Myths

Street Harassment myths:

Myth #1: Women secretly enjoy street harassment.

Here’s the thing. We’re not going to pretend that everyone who’s ever been catcalled or groped by a stranger absolutely hated it and felt it dehumanizing and distressing. The reality is – some do. But if we all did, then sites such as this wouldn’t exist. Holly Kearl’s surveys noted that women/womyn took no issue with gender-neutral greetings, compliments, sentiments and smiles. Once things started veering into discussions of physical attributes, however, the vast majority reported a negative internal (sometimes externally manifested) response. Many of them saw these comments and actions as reductionist, if not outright threatening. Individuals most likely to find this treatment discomforting were those experiencing it on a daily or weekly basis and/or had been groped, stalked and/or assaulted.

By this point, it’s probably safe to assume that nobody secretly enjoys slurs against race, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic bracket, body type, religion, etc. Why, then, are we to accept such things when perpetuated along gender and gender identity lines? Is it because it comes neatly packaged in the guise of a compliment? Is it because women/womyn are socially conditioned to fret constantly about their ability to stir up sexual desire, and everything that validates that must unquestionably embraced? Is it because so many cultures breed men who feel as if every female they encounter exists purely for their consumption?

As another myth will discuss in greater detail, by no means are ciswomen and transwomen the only recipients of street harassment. Many cismen and transmen must also contend with such behaviors, oftentimes dredging up identical reactions. Again, it all comes down to conditioning. Men who spurn the aggressive sexual advances of women often hear their masculinity called into question – similar to how women/womyn are expected to quietly accept them as always complimentary and validating. The former is far less likely to voice dissent and discomfort, however, thanks to social stigmas regarding what does and does not constitute “manhood.”

Myth #2: Street harassment only happens to scantily clad women/womyn. They have it coming, because they obviously want the attention.

Because street harassment occurs all over the world – including countries enforcing a strict dress code – one cannot levy any real blame on a woman’s chosen attire. As with the previous myth, we aren’t going to lie and say that no ciswomen or transwomen “dress to impress” their preferred sex. Some do, but the vast majority pick their wardrobes based on religious and cultural factors, comfort, professionalism and intended destination, with little to no heed paid towards whether or not anyone considers them desirable. This argument especially starts losing ground in obscenely humid subtropical climates like Houston! Shorts, tank tops and bikinis aren’t “decorative” here. They’re practically necessities once the air starts feeling like a bowl of frothy pea soup. Women/womyn don’t sport those duds to put on a show – they want to cool off just as much as everyone else. That’s not attention-mongering; that’s pragmatism.

Holly Kearl’s research actually discovered that street harassment occurs at every time of year in nations all over the world. Women/womyn in parkas, veils and other garments meant to cloak the body still experienced sexually-charged comments, stalking and/or inappropriate touching. Clothing was never a commonality in the individuals she surveyed. Life in a society with blame-the-victim mindsets and masculine entitlement, however, was. Such a misconception came about thanks to perpetrators not wanting to take responsibility for their actions. Beyond that, the stories posted at Stop Street Harassment and Hollaback!all reveal stories of cis- and trans- women/womyn and men clad in nothing more “extraordinary” than work duds or jeans and t-shirts.

Truth be told, people should dress as they see fit (provided, of course, they avoid anything obviously hateful such as KKK or Nazi attire) without having to worry about harassment, whether of the sexual or non-sexual variety.

Myth #3: Street harassment only happens to young, conventionally attractive women/womyn.

Street harassment happens to every demographic. EVERYDEMOGRAPHIC. It may not always be sexually-oriented – although such words and actions did originally inspire the movement and still garner the majority of complaints – but it can happen to anyone, any time, any place, regarding anything. And that is why we allow a broad spectrum of storiesyou can submit to Hollaback! Houston.

Myth #4: Anyone who complains about street harassment is just jealous/obviously a man-hating, bra-burning psychofeminazi who hates freedom/needs a boyfriend/needs sex to loosen up/ugly.

Ever heard the old adage of what happens when you assume? That applies pretty well here. People who complain about street harassment hail from a diverse variety of nations, ethnicities, races, religions, sexes, political views, relationship statuses, education backgrounds, sizes, personal backgrounds, sexual orientations, gender identities, ages, abilities, socioeconomic brackets – and so on and so forth. Truth be told, just about the one thing we all have in common is a distaste of street harassment in its many ugly forms. We want to see a safer, more equitable global society. We want to do what we need and want to do without succumbing to fear.

It’s really quite as simple as that. No hidden agendas – we say exactly what we want and what we think. If you want to tape an accusation or assumption onto us without offering any compelling evidence to support your claim, that really says much, much more about your personage than it ever will us.

Myth #5: Street harassment is a First Amendment right.

As is speaking out against it, by the way.

Interestingly enough, though, many websites operated by either individual states or the federal government include verbal harassment, stalking and physical contact under the broad heading of “sexual assault.” Take a look at National Women’s Health Information Center’s definition. Take a look at Washington’s Office of Crime Victims Advocacy’s definition. Take a look at the Center for Disease Control’s definition. All of them specifically mention that even sexually-charged language hurled at an individual who doesn’t want it qualifies as assault, along with obscene phone calls, stalking, groping, any force genital contact, any forced sexual acts and rape.  Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964specifically outlaws sexual harassment in the workplace, and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission clearly states, “Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.” The National Institute of Mental Healthoutlines all the various definitions of sexual violence – many of which never require a perpetrator even touch his or her victim.

