Photo credit Sharayah Bower
So much has changed in Philadelphia since living here in 2011. There are more buildings, more shops, more eye-catching murals, more trees, more dog parks, and (thankfully) more bike lanes. But one thing that hasn’t changed in the six years I’ve been away is the misogyny seen, heard, and felt on the streets.
The first day I moved into my new apartment I immediately heard “cat calls,” whistles, and derogatory slurs. I felt unrelenting eyes watching every part of me as I struggled up two flights of stairs with boxes. This harassment made an already stressful day more taxing. I was too exhausted to argue or stand up for myself. So I didn’t.
Nearly every day since moving, I have experienced street harassment in some form. Sometimes these instances happen once a day. But most days I’m harassed several times by multiple different men all in their own uniquely crude and disappointing ways. I’m followed to work. I’m followed home. I’m followed to the Rite Aid two blocks down the street. I’m grabbed. I’m hugged. I’m blown kisses. I’m flashed. I’m flipped off. I’m spit at. I’m screamed at. I’m called “sexy.” I’m called a “dumb fat bitch.” I’m called a “stuck up white cunt.” And the list goes on.
These experiences are in no way unique to me. I witness similar situations happening to the women around me every day. And while some women claim to have become “numb” to street harassment, I refuse to accept that ignoring these issues is a way to solve them—perhaps a coping mechanism but certainly not a solution.
Why should women who choose to live in a city have to adapt to this lifestyle?
Why should I feel pressured to walk down a different block that is entirely out of my way to avoid that group of men that harassed me last week? Street harassment is exhausting. I feel unsafe. I feel annoyed. I feel as though all of my insecurities are being prowled upon. I have so much anxiety leaving my house or work because I KNOW someone is going to bother me. I would never want to make people feel the way that these men in this city make me feel on a daily basis. So why do men do this, and why do they get away with this behavior?
Just to be clear, I’m aware and acknowledge that harassment of this nature can happen anywhere and to anyone—men included.
I previously lived in a small college town where I had been sexually harassed. Clearly, street harassment is not exclusive to city-life, but my personal experience with these instances in this particular small college town were more infrequent (yet equally infuriating) when compared to my time spent in cities. Cities do tend to have more streets and more foot traffic when compared to the suburbs—so I’m sure that’s a factor to consider with this issue.
In terms of street harassment against men, I have occasionally seen a car full of women “cat call” a shirtless man at the beach. I’ve witnessed a woman slap another male stranger’s butt. Presently our society suggests to heterosexual men that these gestures should be viewed as flattering or playful, but I stick with my argument that this is sexual harassment whether one is taught to enjoy the “attention” or not. Not to mention, if a man is conditioned by society to think this is appropriate behavior then what would prevent him from doing it to other women? We all have to hold ourselves accountable for our actions, men and women alike. Society needs to stop applauding women who sexually harass men as well as the vice versa.
I recently came across a great article posted on Time magazine’s website called, “I’m a Man Who Was Sexually Harassed by a Woman” by Josh Levs. In his piece article, Levs shares his perspective as a man who was harassed by a woman in the workplace. While the workplace is a different sphere when compared to the streets, I think his viewpoint is worth listening to. He states:
Those who are quick to judge people who describe sexual harassment need a reality check. No matter who you are, sexual harassment could happen to you. And no matter who you are, you should work to help prevent it happening to anyone.
Levs’s story resonated with me. Sexual harassment is a problem in our society and therefore everyone who believes it’s wrong should be doing what they can to prevent it in all its forms. Sexual harassment can happen to anyone.
While sexual harassment can happen to anyone, street harassment in the city is a daily occurrence for MANY women. It has practically become a societal norm that if you’re a girl or woman going into a city, you’re going to be sexually harassed on the streets.
