16, 2010 at 10:45 PM #

    Great post. This is a subject that can’t be talked about enough. Sexism in nearly all it’s forms continues to be acceptable in a way that racism isn’t any more.

  4. terrence September 17, 2010 at 7:01 AM #

    Having a 13 year old daughter that looks 21 I know about this all to well. And reluctantly I have to admit I have been guilty of it. However I think what we must understand is that we don’t live in a perfect world and there are some sick people in this world. So I am cautious with my daughters attire. Addittionaly, I an ideal world women should b able to dress how they want with no fear of being treated inappropriately by a male. But this is not the case. This is not a battle u can fight by educating. We make allowances for evrything because of the kind of world we live in…feminism is no different. We stay less then a mile from my duaghters school and she should b able to walk home. But its not safe! So she don’t. I digress…just my 2cents

    • creativename October 2, 2010 at 7:05 PM #

      Clothing is not the issue.
      As with most of my friends, I’ve been harassed in baggy jeans and a sweatshirt, no make-up on with my hair pulled back.
      I’ve been harassed with my hood pulled up and sunglasses on.
      I’ve been harassed when on my bike, in pants and a sweater.
      Clothes really do not make any difference with street harassment. And thinking it does, does not help get to the real problem.

  5. Jen September 17, 2010 at 10:59 AM #

    Really great piece. Linked it to a post at my blog.

  6. Nikita September 17, 2010 at 11:49 AM #

    Just a rant –
    I think all women know that it is not a perfect world. We are not expecting that. What we are expecting beyond acknowledgment that this is scary to women and that it is happening and getting worse is for men to acknowledge it and to correct each other and themselves. Look at the stats for sexual harassment, rape, and abuse. Who is the main contributor and who is usually the victim in these circumstances? The truth is that most women cannot fight it out, we are vulnerable and most men can over power us. Men know this too and this is why the constant barrage of being made into a sexual object against our will is …. disheartening and just wrong.
    Continually instructing women to just deal with it makes this worse to me. This crap starts with girls who can start maturing as early as 9 years old about something they cannot control – their bodies changing. Their bodies becomes a source of shame or they learn to flaunt their bodies and endure the constant abuse. They have to learn to protect themselves from some so called “man’s” hormones so that they may have the right to be human AND female just to have a semblance of feeling safe. These girls lose the right to be young because of what some guy has in his pants and head. It ticks me off.

  7. sheridf September 19, 2010 at 10:51 PM #

    This conversation is also about unemployment and the increased number of men on the streets because they are not working and potentially feeling powerless. There are concrete ways to address street harassment, get men off the “street” and into meaningful jobs. This does not address the rampant sexism, but it is a practical response to a major environmental concern for women.

  8. Kismet September 20, 2010 at 6:00 AM #

    I don’t think it is just about getting men into jobs–although that is a huge part of the problem. And I think that falling back on that pitch threatens to stigmatize (black male) poverty and diminishes the extent to which black men own a kind of privilege in this world. In other words, I’ve been harassed by men with suits, by bus drivers, by shop owners and workers as often as I’ve been harassed by BOYS, men who appear to be homeless/drunk/out on the street and more. In other words, just because a man “feels better” because he has a job and can pay the bills doesn’t mean that on some bad day at work when the Man is getting him down, he won’t leave the office and grab the arm of a woman on the street to make himself feel better again. At the same time, plenty of men in poverty (who don’t listen to hip hop, just forestall hip hop shaming, not that I’d expect that over here) don’t do that–they might not tell their buddies on their stoop not to do it, but they don’t agree with it.

    Jobs are part of it but they aren’t even the major part of the problem. Getting men to understand their privilege and police themselves. And getting women to own ways of 1) recognizing, 2) combating on an every day basis and 3) organizing against street harassment seem to me better ways to make this happen.

    But women are getting hurt out here. This post is pretty on. Thanks family.

  9. t_ren September 20, 2010 at 11:41 PM #

    I have had the exact same experiences as mentioned in the article and by one of the above posters. Quite frankly, the street harassment stopped for me when I moved to a wealthy, 85% white neighborhood.

  10. Lisa Schaefer September 21, 2010 at 2:49 PM #

    It doesn’t happen just on the way to work. It also happens at work. So putting these men in jobs may not necessarily help. A lot of it depends upon how valued they feel at work.

  11. Queenie September 23, 2010 at 1:39 PM #

    This really used to bother me. I’m from the South where people greet each other all the time but when I moved to DC, I had to stop saying, “Good morning”. I thought that being heavier would help but it didn’t. Then I tried dressing down but that made it worse. Then, I tried wearing a work name tag, thinking it would stop men from thinking I was a prostitute but it didn’t help either. I can’t even smile because it’s an invitation to be harassed.

    I hope we find a solution to this problem soon. I miss being able to wear a dress, to being able to walk down the street in peace, without preparing to curse out men. It’s like held prison on my own block. I should move.

  12. akiba October 14, 2010 at 10:18 PM #

    I have mixed feelings about criminalizing catcalls and equating them to racial violence. As a pigeon toed and bowlegged Black girl from philly I have had more than my share of harassment–much of it as a child. I’ve also had bottles and juice thrown at me, had a grown man try to push me in the street when I rejected him, and on a college campus I was pushed into a conveyor belt for turning down a dude. Oh and then there was the football players leering and threatening to rape me after blocking my path in a jeep. But even with all of those experiences, I can’t say that those acts of violence are the same as the dude who leers and mumbles in the street or even the one I told to get the fuck out of my way because he accused me of being afraid of him and his “flirting”. Those dudes are annoying, and most def create environmental stress on par with the white woman I’ve worked with who insists on crowing “what up, yo!” But I gotta say: I don’t trust the criminal justice system to protect me or sanely interpret my interactions with men of color. I just don’t. I think we need a community based name and shame mechanism–a reeducation of men and women that rejects the culture of sexualizing girls and women who are just trying to come and go. But we gotta be careful about the tactics and engagement with police etc. I’m not trying to see any more of my neighbors get harassed by police or locked up. I’d rather handle them myself than to lose them to prison. Now, if someone lays a hand on me or terrorizes a child with sexual advances, that’s a diff story. All bets and nuance are off. I guess what I’m searching for is a clear definition of harassment and consideration of the emmett till effect. How do we protect ourselves collectively?

  13. Erik K. November 22, 2010 at 9:39 AM #

    Defeating Street Harassment

    Street harassment is a problem because it is disrespectful, inappropriate, and threatening behavior to adolescent girls and women in public places. This behavior has the greatest negative effect on the well-being of adolescent girls who become conditioned to become silent, submissive, and fearful as opposed to becoming assertive, self-reliant, and confident.

    Defeating street harassment requires a 3 Petal Plan that involves a combination of actions represented by the petals of Society, Targets of Harassment, and Bystanders. While each petal has a different role, they must all work together in order to create a lasting effect.

    1. Society must create a culture of intolerance for street harassment in order to eliminate the behavior.

    2. Targets of Harassment must learn strategies and methods to directly voice their disapproval when harassed.
    3. Bystanders – must learn strategies and methods to intervene and mitigate when observing incidents of harassment.

    Every situation of street harassment is different. Each situation requires a different response. But the overall strategy is the same: Society, Targets, and Bystanders need to communicate that street harassment is unacceptable behavior and will not be tolerated.


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