Street Harassment and Sexual Violence Are Mobility Issues

A Chicago "Slut Walk" demonstration, part of an international movement calling for an end to street harassment and rape culture. Photo: Seph Victo Mercado
A Chicago "Slut Walk" demonstration, part of an international movement calling for an end to street harassment and rape culture. Photo: Seph Victo Mercado

One afternoon last September, I took a lunch break from work and walked to the grocery store for a Red Bull and some Q-tips. The store was a short walk from my office and this errand shouldn’t have taken me more than twenty minutes. However, what was supposed to be a simple errand ended up being way more complicated than I expected.

As I walked down the sidewalk on Western Avenue, I saw a group of five or six men wearing safety vests walking towards me. I told myself they were on their way to work, just going about their day like I was, and I was hoping they would walk right past me without saying a word. But deep down inside I was worried that they would hassle me as we crossed paths.

My fear came true. The men began catcalling call me, saying, “Hey, baby.” I told them to be quiet and that I didn’t appreciate being spoken to that way, which then escalated into a shouting match. In their eyes I went from being a “babe” to a bitch. Afterwards, a woman who witnessed the incident while waiting for the bus asked me if I was okay. She said that when she had previously seen those men, she had crossed the street to avoid them. She suggested that I start carrying pepper spray or a knife for my own safety.

This scenario wasn’t anything new for me. There have been multiple situations where after I was catcalled and stood up for myself, the perpetrator got offended that I didn’t accept his advances, which usually led to an argument. On other occasions, I’ve tried to ignore the comments and keep walking, but the harassers still got angry because I didn’t respond to their come-ons. I’ve been called every derogatory term imaginable for women, followed home by angry men, and threatened with beatings and rape.

Luckily none of these incidents escalated into actual attacks, but with these kind of encounters there’s always the possibility that my physical safety will be threatened. I’ve learned to pick and choose my battles, but that can get exhausting. These encounters represent a challenge to my right to travel safely and freely through public space, and that’s a mobility issue.

Many women (both cisgender and transgender) around the world deal with the fear and reality of street harassment and sexual violence on a daily basis. Threats ranging from unwanted sexual remarks to sexual assault and rape can happen in any public space ay any time of day, whether you’re walking, biking, or taking public transit.

An ad from the CTA’s Anti-Harassment Campaign.

To combat this issue on trains and buses, the CTA recently expanded on its Anti-Harassment Campaign by encouraging people who are victims or witnesses of harassment to report the incidents. According to the CTA, episodes of sexual harassment often go unreported — they received only 36 reports in all of 2014, but there was probably a much larger number that weren’t reported. While raising awareness about sexual harassment is important, it still doesn’t directly curb the behavior of the perpetrators.

It’s important to remember is that street harassment is fundamentally about power and control. What many men are willing to excuse as harmless flirtation or locker-room talk isn’t taken lightly by those who are on the receiving end of the comments. Time and time again, I hear upsetting stories from my friends about being objectified when they were just trying to get through their day unscathed. Street harassment is so ingrained in our culture that it’s commonly believed that women are the ones who should have to adjust their behavior and take precautions to avoid being victimized.

The well-meaning advice from the woman who witnessed my run-in on Western Avenue really got me thinking. Defensive measures, whether it’s dressing less “sexy” or carrying a weapon, may feel necessary to some people, because street harassment is a reality that women currently have to deal with on a daily basis. But we shouldn’t accept this damaging status quo.

As a society, we need to treat sexual harassment and violence as a top priority, by educating the public that this behavior will not be tolerated, and by holding the perpetrators accountable for their actions. No one should have to live in a constant state of fear that something bad could happen to them while traveling on the public way.

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  • Anne A

    When I lived in Rogers Park, I had incidents where guys (usually a carful of drunk-sounding guys, usually on Clark St. at night) would start catcalling and occasionally reaching out to grab. Seeing them coming in the mirror allowed me to move just far enough away to be out of reach. Sometimes I ended up ducking down a side street to get away.

