Street Harassment Is No Compliment

This is a teen-written article from our friends at Youth Communication, a nonprofit organization that helps marginalized youth develop their full potential through reading and writing.

By Margaret Heftler

I’m walking down the street, on the way to school or to a friend’s house. I could be wearing sweatpants or a short skirt; it doesn’t matter. Inevitably the words are flung at me by someone I’ve never seen before, men alone or laughing with their buddies:

“Hey baby, smile for me!”

“Mmm, sexy. Nice legs.”

“I’d tap that ass.”

Sometimes it’s even more obscene: crude gestures, even threats of sexual violence. Even the less explicit comments that some may view as a compliment trigger the same feelings for me: First, I’m momentarily flattered to be noticed, but after that initial, fleeting feeling, I start to feel degraded, sexualized, and objectified. It feels all wrong. I’m only 16 years old, and these leering men are all much older than me.

I think to myself, “They don’t even know me, but they feel it’s OK to comment on my body like it’s public property?” It makes me feel like I’m not in control of my own body, like my mind doesn’t matter and my body exists solely to please others.

Growing up in New York City, girls have to learn to deal with what’s known as street harassment from a young age. It turns simply walking down the street into an anxiety-inducing experience. Whenever I’m out walking, I have my guard up. I try to drown out these comments by listening to music on my iPod.

I shouldn’t have to feel uncomfortable in my own skin and unsafe simply walking down the street, but I feel powerless to stop the harassment.

Crossing the Line

I spoke with several girls my age from different parts of New York City, and our experiences were similar. Desiree, 17, from Brooklyn, said, “[The] first time I experienced harassment was when I was 15 and a man pulled out his penis in front of me and my friends after school.” She doesn’t wear skirts anymore since that’s what she wore when she was first harassed, and she always travels with friends or a guy at night.

Desiree and I are not the only girls our age to feel this way. According to a 2008 study of 811 women conducted by stopstreetharassment.com, almost one in four women had experienced street harassment by age 12 and nearly 90% had by age 19. The website defines street harassment as “any action or comment between strangers in public places that is disrespectful, unwelcome, threatening and/or harassing and is motivated by gender.”

To find out more about how this behavior affects young women like me, I spoke with Holly Kearl, author of the book Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women.

Kearl told me that street harassment isn’t just a nuisance, it can be illegal. It becomes a police issue “if it’s threatening language, if they’re threatening to do something to you, follow you, grab you....” She acknowledges that it’s not always clear if the behavior constitutes a criminal act, especially if it’s not a direct threat, but it can still feel threatening.

Of course, if someone touches you, if the person is engaging in lewd behavior like flashing, public masturbation, or rubbing against you, that’s illegal and should be reported. Kearl also encourages women to report someone who follows them. “Police don’t always take things seriously, but if you have the time or energy, following can apply under stalking laws.”

Reprinted with permission from Youth Communication.



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