By: Sydney Tsai
TW: discusses themes of sexual assault and sexual harassment
Note from Writer: Even though I do acknowledge that men, especially if they are a part of a minority group, also have to deal with street harassment and other forms of sexual harassment and assault, this article is focused on addressing the issue in regards of men harming women in the United States.
With the recent rise of a variety of empowering movements such as #MeToo, major news forums and other media outlets have began to discuss the major issue of sexual assault against women in several occurances such as the infamous Brock Turner case and the accusations against Brett Kavanaugh. Brock Turner is a rapist who raped an unconscious and intoxicated woman and received only six months of prison time (he got out earlier due to good behavior). Brett Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and two other women after he was nominated to become a Supreme Court Justice by Donald Trump; many people believed Ford because of Kavanaugh’s angry demeanor during the hearings and his refusal to take a lie detector test. The Brock Turner case and accusations against Kavanaugh both caused great outrage among several people in the mass media because of the little to no consequences they received for their actions (alleged for Kavanaugh) due to their white and male privilege, along with their elite status in society as Turner was a Stanford athlete and Kavanaugh was already a respected judge in D.C. In addition, victim shaming was frequent for both the Jane Doe of Turner’s case and Dr. Ford – Dr. Ford even received death threats after her accusations against Kavanaugh became public.
Even though this new aspect of the media is definitely an improvement to end the long lasting stigma against discussing these problems women constantly face, news outlets tend to leave sexual harassment out of their daily news, which has to change. Sexual harassment, acccording to the United Nations, is described as “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature”; even though sexual harassment happens to almost all women in their daily lives, it is often swept under the rug and disregarded as an alarming issue that has to be resolved because it is so incredibly normalized in modern day society. Although there are several social media accounts such as @catcallsofnyc on Instagram that post written catcalls and quotes of women’s experiences of street harassment on the sidewalks of New York City and jaygee on Youtube (who released the viral video of a woman responding to catcalls in New York City), the issue itself is often brushed off and is on the bottom of many people’s “priority list” as a problem that has to be fixed and/or improved upon.
Sexual harassment, specifically street harassment, can be described as a microaggression, which is “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority)” (Merriam Webster). Whether women or young girls are enjoying a jog or walking to their job, they can hear, especially in highly urbanized and populated places, a variety of shocking and disgusting remarks about their body and attitude such as “you should smile more”, “be nicer sweetheart”, or “that’s nice!” Unfortunately, even among most women, the issue is brushed aside because most of the time, women are not physically harmed – thus, the cycle continues as men feel entitled to impose their unfounded and downright idiotic opinions to random women passing them on the streets. Although these microaggressions may seem unimportant and/or minor, street harassment actually causes three negative effects: (1) it has negative and long lasting health impacts on women, (2) harassment against women becomes normalized, and (3) can encourage more severe and dangerous actions against women.
When many women think of street harassment, one of their first thoughts are ways to protect themselves; many of them carry around pepper spray in their purse or backpack, put their keys in between their fingers as a potential sharp weapon, and even avoid having headphones in their ears just in case someone wants to approach and possibly attack them from behind. The reason why many women take these precautions and are quick to respond to these situations are because of the “fight-or-flight” response (which is also known as the stress response). Even though this stress response is commonly used for life threatening situations such as shootings or robberies, many people often have stress responses to seemingly non-threatening situations such as traffic jams and work pressure. Due to these microaggressions that women have to deal with, their worries accumulate into a constant feeling of necessity to be prepared to defend themselves; unfortunately, even though street harassment is technically not at a life threatening level of severity in many cases, women still have to be ready to protect themselves because of the possibility that the harassment can reach that point. Street harassment can quickly become life threatening when men threaten to shoot, beat, or rape women who respond rudely to their remarks – this has caused many women to believe that becoming passive to street harassment is the best way to handle the situation at hand. The cost of having constant stress responses is heavy – according to Harvard Medical School, chronic stress from these natural responses can have concerning repercussions such as, “… high blood pressure… the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction… chronic stress may also contribute to obesity…” Although there are a variety of means to resolve this issue such as relaxation responses (deep abdominal breathing, viewing tranquil sceneries, yoga, and etc.), exercise as an outlet to release stress, and social support from loved ones, a woman’s feeling of constantly being preyed upon continues to weigh heavy on her mind and body.
