Nearly four years ago when I had to select a master’s thesis topic at George Washington University, I thought about all of the times men I don’t know have harassed me in public.
Men have whistled and honked at me, hissed and made kissing noises, made degrading and sexually explicit comments, followed me, and one man even groped me. The harassment has not been specific to any one location and has included: on a rural road in Oregon, at a gas station in Utah, near the beach in southern California, a block from my college campus in northern California, on the New York City subway, in a park in Virginia, on the mall in Washington, DC, downtown Brugge, Belgium, and in a neighborhood in Lancaster, England.
I thought that dealing with and trying to avoid harassers was my lot in life as a woman. Then I came across websites like HollaBack NYC which empower women to share their harassment stories and call out the men who did it. I realized other women did not like this unwanted attention and harassment. I began researching it and became empowered to realize I did not have to stand for this behavior!
I chose to write my master’s thesis on street harassment, particularly how women were using online methods to deal with harassers in lieu of legal remedies. My thesis struck a chord and was featured on CNN. Soon after that in 2008, I founded the Stop Street Harassment website and blog; women around the world share their stories on the latter. Then I started working on a book and signed a contract with Praeger last year.
I wrote my book Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women (Praeger, 8/2010) across five months, mainly last August - December. What struck me the most as I wrote was how worldwide this problem is and how many people in just the last five years have started to address it. I corresponded with activists in India, Egypt, Canada, Australia, Mauritius, and Colombia, in addition to activists across the United States in California, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, and Washington, DC. So much activism was occurring that even though I had most of my research completed when I signed the contract, I had to keep researching and revising to make sure I was as thorough and current as I could be.
Once I turned in my book proposal in January of this year, I lost the ability to be totally current because activism – thankfully – continued to blossom worldwide. The United Nations published a 100 page document about how to make cities safer for women and anti-harassment campaigns took off in England, Wales, Bangladesh, and Lebanon. I am thrilled by their work, but I also regret not being able to include them in my book!
My international take on street harassment and my action-oriented suggestions for ending it make my book unique among the handful that already exists on this topic. While I offer suggestions for large-scale activism, at the end of the day, what I really hope is that everyone who reads it will take at least one form of individualized activism. Every action can make a difference and all the actions together can help change the cultural acceptance of street harassment.
At an individual level, we can all talk and learn about street harassment because problems that are ignored stay problems. Share stories, ask women you know about their stories and how it’s impacted their life. Intervene when you see harassment occurring and report harassers, teach boys to respect women, and empower girls to know how to deal with harassers. No action is too small and the responsibility lies with each of us to make public places safer for everyone.
--Holly Kearl, author of Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women
Holly Kearl is a national street harassment expert and nonprofit professional based in the Washington, D.C. area. Her work has been cited by the United Nations, CNN, the Guardian, Canada.com, Feministing, and Jezebel. In addition to her book, she runs the website Stop Street Harassment and the companion blog where people from around the world submit their street harassment stories. Kearl has written articles about street harassment for Forbes.com, Huffington Post, Oregonian, and AOL. She also works for the women’s equity nonprofit AAUW.
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