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Sexual Harassment in the Streets: It’s Not the Clothes

Girls-getting-ready
By , 16, Contributor Originally Published: August 30, 2012 Revised: November 11, 2015

I live in a suburban neighborhood. The crime rate in this area is low, and the people here are generally friendly. Most anyone I see will offer a passing hello or stop to introduce his or her puppy. If I want to enjoy a warm spring day, I can expect to walk down the streets in my neighborhood without being harassed—unless I am wearing shorts.

Wearing shorts… has some implications. I can’t think of a reason why my choice of clothing gives others the right to harass me, but I can count on at least a couple of shouts from car windows or unwarranted remarks from people parked nearby. That my choice of clothing determines whether or not I experience street harassment indicates that, in the mind of the harassers, street harassment is acceptable under certain circumstances.

The Right Clothing

In my experience, many people believe that street harassment can be prevented if people just wear the “right” type of clothing, meaning long pants and shirts. So if I choose not to wear the “right clothing,” this belief implies that I am responsible for being harassed.

In other cases, I’ve been told to take street harassment as a compliment to my looks. To me, street harassment is less a compliment and more a statement of, “Hey, I have the right and ability to yell at you or make unwanted sexual comments directed at you in public, and I’m going to take advantage of that.” Street harassment is usually crass and doesn’t offer me the opportunity to respond. It is committed for the satisfaction of the harasser, at the expense of the victim.

I am one of the estimated 70 to 100 percent of girls and women who will experience street harassment during their lifetime.

This phenomenon is part of the reality of living in a culture of sexual hostility, one in which women and girls are more likely to be criticized for their choice of clothing than street harassers are to be held responsible for their actions. In reality, street harassment is not caused by my clothing. The suggestion that women and girls should dress differently in order to avoid harassment suggests that the victims of harassment are the ones who need to change their behavior. That suggestion places blame on the victims of sexual harassment, leaving the perpetrators free to harass again and again without any consequences.

Unsafe and Uncomfortable

I am one of the estimated 70 to 100 percent of girls and women who will experience street harassment during their lifetime. But I have not felt that I was in a significant amount of physical danger, so I haven’t changed my clothing or my path, though many other girls and women feel unsafe or uncomfortable enough that they take special measures to avoid street harassment. Common tactics women reported using to avoid or minimize unwanted gestures include taking a different path to their destination and changing their style of clothing, according to a 2008 survey conducted by StopStreetHarassment.org.

Street harassment is one of the most visible forms of harassment, and one of the most common. Seems contradictory, doesn’t it?

Addressing Street Harassment

Street harassment is merely one symptom of an underlying problem in our society, and it needs to be addressed as such if we want to stop both visible and invisible forms of sexual hostility in a cultural climate that condones sexual assault and harassment. I believe that public discussion is one of the most effective tools in dismantling any societal problem. It’s important to talk regularly within school communities, families and with friends about what street harassment is, how it affects its victims and why the perpetrators of street harassment, not the victims, are responsible for ending it.

Opening up discussion on street harassment directly combats the system of beliefs and behaviors that encourage or facilitate street harassment. I try to do this by questioning people when they make statements that excuse a harasser’s behavior or dismiss street harassment as a compliment rather than a problem. Often, that will lead to an opportunity to talk about how those beliefs indirectly encourage sexual hostility, and from there we can reach a more informed view of street harassment. It’s not always possible, but taking this kind of action helps combat street harassment, and it’s something we can all strive to take part in.

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