On average, I am publicly sexually harassed by strangers five times a day. Once on my walk from my apartment to the subway (which is one block), once waiting for the train, once on the walk between the subway and my office, once on my way home after work, and once more later on. Harassment ranges from a leer to a loud call, and needless to say, it’s always committed by men.
Recently, I’ve started informing men that their comments are, indeed, sexual harassment - not a compliment – to which they typically argue, “it is a compliment, baby”, or, “it is a compliment, bitch.” The thing about compliments is that if they’re meant to make people feel good. So, if they insult people, they’re no longer compliments. I’ve discovered, to my chagrin, that these men prefer not to use logic when offering to rape a woman during her lunch break.
My experience of sexual harassment is far from unique. If anything, I’m luckier than many women, whose lives are molded by endless harassment. Reports of women moving, leaving their jobs, and quitting their activities to avoid harassment are all too common. Following my last article on catcalling, dozens of women wrote to me to share their stories. Each story was followed or concluded with frustration and a strong sense of indignation.
“It’s like they think I walk around hoping strangers will just enter me,” one woman said. “Just once I’d like to walk home from the grocery store without being told by a man that he approves of my existence. I’m okay with being alive all on my own.”
Unlike other forms of sexual harassment, such as sexual harassment in the workplace, public sexual harassment/street harassment/catcalling doesn’t conveniently fit into a reportable crime. If a man grunts and calls me sexy as he walks by, neither of us is eager to stay put while I call a police officer. And, speaking of which, sexual harassment is so normalized, who’s to say a police officer would even take my complaint seriously?
Ultimately, public sexual harassment is not a matter of individual incidents. It is a massive issue that affects half the population and stems from a culture of ignorance and discrimination towards women. So…who’s doing something to stop it?
There are some efforts to stop and prevent street harassment. Organizations like Stop Street Harassment and Hollaback do amazing and powerful work, empowering women in vulnerable situations and creating united communities of activists. However, there aren’t many organized efforts aimed strictly at educating men on the detriments of their actions.
With so many people in this city affected by public sexual harassment, there should be more awareness campaigns targeted towards men. Instead, we’re forced to stare at ads for breast implants on our way to work. If you don’t live in New York, the ads show a close up of fake breasts surrounded by bleach blonde hair, and their subtext is “WOMEN ARE DISGUSTING! BUY THESE BOOBS!” While that message is all well and good, it might be nice to also see signs on the subway (and on buses and every street corner) geared towards ensuring the safety and well-being of half of New York City’s residents.
I decided to finally act on my idea for a campaign last week in a moment sandwiched between two catcalls on Amsterdam Avenue. I called 311, New York City’s non-emergency municipal services line, to speak to someone who could help me with my idea. Unsurprisingly, the man I spoke with couldn’t understand what I was talking about, and transferred me to 911 twice, assuming the cops would have no trouble catching the maybe-thirty-something, maybe-had-brown-hair guy on a bike who ordered me to smile ten minutes earlier.
Deciding to go bigger, I contacted the mayor’s office. Intentions of stopping and preventing street harassment have been expressed, but since I haven’t seen a decrease in the amount of catcalls I receive, I thought I’d speed things up with a good old fashion letter writing campaign. I’ve been emailing the mayor’s office every day, explaining my idea for an awareness campaign, and urging someone to get back to me, prepared to map out a clear action plan. I intend to continue writing every day until I get a good response. After twenty years of catcalls and two years of daily catcalls, I’ve simply run out of patience.
If you’d like to join my effort and contact your local government on a daily/weekly/monthly basis to gain support for awareness and action campaigns targeting men who publicly sexually harass women, feel free to hop on board. There’s strength in numbers. And, if I learned anything from my daily requests to add whole milk to the coffee cart at my old job, incessantness has its perks.