Street Harrasment: Effective ways to combat the problem

By Chelsea Ellingsen

A scene from the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle. Image source: Crises Magazine

A scene from the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle. Image source: Crises Magazine

First of all what is it? I’m continually surprised by the creative sleaziness of men who have taken it upon themselves to harass me in public. Whether it’s a feathery, oh-so-light touch to the ass to an invasive stare as you walk by, the first task in addressing street harassment is to define it. The team at INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence have created the following definition:

An interaction in a public space that makes you feel sexualized, intimidated, embarrassed, objectified, violated, attacked, or unsafe. An interaction in a public space that restricts your movement or makes you modify your behavior in an attempt to avoid the possibility of being verbally and/or physically harassed.

Hollaback! says: “allowing street harassment teaches us to be silent and that taking action will only escalate the situation.” This idea was reinforced in A.N.D’s post last week, on life in Kampala.

Turning a blind eye or passively observing street harassment is a sign of a society that accepts gender based violence as part of its culture. By permitting individuals to undermine others because of their gender is a slippery slope, that ultimately gives a free pass for people to persecute as they wish.

In my adopted home of Uganda, sexual harassment came to the fore  in Feb 2014 when an anti-pornography bill was passed. Many took it upon themselves to police the appearances of women, going so far as to attack ‘suspect’ individuals in broad daylight.

In a picture of one of these incidents, a woman was stripped naked with a dozen men standing over her, jeering. If publicly objectifying people on a count of their gender wasn’t viewed so dismissively these types of outrageous violations wouldn’t be tolerated; they’d be nipped in the bud.

For the conscientious public wondering how they can help a sister out, the first step is realising that this isn’t just a women’s issue. In the same way that police brutality isn’t just an African American issue, we all have to realise our complicity in street harassment. Don’t ever let others inaction justify your own.

Street harassment occurs when an individual or several people make the CHOICE to harass someone; if you want to take an active stance against street harassment, familiarise yourself with how it commonly manifests: lewd remarks, repeated unwanted attention, touching, etc.

Read the situation, your comfort level, your level of assertiveness and choose a Green Dot that works for you: Direct, Delegate or Distract! The Green Dot initiative is a set of defence tools set in place to end gender violence one step at a time. A CDC study showed a 50% reduction of sexual violence incidents in high schools that taught pupils the preventative measures.

Hollaback! Anti street-harrasment campaign posters have been put up in public spaces to raise awareness. This one features on a Philadelphia subway.

Hollaback! Anti street-harrasment campaign posters have been put up in public spaces to raise awareness. This one features on a Philadelphia subway.

Direct: works by talking to the perpetrator, with statements like “hey cut it out, leave them alone,” to checking in with the victim themselves, asking if they need help, if they’re ok, and even standing with them as a deterrent. You can also threaten to call the police or offer to escort the victim to another location.

Delegate is about finding an authority figure on the scene, such as a club bouncer, convincing the stranger(s) around you to intervene or convincing a friend to join in with you.

And my favorite, Distract! When executed well, the harasser won’t even know what happened and this has less potential for conflict. It works well in crowded, noisy places where being heard will be difficult. Shield the target by putting space between them and the harasser. In a quieter space, ask for directions, come up and greet the target as if you know them, or make a slight commotion, spilling your drink or dropping your bags.

When someone else intervenes on your behalf it makes it real. It validates that something wrong was happening and that it should be stopped.

Our actions form our attitudes. Staying silent condones harassment. By taking these small steps we can create a more compassionate community and encourage more pro-active responses.

Maybe knowing these simple preventative measures are out there, will encourage individuals such as the person who filmed a sleeping woman being groped on a New York subway, to put the down the phone and intervene.

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