Do you remember the first time you were cat called? Over the years, most women will experience men hooting at them from cars, whistling at them on the street, muttering sexually explicit phrases under their breath as they pass by, or copping a feel on the subway. "It's constant, it's inescapable, and it's hard to get away from," says one young woman featured in a new documentary that aims to bring awareness to the nearly global problem of street harassment.
Mariah Wilson, the producer of Street Harassment: Sidewalk Sleazebags and Metro Molesters, says she and her Vocativ team were inspired to make the short film after hearing Jen Corey, Miss Washington D.C. 2009, speak about a terrifying experience she had where a man followed her, trapped her, and masturbated against her—all on a crowded metro car during rush hour. "I started to dart my eyes around, looking for help, silently screaming for anyone to help me," she says. No one did.
Harassment can be terrifying—and you're right to be scared. "Street harassment is on the spectrum of sexual violence and on occasion, it does escalate into sexual violence," says Holly Kearl, founder of Stop Street Harassment and author of two books on the topic.
Corey's story is sadly familiar. "There are still misconceptions that only certain women are harassed and that it’s 'just' whistling or 'nice legs' type comments,” she says. But any woman can become a target regardless of age, race, clothing, makeup, or other physical characteristics, which is why Wilson shot part of the documentary using a camera hidden on a girl walking down the street—to give viewers a personal perspective of what’s it’s like.
And just like there isn't only one type of woman who gets harassed, there isn't just one reason men have for doing what they do. "Street harassment is a symptom of other forms of inequality: sexism, homophobia, transphobia, racism, classism, and so forth. And a consistent factor is they feel able to because women are valued and respected less in our society than are men," Kearl says. She adds that guys may harass women as a power play (for example, to keep them away from a basketball court that men want to use). Men may also see it as a joke, or could be doing it for sexual gratification (like men who flash or publicly masturbate). In addition, they may just be acting out what they've seen other men do, be pressured into it, or do it because they think she's "asking for it," she says.
One way to fight street harassment? Talk about it. "I want women to know it's okay to speak up, and tell your harasser that what they are doing is not okay—provided that you feel safe doing so,” Wilson says.
She adds that she's a big fan of Hollaback, a website where women can report incidents of street harassment that are then mapped, to show harassment hotspots. Hollaback also collects data on these incidents to bring to elected officials whose districts are especially plagued by harassment, to encourage them to enact legislation to combat the harassment. It's also important to have other womens' backs. If you see someone else being harassed, asking if they’re okay can go a long way toward interrupting an incident and helping the person feel supported. It also signals to any other bystanders that this behavior is not okay.
"Street harassment is not trivial, rare, or something that women are 'asking for,'" Wilson says. "Everyone has the right to feel comfortable and safe in public spaces."