    I experience less of this than many of my more petite friends. I have some friends who are petite and very pretty. They get harassed enough that some of them won’t even ride transit, or will only ride with a group of friends to protect them. I’ve sometimes ended up being an escort for one of them to get her home safely. It shouldn’t be this way.

  • David P.

    @#$!ing male entitlement.

  • Kelly Pierce

    Police grade pepper spray works great at enforcing boundaries. It will disable an offender for two hours,
    which is plenty of time to run away from the monsters described in this
    article. I like the Fox brand that can
    engulf an offender in a fog from 10 feet away.

    Victims can also call police and demand an arrest. If an arrest is not possible, take the report
    to a municipal courthouse and speak with the warrant officer so misdemeanor charges
    can be filed against those who threaten, stalk and grope women. These are crimes and the criminal justice
    system can hold offenders accountable if someone is willing to spend the time
    to go to court.

  • Joe R.

    Carry a gun even if it’s illegal in your locality. Even as a man, I’ve been harassed somewhat regularly while cycling. Not sexual harassment, but physical assault like idiots in passing cars throwing things at me. More than once I wished I could put a few slugs into these jerks. I’m well aware of the consequences that might have for me if the courts don’t accept it a legal self-defense, but it might lessen harassment of others by making these morons think twice.

    That said, sexual harassment isn’t mostly about attraction. There are ways for one person to let another know they find them attractive without being hostile. Catcalling is just stupid. I’ve never yet met a person of either sex who responded positively to it. Anyway, sexual harassment is really about power. Unfortunately, projecting power (and wealth) is seen as a positive thing in many societies, especially when it’s males projecting the power. That’s the root source of the problem. I’m not sure it’s something which is going to be easily solved by education or enforcement. From what I’ve seen, most harassers lack empathy. When one can’t put themselves in someone else’s place not much works beyond the person being harassed doing something to put themselves on equal footing with the harasser. Hence my suggestion to carry a gun. Just pulling it out should be enough to shut most jerks up for good. If they become physically threatening after that, well, then it’s legal self-defense if you’re forced to use your weapon. Chances are great you won’t be. I’ve never carried a gun but in my experience so far a good-sized knife has scared off everyone on the other end of it.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    While I’m sure the NRA would endorse your suggestion, it seems like a better solution would be teaching men to not harass and assault women, and holding them accountable when they do these things.

  • Joe R.

    Except it’s not going to work because:

    1) most harassers lack empathy
    2) education only works if you can put yourself in the place of the person you’re harassing
    3) in order to enforce you need to catch the harassers (police will only try if there is actually physical contact and even then they won’t take it serious unless it’s full-blown rape or attempted rape)

    Note also that this article mentioned catcalling. I’m pretty sure that not even illegal. Education would be the only answer there but I’m dubious of any positive outcomes here given that most catcallers are Neanderthals.

  • hopeyglass

    But also dudes: stop harassing, demeaning, belittling, raping and not-believing women. Knock it off. Stop others from doing it. Seriously.

  • hopeyglass

    I mean, the root source is also that men think its okay to treat women and gender-nonconforming folk (mostly) like trash. Men: stop harassing people. And it’s on you to destroy this behavior amongst your gender, given that it’s you know, less lethal for you to do so. You see this shit, you shut it down.

  • Joe R.

    I’m happy to shut it down if I can do so without placing myself in extreme danger. If an attacker is bigger or stronger than me, or better armed, or I’m outnumbered, there’s a good chance I’ll get hurt or killed and still not be able to stop the attack. Like the author of this article said, pick and choose your battles.

    What’s interesting, and sad, it that this type of behavior has become far more common place than decades ago. Back in my mom’s day, half the men in the immediate vicinity would put a jerk in his place, and a good number of the women might as well. Nowadays we’ll just keep our heads buried in our phones, or otherwise pretend we’re not seeing it. No surprise then that people feel emboldened to harass others.

