Street Harassment and the “Right To Be”
“Is your husband coming to play softball?” I heard the question as I was getting my gear out of the trunk of my car, preparing to head to the ball diamond to play a game with my team. I ignored it. After I shut my trunk, the man leaning on the car next to mine repeated it. “Is your husband coming to play softball?” I knew where he was going with this. And I was instantly tense and on guard, just like I had been many times before in situations like this. I was experiencing street harassment. I didn't know how to answer. I wanted to and should have ignored him. But my mind was racing, and I wanted him to know that his question was intrusive and unwanted. So after the second time he asked if my husband was coming, I responded with a terse “why?” His answer, though I don't remember the exact wording, was exactly what I thought it would be: an unwanted appraisal of my looks, something along the lines of “because you look fine.” I mumbled “thanks,” grabbed my stuff, and walked away as he tried again: “are you married?”
Street harassment has changed the way I move through the world. I wouldn't say that it happens to me regularly—certainly not as regularly as it does to people whose jobs or other activities frequently require them to travel on foot along busy streets. But it happens regularly enough that I will change my behavior to try to avoid it. Once, I was grocery shopping while wearing a dress and heels. A man stopped his cart near me to make a loud proclamation about my legs. After that, I would think twice about what I was wearing before going into that particular store. Sometimes I would have my spouse walk or drive me to my parking spot when we drove separately to a social event in a busy area.
I try not to make generalizations about men, or people in general, based on the men I've encountered who have street harassed me. Certainly not all men do it. And, just as certainly, there are people of other genders who perpetrate street harassment, as well. But I do believe that street harassment coming from men is an outgrowth of the ownership aspect of patriarchy: the implicit idea that men own every space, including public ones, and therefore are entitled to behave however they like in those spaces and comment freely on whatever and whoever passes through them. There is an uneven power dynamic, just like when people of color, LGTBQ people, or anyone with a marginalized identity experiences street harassment. No one should have to feel unsafe--or even uncomfortable--simply going about their business, shopping or walking down a street.
Recognizing this power dynamic is a step toward understanding street harassment, but what do we do about it? How do we help create a world where everyone feels safe as they move through it? There aren’t a lot of easy answers, but there are organizations working on it. In 2021, I took part in a free virtual Bystander Intervention Training offered by the nonprofit organization Right To Be (formerly known as Hollaback!). Right To Be was created in 2010 as a blog to collect stories of street harassment and became part of an international movement. Their Bystander Intervention Trainings help teach people how to stop harassment, with a set of simple and safe tactics they call the 5Ds (you can check the site for upcoming virtual training opportunities). And if you’ve experienced harassment, you can share your story on Right To Be’s HeartMob platform, get support from vetted bystanders with the tools and resources to help, and read others’ stories of harassment. With organizations like Right To Be, we can help increase awareness of street harassment and maybe make the world feel a little safer for everyone.