Living in North Philly, I’ve gotten used to a lot of things: the sound of cop sirens as my bedtime lullaby, drunken kids stumbling out of the party across the street, feeling the slightest bit nervous every time I’m forced to walk home alone and, like most girls my age, dealing with street harassment.
I want to point out that in this column I focus mainly on men harassing women. I fully understand that women also harass men, but it is far less common, and as Stop Street Harassment – a nonprofit organization fighting gender-based street harassment worldwide – perfectly puts it: “While public harassment motivated by racism, homophobia, transphobia or classism – types of deplorable harassment which men can be the target of and sometimes women perpetrate – is recognized as socially unacceptable behavior, men’s harassment of women motivated by gender and sexism is not.”
Due to this social acceptance of street harassment, it’s become normalized for most women, and despite the astounding amount it occurs in North Philly, as I personally haven’t dealt with it as severely anywhere else, most of us don’t do a damn thing about it.
I no longer get angry or upset when someone screams “Hey white b—-,” or “Come here baby” at me. When strangers address me as “blondie” or my neighbor comments on my looks rather than saying hello, I just go on with my normal day unnerved. I barely think about it, let alone take any action in stopping it. And most of my friends are just like me, ignoring the honks, kissing noises and sexually explicit comments.
But recently, I came to the conclusion that my ambivalence is no longer acceptable. While reading an article in Marie Claire’s April issue about young social activists who take advantage of social media to promote their causes, I came across Nuala Cabral’s story. A Philadelphian herself, Cabral produced “Walking Home,” a four-minute film about street harassment that went viral and went on to win the Speaking Out Award at the nonprofit Media That Matters Film Festival. Cabral now works as manager of communications and media productions at the University Community Collaborative of Philadelphia, a youth leadership nonprofit here at Temple.
Before reading this, I never thought about fighting back against something that is so present in my community. It seemed pointless, trying to prove to people so used to demoralizing women and reducing them to nothing more than a face or body that their behavior wasn’t OK. And we women have become so skilled in brushing off the comments, walking a little faster or shooting disapproving glances that I assumed no one was really offended or really disturbed.
But the truth is that street harassment can have lasting effects. It can make women feel like they lose ownership of their own bodies. It can make us afraid to leave the house. It can make us feel like nothing more than our appearance matters. It takes away our right to feel comfortable in our own environment. And those are all pretty big issues, not something to brush off or just deal with.
The problem is not everyone is so sure how to stop street harassment. Before researching and asking questions, I would have just assumed there was nothing I could really do about it.
When I was a freshman in college, I went to Woody’s, a gay bar in center city, with a few friends. At the end of the night, I went outside to get some air while waiting for my friends to meet me. It happened to be the same night of a big Phillies game – I don’t follow sports, so I can’t tell you which team they played against or even if they lost or won – and there were cars lined up on the street in a traffic jam, honking their horns and going wild. I also don’t understand Philly sport fans.
Next thing I knew, I was being pulled into the back of a truck where at least six grown men were screaming names at me, ripping at my dress and punching me to keep me down. I curled up as tight as I could, holding my head and hoping someone would help me.
Luckily, due to the congestion of cars, a stranger on the street was able to pull me out of the truck before they had the chance to drive away. I immediately went to the cops, reporting what happened and also explaining that they had taken my phone, but the cops said there was simply “nothing” they could do since I didn’t have a license plate number or any way to identify them.
I guess this experience kind of shaped my belief that as a woman, I would just have to put up with harassment from men. It made me believe that being catcalled on the street was no big deal. But as we accept it, we start to let bigger things happen. We start to lose a sense of power, and we give into society’s wrongs rather than joining together and letting people know that no, it’s not OK.
So how can we take steps to put an end to street harassment, or at least attempt to? Let them know that it’s wrong. Speak up, and say what you want to say. Stop Street Harassment’s website has a ton of advice on specific things to say to harassers and how to be assertive, plus they provide tips on how to report a harasser. And if you’re seeking some inspiration, they have stories from others who have taken a stand. Just remember: It’s better to be angry than apathetic.
As this is my last column ever for The Temple News and I’m soon graduating, I hope that I can improve my body image and self-esteem as I enter adulthood – whatever that means. And although I probably won’t be too confident the first time I address a street harasser, I’ll get used to it over time, just like I’ll get used to loving my own body and letting go of negative thoughts. I hope you all will too.
Cary Carr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.