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Street Harassment Is No Compliment
Margaret Rose Heftler
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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 2014 study of 2,000 people conducted by stopstreetharassment.org, 65% of women had experienced street harassment. The website defines street harassment as “unwanted interactions in public spaces between strangers that are motivated by a person’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, or gender expression and make the harassee feel annoyed, angry, humiliated, or scared.”

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.”

It’s Hard to Speak Up

image by YC-Art Dept

For most young women, though, street harassment is so disorienting the first time it happens that the idea of reporting it to police wouldn’t even occur to us.

“I think it’s a very hard age to be dealing with street harassment because a lot of teen girls are just discovering their sexuality, and the main first sexual attention they’re getting is from random men on the street who are their dad’s or grandfather’s age,” Kearl said. “They are adults, so how are you supposed to respond? It’s a challenging situation.”

It’s hard for some men to determine the line between what is OK to say to a woman on the street, and what isn’t. Some men think their comments are just compliments, and that women should be flattered. Kearl said that from her research, the line is drawn at comments about appearance. Most women do not feel comfortable with men on the street commenting on their appearance in any way.

“Everyone was OK with a smile or hello or talking about the weather…things that are gender neutral you can say to anyone.” However, “where they drew the line were comments about their looks.”

In our supposedly equal society, it is unfair that women have to take extra measures to feel safe while the majority of men feel comfortable navigating public spaces with ease. Clearly, men and women aren’t equal here. For example, many women feel unsafe walking home alone, especially at night, while most men don’t have to think twice about it.

Kearl noted that cultural beliefs may be at play in situations where street harassment is considered acceptable. “The belief that this is just how it is for women normalizes it and makes us more accepting of it, so women and men are less likely to seek out and challenge it, thinking that there’s nothing we can do,” she said. “A lot of what I’m doing is saying, ‘No, we can do something.’”

Lenny, 17, told me that some of his cousins participate in street harassment. He thinks they do it because “they want to look cool… possibly even to fit in. A lot of people in my culture [I’m black] view street harassment as a good thing. They say it helps your social life and improves social skills such as conversation and humor.”

Bad Examples

To be sure, it is a part of U.S. culture. “We have cartoon characters that promote harassment, boys that go googly-eyed when they see a girl, music videos and commercials,” says Kearl.

In fact, some of the most powerful men in the country seem to think sexual harassment is no big deal. While reporting this article, I was appalled to discover that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has a reputation for making harassing remarks. A booklet compiled by Bloomberg’s colleagues in 1990, called The Portable Bloomberg: The Wit and Wisdom of Michael Bloomberg, contained some wisecracks he’d made, including this: “Any self-respecting woman who walks past a construction site and doesn’t get a whistle will turn around and walk past again and again until she does get one.”

Bloomberg continued to treat women as sex objects when he was mayor. A 2013 New York magazine article revealed that the mayor regularly critiqued City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s shoes and hair. “The mayor is going to yell at me when I get out of the car because I have flat boots on,” Quinn told the reporter. “He likes me in high heels.” The popularity of Donald Trump, who regularly insults and objectifies women, proves this is still a problem.

This article originally ran in YCteen.

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