Another problem street harassment causes is the normalization of the harassment of women. Although there are laws against street harassment that differ state by state such as California’s laws against verbal harassment (disorderly conduct, public nuisance, etc.), indecent exposure, obstructing your path, following, and groping, many of the incidents are not reported. Not only are some of the state laws heavily flawed as they are based on a foundation of sexist constructs where women are perceived as the weaker sex while men are given the conflicting roles of both protector and aggressor, convicting someone of street harassment can be difficult if there are no eye witnesses, DNA evidence, street cameras, and etc. Because of how many street harassers receive a slap on the wrist or no consequences for their heinous actions a majority of the time, street harassment (and other forms of sexual harassment and sexual assault) have become much too “normal” in women’s lives, especially in large cities such as New York City and Los Angeles. Even though the simple catcall about a woman’s butt or an incident of groping a woman’s body part may seem to be “not that bad” in some people’s eyes, the lack of protection for women not only make them feel helpless, but it also causes women to feel pressured to not speak out against these harassers to protect themselves from further harm. Despite the rise of progressive and pro-feminist movements in modern society, why is the violation of a woman’s body is perceived to be perfectly fine and normal in so many people’s eyes? Do these harassers perceive women’s bodies as inherently less valuable than theirs? Even though many women are able to wrap their heads around the intention of catcalls and other forms of street harassment, it is never a “compliment”; even though men who make immature comments such as “I’d hit that” may think that they are flattering a woman, most women only feel as if they are perceived as objects and not valued individuals when they are on the receiving end of these degrading actions. As women continue to be perceived as objects that can be judged and preyed on, the unjustified harassment against them continues this vicious cycle of the degradation of women, regardless of appearance, ethnicity, and age.
Even though street harassment itself may not be a life threatening issue for many women, the normalization of harassment against women can cause even greater problems. When men are not held accountable for their actions, some of them think that they can continue to not only harass women, but even cross another line and perhaps reach a point of committing sexual assault. The regularity of street harassment against women promotes an unhealthy rape culture, which, according to Marshall University’s Women’s Center, is, “an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture.” More severe instances of sexual assault happen frequently and often go unreported due to women not wanting to go through a grueling legal battle that they can lose or due to fear of retaliation from their abuser. According to Rainn, “1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime” – this statistic may not even include other unreported sexual assault cases as some women end up bearing the burden of their traumatic experiences alone. Unfortunately, as first seen in street harassment, women are not safe in most places, as it is reported that many cases of sexual assault occur when, “48% [women] were sleeping, or performing another activity at home, 29% were traveling to and from work or school, or traveling to shop or run errands, 12% were working, 7% were attending school and 5% were doing an unknown or other activity” (Rainn). The rape culture in the United States is not only extremely toxic and hurtful to many woman, it often originates from less severe actions such as street harassment.
Despite the fact that women have to deal with these seemingly insurmountable obstacles, instances of sexual harassment such as street harassment and cases of sexual assault have lessened over the years – a large reason why women have been able to stand up for themselves is because of the creation of community through the rise of powerful women such as Tarana Burke who began the #MeToo movement and several celebrities who have spoken out against sexual violence. When all types of women (regardless of economic status, race, age, and etc.) unite to develop a strong community to share their own experiences and stand up against the infamous American rape culture, sexual harassers and assaulters ultimately have less power over women and thus become the ones afraid of the consequences for their actions. Fortunately, the stigma of men talking about their own sexual assault and harassment experiences has also lessened, so the community of empowered survivors has only grown in recent years. As a result, even though sexual harassment and assault may be an uncomfortable topic to discuss, news about these horrible instances and the impact it had on victims cannot slow down or stop – empowered survivors who are supported by a strong community are truly a force to be reckoned with.
Even though street harassment can be perceived as a microaggression against women, the consequences of street harassment are extremely harmful to the well being of women. Not only are women damaged psychologically and physically in the long run, the harassment of women continues to be normalized and the horrible rape culture subsequently becomes more influential. Due to the rise of empowering communities of survivors, instances of sexual harassment and assault have decreased and sexual assaulters and abusers will begin to experience the deserved consequences for their actions more frequently.
If you want to learn more about street harassment, go to www.stopstreetharassment.org for more information.
Sydney Tsai is a proud mixed Asian American who is entering her senior year this upcoming fall. Because of her interest in a variety of cultures and their histories, she is a self-proclaimed “history buff” who enjoys learning about the United States and East Asia. Even though she struggles to fully embrace her Asian-American identity to this day, she is actively making an effort to learn more about each of her cultures. When she is not studying or pursuing her own interests, you will find her reading webtoons (The Tales of the Unusual is one of her favorites), watching Pixar and Studio Ghibli movies, or chatting with friends in her free time.