Gender, Love, Inequality

Why I’m participating in International Anti-Street Harassment Week

Calling out harassers and participating in awareness events has been some of the best form of self-care for me.

Lauren McEwen is a former blog correspondent for Stop Street Harassment and has volunteered during Meet Us On the Street Week in the past. She is currently doing some social media work for SSH.  

Spring is here and with it, street harassment season. Of course, we all know that street harassment happens year round, but once the weather warms and the sun starts to break through the clouds, it’s like it hits a fever pitch. It’s the time of year when I refuse to leave the house without my headphones, plan alternate routes to work so that I can avoid crowds of men on the street, and plaster on my best “Leave Me Alone” scowl the second I leave the door.

Luckily, Meet Us on the Street: International Anti-Street Harassment Week is upon us as well. Organized by Stop Street Harassment, Hollaback!, Stop Telling Women to Smile, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, and several other co-sponsors from 30 countries, it’s a week full of activities to help raise awareness about street harassment and meet with local government, law enforcement, businesses, and others in order to fight for change. It takes place this week, April 10 to April 16, and there tons of ways to participate, from blogging about street harassment experiences and sharing information about harassment online to organizing sidewalk chalking events and conducting surveys.

Although I’m a former blog correspondent for Stop Street Harassment, I’m not writing this to simply promote the event, but because I genuinely want more people to know about tangible ways that they can help end street harassment. 

I’ve written about some of my worst street harassment experiences here and in plenty of other places, but to sum it all up, I first remember being harassed at age 9, and that’s about the age when I started shouting back at my harassers. They were adults who thought it was both funny and acceptable to invite elementary school-aged girls into their cars because we were “too pretty to walk.” When we would complain to sensible adults that we trusted about it, they would usually say something like “just ignore them” or “men just like pretty girls.”

Frustrated, I kept yelling back at them (“If you’re old enough to drive, you’re too old to talk to me.”), knowing that it would probably be considered safer to ignore them, but I was too pissed off to care. Now that I’m older, I think many of the adults who minimized my concerns about casual pedophiles who honked at my cousin and I were either socialized to think that street harassment is normal male behavior or simply couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that the people who shouted “Damn, baby. You’re gonna be fine when you’re older” at a 3rd grader were dead serious and thought we were “fine” in the present.

When I moved to Washington, D.C. from Atlanta, the harassment got more frequent because I was simply on the street more. I’m almost exclusively a pedestrian here, which means there are plenty more opportunities for me to get into full-on shouting matches with people who think it’s acceptable to follow me down a public street, taunting me, because I said “No, thank you” to their earlier advances. I’ve had a teenager throw a bottle at me because I refused to give him my number. I’ve been groped, I’ve been threatened, I’ve been so angry that I’ve had to walk away to avoid punching a stranger in the face. I’ve gotten into week-long arguments with loved ones who couldn’t understand why I couldn’t “just ignore it because you never know what these strangers are capable of.”

The emotional toll of street harassment – the baggage that you carry with you, the tears you shed when you get home, the tension in your neck and shoulders as you walk by a group of men on the street, silently willing them to just let you pass by without making a comment – it all started to pile on me. Shouting back at harassers has always been about taking back power for me. But arguing with people who do not see me as a full human in the first place is like tirelessly punching the air. A really smart woman recently told me, “Once someone ignores your ‘no,’ it’s no longer a conversation,” and I wish I’d heard those words years before.

Tweeting and writing about the harassment, stepping in as a bystander (in ways that are safe), participating in organized efforts like Meet Us On the Street Week and taking self-defense classes have proven to be some of the best forms of street harassment-related self-care for me. I feel like I’m actively working to help make streets safer for women, gender non-conforming people, and gay men. Like I might, one day, help someone realize that sexualizing strangers is not funny, harmless or a suitable way to try to get a date; that everyone deserves the right to occupy space without fear of being harassed, threatened, groped, followed, attacked or killed.