I remember one my first trips to New York City when I was 13-years-old. My aunt told me and my other two female cousins (who were both around the same age as me) to “be careful” and “watch out” as we walked through the city to a Broadway show. On the way to our show, a group of construction workers began “cat calling” my cousins and me as we walked by on an adjacent sidewalk. I remember feeling embarrassed and ashamed as my aunt grabbed us and dragged us past the men as quickly as possible. I felt as though I had done something wrong. Was it because we were in tank tops? I thought to myself. Were we smiling or too friendly when they looked at us? Do those men want to have sex with us? Do men want to have sex with girls who are in middle school?
The typical response I hear from people when I complain about street harassment is that I need to purchase some form of a weapon whether it be pepper spray, a knife, a gun, or all of the above. Our societal norm is to put all the responsibility on women. If you don’t believe me, check out this Bustle article titled “10 Ways to Help Protect Yourself From Sexual Assault — Even Though You Shouldn’t Have To.” Even the title of this article suggests how backwards it is that women are the ones who have to take action against sexual assault. Rather than hold men accountable for their actions, our society expects women to take precautions. Always quick fixes to deeply rooted problems.
In the midst of working on this article, I was curious as to if my significant other, Jaron, had experienced any sexual street harassment since our move. So I asked him. His answer was a quick and easy, “no.” I felt a little sting of resentment–not towards him but towards those who have chosen to harass me. Jaron’s experience obviously doesn’t represent every male’s experience in Philadelphia. But a majority of sexual harassment and violence is directed towards women in our society, especially women of color and transgender women. This is a statement that is backed by historical evidence rooted in our country’s violent colonial past (and well before then too). There are always going to be exceptions, but the truth is our society creates people who are violent, especially sexually violent, towards women.
So what are our options as city women if we want to safely leave our homes but don’t necessarily want to weaponize? What changes need to be made so we can shift this responsibility off of women and onto the society that continues to enable predators?
I think an important preliminary step is to stop assuming that men need sex because it is in their nature. This is wrong. If you’re someone who says the phrase, “Men will be men!” when you witness street harassment, then you are part of the problem. STOP saying this. And more importantly, stop believing in this. If we as a society claim that men MUST have sex in order to be men, then we are also encouraging men to TAKE sex when they cannot find sex. As a society we are constantly enabling aggressive heterosexual male sexuality and its falsehood of needing to prey on others because of its animinalistic “thirst.” We need to stop enabling predators and their destructive behaviors. Men don’t NEED sex. They don’t need to harass us or sexually objectify others. Just like everyone else, they need to be held accountable for their actions—this including street harassment.
I also believe that everyone needs to hold themselves and their friends/family accountable. If you respect women please do not join in or watch other men harass the women around you—whether this is in person, on the street, at work, online, wherever. Instead, tell those around you to stop bothering these women. But please refrain from using the “It could be your mother, female relative, or significant other” argument. Women don’t deserve respect because we are you friends, wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, etc. We deserve respect because we are people. Please remind yourself of this every day. Women too please remind yourself of your worth every single day.
And please women do not help misogynists put down and harass other women. Think before you attack another woman based on appearance or any other superficial impressions. Please think before you yell “slut,” “whore,” “fatass,” etc. at a woman walking down the street because this too is street harassment. Taking down other woman does nothing but play into the hand of the misogynists who taught you to resent and spite other women in the first place. This has taken me many years to realize, and I work every day to make sure I don’t fall into old behaviors of attacking other women in failed efforts to make me feel better about my own insecurities. Push back against the patriarchy that only aims to divide us!
Another step that can be taken to counter street harassment is if you see or hear someone being harassed, to stick up for them by physically standing alongside them. The truth is we are stronger together. We need to stick together in times when we are being threatened. So, rather than stare or walk quickly by in avoidance, a simple gesture can be made to stand alongside whoever is being assaulted and telling the assailant to stop. Of course you should ask the person being attacked if they are okay with you standing alongside of them. But overall I believe that this would be a great idea to counter misogyny in its many forms (especially street harassment). I can’t tell you how many times I would have loved for someone to stand alongside of me and join me in telling an assailant to stop. Some days we are tired or having bad days already that it can be hard to address misogynistic behavior–like me on moving day! Here is a situation where a simple gesture can be made to improve a toxic and ongoing problem. This is an action I’m going to try the next time I see someone else being harassed. Of course, always be safe. If things become threatening you can always call 911 or yell for help. We do not need to tolerate any form of harassment.
