A conversation around street harassment with founder Laura Wise & Kim Marie of Armoire Magazine.
Kim: To begin, in your words, what is street harassment?
Laura: Street harassment is a form of sexual and gender-based harassment that takes place in public spaces. Street harassment reinforces the idea that men are entitled to public spaces and women are visitors. There is more than an “ick” factor to street harassment, shame and fear often follow. Women describe street harassment as something that typically makes them feel unsafe, regardless of intent.
K: Right, since street harassment so often leads to violence, the threat of violence feels very present, even in comments as common as “hey baby! or “nice ass!”
L: Exactly, there is also this phenomenon of men who are unable to take rejection. There really should be a class! Ignore a cat-caller and he may become more aggressive or even violent. Say no, walk away, there really is no “safe” way to escape street harassment other than not to be in public spaces (and obviously that is not an option.) I’ve been harassed in a denim jacket and jeans, day and night, sunglasses or a full face of makeup. There is no formula to avoiding harassment, it seems that simply existing in public spaces is reason enough for many men to harass or worse.
K: Yes and I have seen a lot of commentary about street harassment being “flattering” – comments like, “well, you’re gonna miss the attention when you’re old and gray!” This expectation for women to be thankful for feeling unsafe in public spaces is really frustrating, how do you respond to these types of comments?
L: That is a pretty ridiculous response to street harassment. “Excuse me, I don’t mean to bother you but you look awesome today!” that’s flattering, that’s polite. That reminds me, I love the hashtag #dudesgreetingdudes, a hashtag asking men to observe their comments in the context of speaking to another man. Would you talk to another man in a public space the same way? Probably not, regardless of orientation.
K: Why do you think the responsibility of men’s actions so often gets placed on women’s (outfit) choices?
L: In short, religion. Women’s sexuality and self-expression has been controlled by society since the beginning of organized religion. Religion created standards for women and ideals such as the concept of “purity” and that being desirable requires “virginity” – hello Virgin Mary, anyone!? Our clothing choices are seen as a reflection of our self-respect, purity and worth. But let’s be clear: purity is a myth and virginity is a social construct. My clothing is my choice because it goes on my body!
K: What is your response to those that say “not all men are like that,” not only when referring to street harassment but abuse, sexual violence and misogyny in general?
L: My response would be, “Wow, are you kidding me!? I had no idea, thanks so much for that info!” No really guys, just ask how to help or empathize when a woman is telling you about her experiences. Don’t get defensive! If it’s not relevant to you, then there is no need to defend yourself, that’s a pretty self-centered way to respond to someone who is being harassed.
K: One more point on the topic of women baring the responsibility of men’s actions, I often hear people giving advice to women on how they should treat harassers or even how they should respond to violent, physical attacks: “I’d tell him to fuck off!” “Put up a fight!” Why do you think these types of comments are harmful?
L: It is so harmful because there is no correct way to respond to street harassment. One response might go well in one situation and cause the harasser to escalate in another situation. Any and all responsibility needs to be removed from the victims of street harassment and correctly placed on the harassers. There is no such thing as “asking for it.”
K: In California, street harassment is illegal and there are many organizations and resources to report such incidents but it feels hopeless to combat and almost pointless to report. In no way do I think it is women’s responsibility to control the harassment they endure, it is up to men to control their culture of control and oppression, but I find myself wondering: what are some ways we can combat street harassment?
L: I think conversations like these are important. Men need to hold their peers to a higher standard. Men who idly stand by are just as guilty. The more that women come together and talk about gender equality, the better. Community is key! This is why I created MOTHERSHIP.
K: Yes, I am very thankful for communities like yours that connect and empower women. On a final note, I think it’s important to remember that most street harassment and violent / sexual attacks go unreported, so when we hear statistics like “two out of every five women has experienced street harassment,” it is actually much, much worse than that.
L: I don’t know one woman who has NOT been harassed, cat-called, or intruded upon by a man in her lifetime. Do you?
Article compliments Kim Marie/Armoire Magazine.