“Lookin’ good, ladies!” an inebriated guy in a moving car filled with his buddies yells out at me and my friends on Mt. Auburn Street by the Lampoon on a Friday night.
“Where you going?” a guy walking with his friend asks me and my friend outside the Au Bon Pain on Mass Ave on a Saturday night, making an obscene gesture.
“Smile, it’s not Monday!” a guy outside Widener Gate tells me as I walk to class on a Wednesday morning.
Catcalls. Wolf whistles. Creepy stares from guys on the street. Nearly every woman has experienced it. However, many women don’t know that this sort of behavior has a name: street harassment.
Recently, the Internet has been buzzing about the video featuring a woman simply walking down the street in New York City who was harassed over 100 times in a ten-hour period. Although this particular piece of activism went viral and brought street harassment to the public’s attention, women and men have been trying to fight this social phenomenon for a long time.
Street harassment has been part of women’s lives ever since they first entered public spaces. Back in the early twentieth century, harassed women often took matters into their own hands and physically assaulted their harassers or sued them in court. As satisfying as it may have been to see these men with black eyes or six-month jail sentences, such behavior did not lead to any systemic or cultural change in lessening the frequency of street harassment.
Rather than encourage vigilante justice, contemporary advocates of sidewalk safety for women encourage fostering a paradigm shift; that is, creating a culture where it’s not acceptable for men to catcall women, where men don’t even think to invade a woman’s personal space. Obviously, this is a goal that will take many years, if not generations, to fully accomplish. However, the magnitude of this task should not discourage those of us who want to take street harassment head on and make the streets safer for women! Without small, incremental, grassroots change, no movement can be successful.
Consequently, it’s important that those of us who aren’t professional (or even part-time) feminist activists support those who are. We all need to call out problematic behaviors when we see them, raise consciousness among our male-identifying friends that street harassment is not okay, and provide safe spaces for those who have experienced street harassment to process their experiences. Culture change isn’t easy to create. However, based off of all the people talking about it and working to make it end, I have confidence that it will one day happen. I might not be able to escape street harassment during my own college career, but I certainly hope that my daughter’s collegiette years will be harassment-free.