The SlutWalk movement has taken over the world (or at least many major cities such as New York City, Toronto, Denver, and even in Delhi, India) and many believe that it has become one of the most successful feminist actions in the last 20 years. For those of you that haven’t heard of the movement, the first SlutWalk happened in April 2011 in Toronto, Canada after Canadian Constable Michael Sanguinetti, during a January 2011 York University campus safety forum stated that in order for women to be more safe, they should “avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”
For many women of color (myself included) the term “slut” doesn’t really conjure up the same type of emotions as perhaps “bitch” or “hoe”, but regardless of whatever term is used, the premise is still the same: we are living in a society that tells women that not only are we the weaker sex, but that we are responsible for making sure that men don’t attack, assault, harass, stalk or rape us. That’s a pretty tall order.
SlutWalk may be the “it” thing right now, but there has been an anti-street harassment movement brewing over the last several years. From The Line Campaign to Hollaback!, women are proclaiming that it’s time for men to really take a step back and realize the behaviors that they and their peers are participating in. Yet the sad thing about it is that women shouldn’t even be the ones leading this effort. How many women do you know stand on corners and stare at and try to speak to every man who walks by? How many women do you know will tell a man that if he weren’t outside at a certain time of night/weren’t wearing certain types of clothing/weren’t drunk/weren’t trying to flirt that it’s his fault for whatever happens to him? No, I don’t think it’s women’s responsibility to tell men that this type of behavior is inappropriate. No, I don’t think that women should live in fear or in annoyance when they see a group of men standing on the corner. And no, I don’t think women should be the main ones marching by the thousands to tell men just how ridiculous their logic is for thinking that a woman deserves to be sexually assaulted or called out her name due to what she’s wearing or how she turns down a man’s advances. Street harassment and all violence against women will stop once men decide to stand up and declare that it stops.
*Where is my soap box?*
I first experienced street harassment during my freshman year of college. My friends and I would walk to the train station or to the grocery store. We would hear voices from strangers that we would pass on the sidewalk, or we’d hear voices from cars that have suddenly slowed their pace. I remember us ignoring the voices mostly, but when it got to the point where these voices would begin following us, we all would be uncomfortable. And oftentimes the silent stares were more uncomfortable than the comments. Even in the warmer months I would try to get away with wearing tops with long sleeves or carry my school bag in a way that would hide my buttocks. At that time, I didn’t know that the term “street harassment” even existed. I just knew the feeling I had, and it wasn’t good. I used to hate walking to the nearby shopping area or the train station out of fear of someone speaking to me inappropriately. Yet, as I went through college I went from feeling embarrassed to feeling apathetic. I once thought that this problem was only within the confines of the surrounding area of my campus, but obviously I was wrong. I’m nearing age 30, and at times I still resort to these “prevention methods”, and have now graduated to wearing earbuds to blast music and drown out the catcalls.
Street harassment comes in a variety of forms: catcalling, groping, sexually explicit comments, someone honking their horn at you as you walk down the street (and it’s not to ask for directions), grabbing your arm with no indication that you even wanted to be touched, whistling, someone telling you what they would do to you sexually if you were alone, and even someone leaning into you and saying “hello beautiful” as you walk down by (because it is, in fact, getting into your personal space.)
Many women and girls are harassed daily, and many feel helpless to stop it. In an attempt to prevent street harassment from happening, we begin to limit the amount of time we spend outside or we make sure that we’re not out at certain times of night. We begin to wear baggy or unflattering clothing. But these acts don’t deter individuals from harassing us. Street harassment can lead to violence, and it doesn’t matter what race or ethnicity you are. Many of us do not do anything about street harassment because we’re afraid that we’ll be placed in harm’s way. And that’s the rub. You never know how a man is going to react once you make the decision to put him in his place. Which is why I understand the purpose of movements like SlutWalk. Thousands of women (and many male supporters) coming together to let these men know that this type of behavior will not be tolerated anymore seems more powerful and doesn’t really place a woman in harm’s way compared to going at it alone.
Now that we know what street harassment is, let’s discuss what street harassment prevention is not:
Street harassment prevention is not about women taking self-defense classes. My college’s public safety department held a self-defense class during freshman orientation week, and after the class we received a whistle. The whistle was for using against someone if we felt that we were unsafe. The students on my campus were the only ones with these whistles, and I never knew of any student who actually used their whistle. On top of that, the whistles were a joke throughout the university center. This isn’t to demean the purpose of taking self-defense classes because there are people who feel that they are necessary. However, instead of bringing women in to take self-defense classes and have mace and whistles at our disposal, perhaps we should create more programs that help me to recognize street harassment and to find ways to help change their behaviors.
Street harassment prevention is not about letting men duck responsibility. The “boys will be boys” mentality has to stop. By not speaking out about street harassment (in whichever way you choose) we’re telling men that they aren’t responsible for their actions and aren’t capable of controlling themselves. If I were a man, I would be very offended by this. And if you watch this video about boys being microwaves and girls being crockpots, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.
Street harassment prevention is not about women solely being responsible for speaking up. A man who watches his friend street harass someone and doesn’t say anything is no different from the actual harasser. I’ve seen plenty of incidences where a group of men would stand idly by with blank expressions on their faces while one of them disrespects a woman passing by. I’ve heard men say that they’ve been afraid to say anything, even though they know it’s wrong. Would these same men be afraid to speak up if the woman being harassed was their mother or sister? If a man feels afraid to speak up for what he knows is right (i.e., telling his friend that he needs to check his behavior), that says a lot about the type of person a man chooses to surround himself with…and it says a lot about him. This actually makes me feel sorry for younger men who participate in street harassment. Along with the media’s influence, where else are they learning this behavior? Who else? Their older counterparts.
Street harassment prevention is not about what a woman is wearing. If it were really about clothing, women in the Middle East who are walking around completely covered up in broad daylight wouldn’t be getting assaulted or harassed.
Street harassment is deeply ingrained in communities of color, which is why many don’t see it as a problem. Street harassment will continue to prevail until men stand up and decide that this behavior needs to stop. We need to teach young men how to treat a woman with respect. We need to teach young men that what they’re listening to, reading, and watching on television may not be how a woman expects to be treated. We need to teach young men that it’s OK to tell their older counterparts that how they behave towards women is unacceptable. Street harassment will continue to also prevail because, unfortunately, there are women who respond to it. Along with men standing up and taking responsibility, we need to teach ourselves and our young women that we are more than just entities that should be hollered at on the street. We need to teach young women that it should require a little more creativity for a man to get our attention. And honking a car horn shouldn’t be one of them.
Street harassment, physical violence, and sexual violence against women won’t stop because we as women want it to stop. It stops when men decide that it stops.
*hops off soapbox*
Do you have any experiences with street harassment? Know of ways that men and women can stop it? Share in the comments below!
Nicole Clark is a social worker and sexual health activist who has worked with local and national sexual/reproductive justice organizations, such as Helping Our Teen Girls In Real Life Situations, Inc. (HOTGIRLS), Advocates for Youth, Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), the Pro-Choice Public Education Project (PEP), The Cool Girls, Inc., the Young Women of Color HIV/AIDS Coalition (YWCHAC), Planned Parenthood of New York City, and New York chapter of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. Nicole lends her expertise as a consultant with nonprofits and community groups who want to improve their approach to developing culturally relevant and youth and/or gender-positive programming, campaigns, and initiatives. Nicole is based in New York City. Check out her blog and services at http://www.nicole-clark.com
Nicole previously contributed the guest post, “This is the Movement of Our Generation: SisterSong “Let’s Talk About Sex” Conference.”