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Six Ways for Dads and Moms to Help Daughters Deal With Street Harassment

Fighting against street harassment isn't a silly or futile. Men who harass do it because they can. For girls and women, half of all humans, there is nothing "normal" about it.
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Girls, the younger the better, are rightly perceived by boys and men who harass girls and women on the street to be most ill-equipped to deal with it. According to Holly Kearl, author of Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women, by age 12, 22% of girls experience street harassment. By the time they're 19, it's 87%. Today, a study released by the American Association of University Women, reveals the degree to which sexual harassment occurs to girls (and boys) in 7th-12th grades: 56% of girls surveyed had experienced it in school.

If you are a man and you are not sure what street harassment is, check here, because every woman, literally every woman, knows. Regardless of race, class, ethnicity, education, age and especially, clothes, all women are harassed on the street by men, sometimes very aggressively. It's any public interaction that makes a girl or woman feel vulnerable, intimidated, embarrassed, attacked and almost always sexualized. As I discussed in a recent post, it's a gendered form of social control.

When my daughter asked me if she could go get some ice cream by herself one day, I was flooded by disturbing memories of years of street harassment. Instead of being excited for her, for her sense of independence and her eagerness to be in the world, I was deeply saddened. I wanted her to stay fearless and to explore the world, safely. So, I looked into how things may or may not have changed since I was younger and what resources might be available to young girls and women. Here are the top five things that I came up with:

1. Review the basics with her in a "safety rule" -- not "scary reality" -- way:
  • Be safe and develop good habits -- don't scare her, but make sure she knows the safety rules relevant to where she'll be.
  • Don't engage -- don't answer questions, get into a conversation or respond in anger. But, don't lose confidence. This is hard. Whereas you, as a an adult might be able to stare the guy down and say, "Don't touch my arm again," a younger girl may not be equipped to do the same. Even most adult women aren't. In a recent survey, 69% of women said they never make eye contact on the street to avoid harassment.
  • Be confident -- if she wants the independence to walk around or has to for other reasons, like getting to school, then she needs to feel confident enough to say STOP if she has to, or ask someone for help. She has to speak loudly and clearly. Practice with her. If someone touches her without her consent she can call 911 and she should.
  • If you and she live in a place where the harassment is really prevalent and frightening find a self-defense class.
2. Teach her that street harassment is not a compliment and that she has to trust her instincts. Harassment can be confusing to girls and women since the line between a compliment from a well-meaning and polite man and unwanted, potentially threatening harassment from a creep can be fuzzy and often incorporates cultural differences that are hard to parse. For a lot of women, and especially teen girls trying out their newfound, more adult femininity, certain comments can seem flattering. But it's a precariously thin line between seemingly benign behavior and the threat of something ugly. Girls and women don't have the time or luxury of determining which is which. I asked my daughter, now 14, if she could come up with a hard and fast cross-cultural rule that all girls could apply when developing their instincts about when to feel threatened and how to respond. She came up with this simple rule to determine the difference between a compliment and harassment: If you can look the person in the eye, confidently and uncoerced, and say thank you (even if you don't actually do) -- then it's not harassment.

3. Let her know that if she's groped, yelled at, whispered to, it's not her fault, she doesn't have to "like it." It's bullying. Let her know it's doesn't have to be this way, she's not alone and she doesn't have to shamefully keep the harassment to herself. A recent article in Psychology Today, "Hey Baby Hurts," discusses some of the psychological implications for teens, which includes fear, self-objectification and withdrawal. Often, girls don't talk to their parents about the street harassment that they are subjected to. The study released today explains: "Nearly a third of the victims said the harassment made them feel sick to their stomach, affected their study habits or fueled reluctance to go to school at all." Share with her the fact that there is a worldwide movement to combat street harassment. Organizations like Stop the Harassment and Holla Back! are dedicated to empowering girls and women by teaching them assertive responses, self-defense, and easy mechanisms for reporting harassers.

4. Set an example if you're her mom or grandmother or aunt. Stop accepting sexually-based street harassment as the price of being a woman. Men who harass often don't know they're being offensive. Tell them. There are places and times when even if you feel threatened you don't have to be scared. You can look for allies, politely but firmly say, "Stop, that's offensive," shame the jerk, call the police. Model fearless behavior for her. If you're a dad, it's really important that your daughter understand you don't think she's "asking for it." If she tells you it's happening, don't ask her what she was wearing, because she could be wearing a burka and it would happen.

5. And, lastly, very importantly tell boys and men in your life what's going on. It's vital. Most men don't harass women on the street, but they also don't realize the extent to which their mothers, sisters, daughters, female friends and coworkers go out of their way to adapt to this reality. We have to stop saying street harassment is just "boys being boys." This excuse is a reductionist and harrowing definition of masculinity that maintains essentially that all men are animals. Most men are not animals. They are capable of respecting civil boundaries and personal space in public. In particular, boys need to learn three things:
  • That they can participate in bonding experiences, but that harassing girls is an unacceptable way to do it.
  • That they need to stop looking the other way and should intervene in support if the situation warrants it.
  • How to empathize with what their mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, grandmothers, girlfriends, wives are dealing with.
  • How to speak to girls as people, with respect and decency.
  • All of these are hard in the media environment they're stewing in.

The Good Men Project has an excellent article for boys and men, as well as several pieces about empathizing with what women experience. The international organization Stop Street Harassment also has a page for educating boys.

6. Remind your school that sexual harassment is bullying and that Title IX makes it illegal. The AAUW report "observes that sexual harassment and bullying can sometimes overlap, such as the taunting of youths who are perceived to be gay or lesbian, but it says there are important distinctions. For example, there are some state laws against bullying, but serious sexual harassment -- at a level which interferes with a student's education-- is prohibited under the federal gender-equality legislation known as Title IX. "Too often, the more comfortable term bullying is used to describe sexual harassment, obscuring the role of gender and sex in these incidents," the report says. "Schools are likely to promote bullying prevention while ignoring or downplaying sexual harassment."

Fighting against street harassment isn't silly or futile. Men who harass, who are predatory, do it because they can. For girls and women, half of all humans, there is nothing "normal" about it. It takes place in the context of cultural misogyny, disrespect, discrimination, rape and power, keeping public places largely male-dominated and impeding equality in the most base and threatening way possible. All this for a scoop of ice cream on a sunny day.

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