Another way to join in solidarity against street harassment is to create or join a feminist group. Through a quick internet search, I was able to find a few feminist groups based in the Philadelphia area that organize together to discuss all types of issues including how to combat daily misogyny. I was reading the blog of a group that is located in West Philadelphia. They are currently updating their website, but I was able to see that they held multiple online and in-person discussions about the same issues I’m discussing in this article. What a great idea to organize and create a community? I cannot reiterate enough that we are stronger in numbers. And of course these groups welcome anyone to join! These are groups that are bringing women and men together who oppose misogyny. I think some men forget that they can hate misogyny too. Let’s all hate misogyny t-o-g-e-t-h-e-r!
And if you took my advice from my previous article, you could always bring up feminist issues at your political group meetings! It’s good to think about your political representatives and candidates and question whether or not these individuals both recognize and address issues of misogyny and street harassment. If this is a fight you want to fight, please write to your local legislators. Call them, and tell them about these issues. Ask them for solutions. They represent US. Therefore, they should be able to offer us solutions for ongoing problems such as street harassment. We need to continue to resist the horrifying clown show that is Trump’s Presidency—one of the biggest attacks on American women’s rights the 27 years I’ve been alive.
While it has been difficult in our country to make street harassment a punishable offense, other countries are beginning to make progress on this issue. In her article from The Washington Post, Street Crime Just Became Illegal in this County,” Elahe Izadi talks about a county in England that has made street harassment a hate crime. Izadi shows how the police are taking an active stand against harassment:
“‘What women face, often on a daily basis, is absolutely unacceptable and can be extremely distressing,’ Fish said in a statement. ‘Nottinghamshire Police is committed to taking misogynistic hate crime seriously and encourages anyone who is affected by it to contact us without hesitation.’”
But since we have not gotten to this point in our own country, there are other, accessible sources out there with valuable information about how to counter and stop street harassment (that can go further than my advice in this article). For example, I found a great source called “ Know Your Rights,” via a quick Google search where lead author, Talia Hagerty, and her coauthors, Holly Kearl, Rickelle Mason, and Whitney Ripplinger discuss solutions for countering street harassment. In their article they define useful terms and further discuss the differing legal systems from state to state in the US. Their disclaimer states:
“[…] We have collected and analyzed each state’s laws to the best of our ability, but laws do change — sometimes quickly. The outcome of a specific case will be determined by the most current state law, precedent in your state, and the details of the specific event. For advice on an individual case, contact a lawyer you trust. If you find a law in our guide that is out of date or misrepresented, please contact us.”
So while they cannot give legal advice per se, they are able to provide a valuable resource about the ongoing issue of street harassment.
Another great resource I found is The Advocate for Human Rights Group’s website and their project called, “Stop Violence Against Women.” Similar to Hagerty’s article, I shared in the previous paragraph, this groups works to update and keep you informed about street harassment. They discuss what laws are in place to protect your from harassment as well as ones that are not. This group also spends time discussing how to further push for societal change on these issues since the judicial side of things tends to be a little slow—especially when dealing with the rights of women and minorities. Overall, these sources are worth a look if you have ever been harassed on the street and have felt upset or unsafe because of it.
There is clearly a lot of work to be done with these issues, but even the smallest changes and efforts can be made to help fight against misogyny.
As women who live in cities (and those who live outside of the cities), I think we need to continue to have more conversations about how to resist all forms of misogyny. We cannot be silent and watch each other fall victim to misogynistic harassment and treatment. Now that sexual assault could (PLEASE SENATE DON’T LET US DOWN) be considered a preexisting health condition, I believe that is it further imperative that we protect each other and stick together. I do not want our younger generations growing up believing that it’s the societal norm to treat women as sexual objects who can be harassed, torn, raped, beaten, and murdered. I, Sharayah Bower, refuse to tolerate or normalize the misogyny in my life—street harassment included!