    What’s not being talked about, but should be, is the increasing amount of female on male violence. Years ago, this was practically unheard of. While women still have a long way to go to catch up to men, I’d sadly seeing more articles about wives or jilted women killing their male partners. Sure, most women will lose in physical combat with a man, but the ready availability of firearms evens the odds for women, sadly even when they’re the ones perpetrating the violence. Bottom line—why can’t we all just get along? I’m just sick of the stark divisions in this society along lines like male/female, sexual preference, race, religion, etc. In the end we all have 99.9% in common.

  • David P.

    Joe, this is not just about being a macho man in big-deal situations. A great many men both say and do things that are relatively small, but telling, that indicate a sense of ownership, so to speak, over the bodies or feelings of women; a belief in their right to women and their expectations that women should respond in ways pleasing to them and their displeasure if they don’t. Fighting this, as a man, does not require a gun or physical violence. It requires only an awareness of the behavior as it manifests itself in big ways and small, and a willingness to challenge it, *especially* among your cohort – people you have some kind of relationship with. “Why can’t we all just get along” is the kind of straight-white-guy statement that people who are subject to harassment by straight people, white people, men, etc. because of who they are do not have the luxury of indulging in. If you are truly sick of “the stark divisions in this society” then you can challenge these behaviors and attitudes whenever and however you see them.

  • Joe R.

    Maybe it reflects well on who I choose to hang around with, but I almost never see that type of behavior among my cohorts. Also, call me a skeptic but from my attempts at trying to gently correct other types of undesirable behavior among those I know, it’s more likely to backfire, make the behavior even more entrenched, than to have the desired effect. For example, I’ve tried endlessly to get some of those I know to drive less by mentioning the reasons why excessive auto use is detrimental. More often than not the conversation ends with some variation of “mind your own business”. Perhaps an even better example was my childhood experience being bullied. At first I tried to reason with the bullies in the hope they could put themselves in my place. All it did was embolden them even more. What finally worked was a crowbar to the skull of one of them (no, I didn’t kill them but at the time I wished I had). That ended it for good and all. Nothing else worked. The school staff was useless. Even talking to the parents of these bullies did no good.

    Really, I have no good answers here. In fact, I’ve read that a lot of these behaviors we find offensive are hard-wired in us. I also think we’re predisposed to violence and conflict as much as I wish otherwise. That applies to both sexes. 25 years ago I would have have said the world would be a better place if women were mostly in charge. Now I’ve seen that women in power are just as prone to corruption and evil as men.

    Believe me, I appreciate your position here. I just think it’s as much an exercise in futility as trying to achieve world peace. The best we can do in my opinion is to teach more women to fight back effectively when they’re on the receiving end of harassment or violence. In other words, do the same thing for them that we’ve done with men for millennia.

  • hopeyglass

    if you think, as a man, the best we can do is to train women to fight off behavior that is one hundred percent changeable, then you are completely missing the point. enjoy all your angelic peers!

  • Joe R.

    Unfortunately the formative years have the most influence on human behavior. We might be able to change some human behaviors over generations by changing how we socialize children, but for those who are already adult and predisposed to poor behavior thanks to their upbringing there’s little we can do beyond lock them up when their behavior becomes harmful to others.

    That said, I also feel there are limits to we can expect of humans due to biology. We’re predisposed to self-destructive behavior. Such behavior at one time presented a survival advantage when mankind was just another species fighting for survival. In modern society these traits are mostly a liability. In my opinion we don’t need to end these behaviors. We need to find socially acceptable, non-destructive ways for people to engage in them. I’m thinking of something along the lines of Westworld where one can indulge whatever violent, sociopathic feelings they have without actually harming other human beings. Obviously the technology isn’t there yet, but long term something like this may be key to humanity’s survival.

  • Call me old fashion but “hey baby” cannot be considered harassement . Cat calls can be brushed off easily with a smile . these calls are generally done in good spirit..
    unless I am missing something..

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Jean wrote: “It’s important to remember is that street harassment is fundamentally about power and control. What many men are willing to excuse as harmless flirtation or locker-room talk isn’t taken lightly by those who are on the receiving end of the comments.”

    Cultural differences may account for different viewpoints on this issue, but it appears that, for the vast majority of women, come-ons from random men on the public way are, at best, unappreciated. Especially when the recipient is outnumbered five-to-one, it seems that cat-calling can be an intimidating or frightening experience, regardless of intent.

