Street harassment a grim reality for women

Aug. 23, 2014 @ 11:24 PM

“When you drive up to your home or workplace, what do before you go inside?”  The workshop leader looked intently at the man he’d chosen to answer this question.

“I don’t know,” he man said.  “I just walk inside.”

The facilitator then turned to a woman in the group.  “What do you do?”

“I look around the parking lot for anyone who might be lurking there.  I find my phone and turn it on and maybe even call someone, especially at night.  I hold my keys so I can punch someone with them if I need to.”

The men in the group were astounded, but they should not have been.   Women rarely leave our homes or cars without at least a cursory glance around.  We’re taught to check the back seat and lock the doors.  We’re taught to look out for ourselves because no one, it seems, teaches men to control themselves.

A friend of mine recently opened a conversation among a group of people on the subject of street harassment.  She’s already altered her behavior by sticking to daytime walks and paying attention to her clothing.  But the catcalls and shouts from passing cars continue as she treks on foot to the grocery store or to visit neighbors, and she’s fed up.  She’s angry.

After an incident that became threatening, “I was furious that a strange man had the power to make me feel so incredibly violated in the middle of the day in my own neighborhood,” she said. “It made me so angry that he was allowed to comment on my appearance…and my response caused him to lash out at me and make me feel physically unsafe.”

In these conversations the onus is always on the women.  The problem is tagged to how we dress, where and when we walk, and we’re often seen as audacious for even going out alone. 

A recent article on huffingtonpost.com uses a cartoon to illustrate the fact that, “This kind of harassment is based on the problematic idea that public spaces are actually men’s spaces – and that women passing through them are subject to the desires, needs, and opinions of the surrounding men.”  The streets around Carrboro Plaza must be male turf, then, because that is where my friend gets harassed almost daily.

A study released this past June by stopstreetharassment.org reports that at least 65 percent of women (as well as many LGBT-identified men) are hassled on the street, with most women reporting multiple incidents, some leading to physical assault.  This website and another, ihollaback.org, enable victims to report and map their experiences.  Tagging “hot spots” has already fostered some improvement.

But real solutions must originate with real men who will change the male culture from a “boys will be boys,” attitude to one of respect for others and responsibility for themselves. Studies report that bystander intervention works — a rebuke can bring about change.  “Friends don’t allow friends to harass others.”  A courageous man will say, “Hey, that’s not ok.”

Meanwhile, women are told to walk, as CNN reported, “…head down, look straight ahead.  Earbuds in, volume off.  Walk quickly, but with purpose. Don't make eye contact unless you need to. Look behind you every few blocks, make sure you're not being followed. Don't be obvious.”

I asked my friend about the advice of not letting the shouts bother her.  Harassment is about control over women, we’re told.  The one thing we can control is our reaction.

She replied, “[this] is an enabling solution. I'm sick of it being my responsibility to make men's behavior less destructive.  Yes, I can choose to not let this upset me. But, men can just as easily choose not to harass me. Telling women to ignore this is perpetuating the acceptance of harmful male behavior and solving the problem through female behavior.  It…gives men no incentive to change.”

So, what do you do when you get out of your car?  If you don’t have to look out for yourself, then consider the many ways you might change the culture for the benefit of those of us who do.

A CHH columnist since 1998, Susan Gladin is a freelance writer, United Methodist minister, and has served as Executive Director of The Johnson Intern Program in Chapel Hill and previously of Orange Congregations in Mission in Hillsborough.  Currently she manages the Orange County farm she shares with her husband and also teaches Servant Leadership. Their two adult daughters live nearby. You may e-mail her at sgladin@gmail.com, or write c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.