Off the beat: Harassment on the street hurts

Picture this: It’s a sweltering summer day, and you’re riding the BART train. Book in hand, you’re eager to get in some quality reading time in the next 45 minutes. Then a man enters the cabin and sits next to you. He turns to you and begins mumbling, calling you “honey” and “sexy” under his breath. He spreads his legs wide until they touch yours, and his hand slides down the side of your arm. You get up and change seats, while he glares at you for the rest of the ride.

Or, picture this: You’re walking to campus, and a group of men spot you from across the street. One of them starts to holler at you, and the rest join in. They call you a “slut” and make vulgar remarks about your body. And you just walk away in silent anger, their voices reverberating inside of you.

This is the unsettling reality of street harassment. While many forms of sexual harassment take place behind closed doors (i.e., at social events, in the workplace), street harassment distinguishes itself because it occurs publicly.

Since my freshman year, it has been a phenomenon that has impacted me personally and many other women I know. You walk down Telegraph as a woman, and you’re bound to get jeered at; it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing, how you look or whom you’re with — you will be targeted. And we’re not alone: In 2004, Laura Beth Nielsen, a law and sociology professor at Northwestern University, released a study on street harassment in the Bay Area. Of the 54 women she interviewed, 100 percent reported they had been the target of sexually suggestive and derogatory remarks from men.  According to an Oxygen/Markle Pulse nationwide poll in 2000, 87 percent of American women between the ages of 18 and 64 have been targeted by male street-harassers.

I’ve discussed street harassment with both men and women, and I have elicited a wide variety of reactions. Frustration, anger and resignation reign among them, yet ignorance and denial figure in as well.

In one of my classes, a male student remarked that I should appreciate the “compliments” and attention I receive from the opposite sex. This not only caters to heteronormative ideas about female sexuality but also trivializes a serious and pervasive form of sexual discrimination. Gender inequality and the implication of rape make street harassment particularly threatening to women. It publicly objectifies and subordinates us, reinforcing an unequal power dynamic between the sexes. More importantly, those who celebrate street harassment as “complimentary” transform it into a misguided, distorted badge of honor.

Like rape, however, street harassment (like harassment of any kind) does not suggest desirability. It is not rooted in love, respect or other positive qualities we associate with romance and friendship. Rather, it is an act of oppression, seeking not to appreciate “desirable” women but to create an atmosphere in which women feel targeted and unsafe. By using street harassment to determine desirability, women can be doubly marginalized: once for being women and again for being insufficiently female. This manipulates the power dynamic in such a way that women find themselves at the bottom of the social totem pole. Simply put, “legitimate womanhood” cannot and should not be defined by those who abuse women.

Street harassment is a complex issue for both men and women. Many struggle to define it or understand how a harmless, well-intentioned compliment can turn ugly. It may be helpful for men to consider the following: Before you make a particular comment toward a woman, ask yourself whether you would be comfortable having a stranger say it to your mother, sister or other significant woman in your life. If not, it likely falls within the realm of harassment.

Recently, grassroots initiatives such as Hollaback have worked to end street harassment by encouraging women, girls and LGBTQ individuals to share their stories. In an effort to raise awareness of the issue, Hollaback collaborates with schools, community groups and public officials internationally. The organization has a presence in Berkeley as well, using social media to post survivors’ stories, share resources and host events in opposition to street harassment.

Over the years, I have developed strong mental defenses against street harassers. I refuse to let them ruin my day or make me feel weak. However, this is not an issue of strength. Despite my thick skin, I am not immune to street harassment. As an international phenomenon, it normalizes the sexual objectification of women and contributes to violence against them. In light of the state’s audit of UC Berkeley’s sexual assault policies, it is crucial for us to combat street harassment as well. If you see it happening, speak up; if it’s happening to you, speak out. We can’t be silent any longer.