  • Joe R.

    I think it depends upon context. I’ve had female friends who are OK with cat calls from guys walking alone or maybe in small groups. This is especially true if the guy is fairly attractive. As a guy, I actually appreciate the rare times females cat call me while riding or walking. When you’re in you’re 50s, it’s kind of reaffirming to know some people still find you attractive. So I brush these things off with a smile, go on my merry way. I’m a shy person by nature, so I’m fine when the female makes the first move. Probably better ways to let someone know you’re interested than catcalls, but your point that they can be harmless or well-intentioned is well-taken. If the person on the receiving end wants to pursue things further, it’s her prerogative. If not, both parties just go about their business. I’ve heard of random street encounters which led to more. The key is to not be boorish or push the issue if the other person obviously just isn’t interested.

    That said, I certainly get it when a female feels threatened by catcalling from larger groups of men, especially when the men in question are scuzzy looking or otherwise not remotely interesting to them. Also, in situations like this the goal of the men here is often to get attention, sex, whatever, not just to harmlessly let someone know you find them attractive. A clue that it’s not harmless is when the person on the receiving end gets threatened or name-called when she doesn’t respond as the men feel she should. Or when the guys in question use vulgarity. Once my sister had a couple of construction workers telling her they would like to take her to a dark place and (insert vulgar word for intercourse) her. She had a few choice words for them, including comments on the size of their manhood.

  • David P.

    Yes, you are missing something.

  • Kristen

    Thank you Jean and SBC for discussing this important issue. I look forward to more content like this in 2017! I appreciate your take on the overlap between transportation and how privilege and oppression play out in everyday life. I fundamentally disagree with CHECKPEDS’ statement, “Call me old fashion [sic] but “hey baby” cannot be considered harassement [sic]”. I’d wager that throughout history, harassment has been almost universally disappointing for most people, if not dangerous, traumatic, or fatal, depending on the context. You think, “cat calls can be brushed off easily with a smile”, because you don’t see the weight that these comments eventually add up to on an individual. You see women smile and walk away because they fear the aggression escalating into PHYSICAL/SEXUAL VIOLENCE. You see women smile and walk away because this is what we’re taught. So don’t confuse harassers’ behavior with something done in “good spirit”.

  • Steve smith

    I think this article and others like it are preposterous. Women are costly stating that everything has to be equal, equal rights, equal pay, I am the same as a man and so on and so forth. That is until anything happens then all of a sudden it’s women and children first and a woman is a “victim” a girl can start an argument and punch a guy but if the guy hits her back he is a “monster” as a guy if I pick a fight with someone bigger and stronger than me and I get my butt kicked that is just the price of doing business.

    As for catcalling, if that is the worst thing to ever happen to you I think you have lived a charmed life. Women constantly complain about whatever problem they perceive that year to make an issue until a bunch of laws are inacted and women feel “safe” or “equal” again.

    I remember an old saying sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. If a guy catcalls you and you don’t like it tell him. Otherwise go about your day it is not that serious.

  • Hope

    I think you are missing the point here. This article has not much do with the things you mentioned and goes beyond catcalling, which is street harassment–a form of sexual harassment. These situations can lead into sexual assault, where one person is infringing their power over another person’s physical being. No one shouldn’t have to walk around in a constant fear of being attacked.

    It’s not easy just telling someone I “didn’t like that he catcalls me.” I’ve done this on plenty of occasions and sometimes the guy doesn’t just walk away to leave me to “go about my day” as you suggested I do.

    I was once followed home by an angry person who catcalled me after I told him off. He followed me INTO MY YARD and kept yelling and physically threatened me because I stood up against him. If my neighbor wasn’t home, this situation could’ve escalated into something worse. So you think this is okay that this guy invaded not only my personal space, but my home as well?

    What do you think about the idea of strangers making unwarranted sexual comments to your mother, sister, aunt, cousin, daughter, wife, or girlfriend? Would you give the women in your life the same advice as you did in your comment?