Harassment in the Streets: What Can a Woman Do?

Women walk down an urban street, a place where many women report having experienced street harassment.  Photo/WikimediaCommons

Women on an urban street, a place where many report experiencing street harassment. (Photo/ Wikimedia Commons)

Updated on Oct. 21

Willa Tellekson-Flash doesn’t remember the first time she was catcalled. But she remembers the last. It was the morning we spoke, while she was running through Central Park. She runs with music pouring through her earphones and her sneakers pounding the pavement, but the catcalling was loud enough to hear anyway. “I just kept running,” she said.

Willa has long dirty blond hair that falls midway down her back and round hazel eyes. Her nails are painted pink and she wears blue dangling earrings and a nose ring. On a morning when the last moments of summer seem to be hanging on for dear life, before the cold weather moves in, Willa wears a blue dress and black sandals. She sips on water out of a red cup and seems frustrated as she questions the multiple times she has felt violated in the streets.

“Why do men have the right to say these things to women? It never happens the other way around,” she said. “And why does no one ever stand up? Why do no other men ever say anything?”

When it comes to street harassment, most days aren’t harassment free for the 18-year-old. She is catcalled on average once a day, she said. Sometimes more. And she is not alone.

While there is limited data on street harassment in NYC, which tends to be underreported, experts and research done by groups like Hollaback!, indicate that hundreds of women are harassed on the streets daily. One form it takes in NYC is catcalling, when men yell out or whistle at women as they walk by.  “I find it really upsetting that it is swept under the rug so much,” Willa said. “The fact that it happens so often nobody really talks about it.”

Before college Willa was a rower at a high school in Massachusetts and also enjoyed running.  She still enjoys running in college, but it is on her runs she often experiences the most street harassment.

“It was a shock for a lot of kids who go to school in the suburbs going into cities and all of a sudden being in contact with it on a really regular basis,” she said. “I was telling my parents it is almost to the point where I don’t notice it because it happens so often. I will be running and I will just be whistled at by five people in a row.”

There is little doubt street harassment is prevalent. But what can actually be done about it? This is a question that activists, and women like Willa, are trying to form some answer to. The general consensus seems to be that one of the most important ways to combat street harassment is to first raise awareness. People need to know that it is happening and they need to know that they are not alone.

Willa was active in her feminist group in high school and it seemed only natural to continue that in college. She joined the Feminist Society at NYU, which recently teamed up with Hollaback!, a global movement to end street harassment.

When the president of the Feminist Society at NYU reached out to members to share their personal street harassment stories, Willa was the first and only to volunteer. For Willa speaking out is important because it is at least a step in the right direction. “I wish people would start saying something about it,” she said.

Some people have begun doing just that. Street harassment is being talked about online, in the media, and on the streets. But most of all, people and organizations, like Hollaback! and the Feminist Society at NYU, are starting to come up with strategies and campaigns to help end street harassment.

Raising awareness can be done in several ways. Hollaback! believes in breaking the silence surrounding street harassment, a subject that has often been considered taboo. This starts by encouraging women, like Willa, to share their stories.

Hollaback! encourages and helps women document in words and pictures their street harassment experiences, according to Jae Cameron, the programs associate at Hollaback!. The idea is to encourage women to share their stories and allow them to bring attention to an issue that has been long ignored, Cameron said. Hollaback! also trains women to help create grassroots movements against street harassment as well.

Hollaback! also try’s to shift public opinion through education. The group provides educational workshops to schools and universities, and engages people through social media and community groups. And Hollaback! tries to incorporate elected and public officials in their campaign to raise awareness about street harassment. The group provides data it has collected and mapped out, so that policymakers and legislators will see areas experiencing high incidences of harassment and can act accordingly.

Stop Street Harassment, another global movement and advocacy group, also values the importance of awareness. Using social media and meet-up events, the group allows women to share their street harassment-stories with the goal of trying to put an end to it. At the end of October, it will hold an event in NYC, in which women will be encouraged to use chalk and to write about street harassment on the sidewalks in Washington Square Park.

Street harassment is being talked about, at least, in the media lately. Just two weeks ago, comedian John Stewart had a segment on his, “Daily Show,” about street harassment, which went viral. Outlets such as Buzzfeed and The Huffington Post, and The New York Times, have run articles about street harassment. Major news outlets have also reported on women filming their harassers, a tactic some women have begun to use in response to being harassed. And there have been countless Twitter campaigns too.

These Twitter campaigns have also revealed faults in the ending street harassment movement. Many women of color, as demonstrated through the social media hashtag #YouOkSis, feel it is important their voices are also heard. And sometimes they feel ignored. Maliyka Muhammad, 34, a new board member for Stop Street Harassment, is one who feels that way. She said she began experiencing street harassment as young as age 12. Muhammad believes education on street harassment should begin in the home, followed by school. “It definitely should be enforced in school. I do hold belief it takes a village to raise a child,” she said. “So everybody really needs to join hands in this.”

Hannah Jones, 24, a NYC resident who has worked in youth development, also thinks education and awareness are key to combating street harassment. She believes sexual violence, gang violence, domestic violence, and street harassment all tie together and should be addressed not only at home, but also within schools.

“We should be talking about healthy relationships,” she said. “Basically talking about how to treat each other.” Jones thinks it’s important to include men and boys in this movement. “A lot of people think sexual harassment is a girl’s issue, but it’s not. It’s a man’s issue and I think we should be talking about it together,” she said. “And I think if you start at a young age and in an educational setting that’s where you learn how to treat women, and that’s where you learn how to treat yourself, and your friends and your family.”

Jones said it’s also important to acknowledge the environment and culture that men who catcall and harass are exposed to at an early age.  “These boys are watching their parents. They are watching the streets,” she said. “They are watching so many negative influences. There needs to be a central place where there’s a positive influence that talks about these subjects that nobody wants to talk about. Our media is finally talking about it, for the first time. And I think now our schools need to talk about it. “

Hollaback! and many other organizations who deal with the combating harassment believe street harassment is about power, control, and male entitlement both to public spaces and to a woman’s body.  “We should be fighting that through our education system,” Jones said.

But meanwhile what can women do? Hollaback! said the way a woman responds to street harassment depends on that woman, and what she is comfortable with doing. Every woman approaches street harassment differently. Some yell back, some film their harassers, and some report those harassers. And many others, like Willa and Jones, pretend they didn’t hear it and keep on moving to avoid what could turn into a scary situation.

Both Jones and Willa pointed out that street harassment is scary. Just last week in Queens and in Detroit, street harassment turned violent. A woman in Detroit was killed when she rejected a man’s advances on the street. The other woman in Queens had her throat slashed after she rejected a man’s advances in the lobby of her apartment.

For Willa, responding is often not an option, because she wants to get as far away from that situation as possible. Yet for Willa this is where awareness comes in. She wants men to know street harassment is simply not okay. “I love New York. And I want New York to be a place I can come and share with other people without having these things put a damper on it,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like a compliment. It feels like I am being objectified.”

Willa is going to keep running. Street harassment will not stop her from doing what she loves she said. And when it comes to speaking out, Willa won’t run from that either.

“It isn’t going to change unless we draw attention to it,” she said. “I want to add my voice to that.”


Note: An earlier version of the story described the main subject, Willa, as a classic American girl. That description was removed.