Bringing Peacebuilding Home: My Summer with Stop Street Harassment

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Once again, I inadvertently took the summer off of Theory of Change. That isn’t because I took any time off of social change – I just had to get outside. Summer in New York City has been beautiful, and Fall is looking the same. (It’s 80 and sunny today!) But with the warm weather has come something else that’s gotten a lot a play around the web the past few months – street harassment. Since June, I’ve been working for the organization Stop Street Harassment (SSH) on one of the human rights and peacebuilding issue that plagues my community.

What is street harassment? You know it when you see it: it’s gender-based harassment in public spaces and it looks and sounds like, “Hey, baby!”, “Nice ass!”, “MMmmhhmmm…”, and “Give me a smile!” (Newsflash: I’m not here to give you anything, mister.) Unfortunately, these not-compliments are only the beginning – street harassment is most often verbal (like, every time I walk outside in Brooklyn) but can also include groping or indecent exposure, and can quickly escalate to sexual assault.

And why is it a human rights issue? Because women and the LGBTQ individuals targeted by street harassment never know when a seemingly innocuous comment will escalate into something much more serious. It’s a subtle form of violence that impacts women psychologically, limits our mobility, and leads us to live in fear. And sadly, what we’re afraid of – being followed, attacked, or raped – happens all the time.

For me, street harassment started when I was young teenager. There’s a lot of landscaping work that goes on in the Floridian paradise where I grew up, and those guys were the worst – always yelling and whistling from yards or the back of their trucks. People said to ignore it, but I was just a kid and it made me feel gross. Earlier this summer I wrote for the SSH blog about the first time street harassment made me really afraid – and made me think of using violence in my own defense – in my neighborhood in Brooklyn.

I immediately made a plan. I was carrying my cell phone and wallet in one hand and my dinner and an umbrella in the other. If anyone – a sexual harasser or otherwise – wanted to take my wallet, it would have been easy. I’ve heard so many stories, and had so many men overreact when I told them to stop harassing me, that I knew, if he was following me, how this would play out. If this man wanted to intimidate me, the easiest thing for him to do would be to grab my wallet and phone and push me to the ground. He would walk away with some cash, an iPhone, and a renewed sense of his violent power.

So what are we doing about it? SSH founder Holly Kearl brought me on in June to build Know Your Rights Guide for dealing with street harassment in the 50 U.S. States. As far as I know, most people don’t report street harassment to the police, even when the harasser is doing something clearly illegal. Of course, yelling “Hey, baby!” isn’t illegal – and it shouldn’t be. But you can always call 911 if you think you’re being followed, and every state we’ve surveyed so far has laws that protect you from indecent exposure, groping, and other forms of assault. We’re collecting the relevant laws for each state and major city, and we aim to have the Guide online later this fall so that you can know your rights.

If this sounds familiar, because street harassment is part of your life, or if you’re a guy and didn’t know what your friends/sister/partner/mother/daughter might be going through, get involved and help out our effort. If you see street harassment, especially you men, intervene to stop it. There are plenty of creative, nonviolent and deescalating ways to do so. Share your stories – of street harassment and street respect – on the SSH blog. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook to keep up with our work and find the Guide when it goes live. And if you really want to make an impact, donate. It’s tax deductible, and it keeps activists like me housed, fed, and working for safer streets.

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