Checking in on how we’re calling out (street harassment)

11 Nov

Both on the blogs and in day-to-day life, I hear many comments from self-identified feminists and advocates that call out not only street harassers but sometimes also the people who are being harassed.  Some of these comments, while well-intentioned, criticize people who have been harassed for not reacting “the right way” to the harassment. Statements like “I would never let someone harass me like that,” or “If that was me, I would have spoken up for myself” imply that people are somehow in control of whether someone else chooses to harass them, and that they are to blame for “letting” harassment happen to them.

This “If you don’t want the attention, then say something” approach seems empowering at first glance, but denies a range of experiences that tie into street and public harassment. Street harassment –like any kind of gender-based or sexual violence- is incredibly complex. There is no single or “right” way to respond to harassment, and it impacts everyone differently. Many people who are harassed may not ever say or take action against the people harassing them, but that does not make the harassment their fault. There are a large variety of reasons that someone does not (or can not) speak out on their own behalf, and we need to consider how factors like safety, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, age, economic status, and social status all affect a person’s agency and their ability to take action.

If I am worried for my safety, or worried about what people will think of me, I may or may not speak out against my harasser – that doesn’t make me complicit in the harassment.

As difficult as it may be to remember, we also have to respect each individual’s experience when it comes to street harassment. Not all public attention is negatively received, and it is not up to us to decide how people who are harassed emotionally interpret that harassment.

What we can do, however, is keep our attention focused on the people who choose to harass, threaten, harm, embarrass, stalk, or humiliate others in public spaces. We can keep asking “why is this behavior culturally acceptable?”  and call out harassment when we witness it, in public as well as in private and online spaces. And we can continue to offer support to people who are harassed, whatever their reaction, rather than engaging in attitudes that blame survivors.

If you want to learn more about a variety of ways to help counter street harassment, check out “Get Help Now,” which includes ways to support someone who is experiencing harassment. Whatever approach you choose to take, remember that resources are available, and Safe Streets AZ is one resource to help you share your story and get support.

For a really interesting piece called “Takin’ it to the Streets: She Ain’t Me (The Problem of Self-Esteem)” along the same topic by Mandy Van Deven, visit this link from the June issue of Bitch Magazine.

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