Though almost nobody gets fined or arrested for commenting on a pair of breasts, the government still acknowledges such words as potentially harmful. Fighting street harassment promotes far more rights than some assume it takes away. We want to allow individuals a safer community in which to live, work and play. We want to allow individuals more freedom to move about, make friends and become active in their neighborhoods. Street harassment may not be an officially recognized crime in the United States just yet, but the actions it entails certainly fit the criteria to qualify.

Myth #6: Only straight men/[insert ethnic stereotype here]/[insert socioeconomic bracket stereotype here] perpetuate street harassment.

Remember Myth #3? Well, the same sentiment applies here. Anyone, any time, any place, regarding anything can be just as much of a street harasser as they can a street harassee.

We stand up for all the victims, regardless of who they are and who frightens, violates and/or offends them.

Myth #7: It’s only a harmless compliment/flirting.

Here’s the thing. We realize that there are always going to be some shades of gray in subjective topics like this, and we’re not trying to reinforce any sort of rigid, black-and-white mindsets here. Harmless compliments and flirting are not street harassment. For example, if a man approaches a woman in public politely, strikes up a conversation with her, asks for her contact information, receives a clear rejection and respects her wishes, he has not committed any offenses. Words and actions that constitute street harassment are obviously unwanted and obviously non-consensual – either through body language or a firm request to stop. They rob a victim of his or her autonomy and ability to choose the individuals they want touching their bodies or included in their personal space. It’s forceful. It’s dehumanizing. It’s propelled by a sense of entitlement and profound disrespect of another’s comfort. Street harassment, regardless of whether or not it comes wrapped in sexual lingo or actions, always breaks down to one simple core. Power. Perpetrators don’t want to give compliments or forge mutually beneficial connections; they want to intimidate and bully others. They resort to insults, stalking, threats or acts of violence when told to leave. Harmless compliments and flirting possess an element of courtesy not present in harassment.

If you’re hoping to harmlessly flirt and distribute compliments to others, there’s many different ways to do so without coming off as a creep!! Try initiating talks with others based on something other than their appealing (or not-so-appealing) physical traits. The weather is always popular, as are conspicuous books or projects they might be carrying, compliments towards any particularly interesting accessories (never discuss skirt or neckline length), current events or anything interesting going on in the vicinity. Don’t blindside anyone with a barrage of comments regarding their appearance. Anyone who is alone, out after dark and/or in a largely empty or unfamiliar neighborhood will probably not respond well to many compliments one could give, as they already feel as if their safety is compromised. So it’s probably best to not approach them at all. Unless they need some sort of help or directions, anyways, but that’s not a time for idle chatter.

However, should the approached individual start looking very uncomfortable, it’s best to politely excuse yourself so as not to cause them further trouble.

Myth #8: That’s just how men are. Deal with it. Telling them to behave otherwise is emasculating.

Well, if all men were like that, then all men would be street harassing! Not to mention the fact that such flagrant discourtesy, as we’ve noted earlier, completely transcends gender and gender identity barriers. Hollaback! national, Hollaback! Houston and plenty of other cities open their arms to male allies and victims of street harassment and other forms of discrimination and marginalization alike. We don’t consider men “the enemy” here. We’re not asking for your Y chromosome to sit on our mantelpieces. We only wish to fight ignorance and inequality. Because wherever there is ignorance and equality, there is street harassment. It’s never emasculating for a target to request privacy and body autonomy! Anyone who makes this claim has likely given in to society’s perception of “masculinity” as inherently dominant and entitled to do as they will against those they deem inferior and/or free for the taking. This is also another extremely common excuse for those who prefer blaming the victim rather than looking inward and understanding the origins of their discourteous behavior. Respect, after all, is neither a “masculine” nor a “feminine” concept. It’s a human concept.

Myth #9: Women/Womyn are OK with street harassment if it’s from a man they find attractive.

We can’t speak for all women/womyn any more than our critics. All we claim to do – all we’re capable of doing, really – is offer up a haven and a conduit for those who find street harassment incredibly dehumanizing and demoralizing a place to share their experiences. Some women enjoy catcalls and gropes. Some women are more tolerant of such behaviors from individuals (not just men!) they find attractive. Again, this resource obviously isn’t for them. This resource is for the 80% of the 811 women Holly Kearl surveyed who said they constantly have to look over their shoulder. The 50% who have to cross the street and find alternate paths to their ultimate destinations. The 45% who feel as if they can’t go in public alone and the 26% who feel as if they have to lie about a significant other to get perpetrators to leave them alone. The 19% who had to move and the 9% who needed to completely change jobs just to avoid street harassment. As with all people, their first concern was safety over whether or not the individual compromising it looked like Ryan Gosling or Rosario Dawson. By this point, most individuals are savvy enough to realize that a fetching face can’t make up for a disrespectful, entitled core.

Myth #10: As long as it’s not violent, it’s not harmful.

Sexual violence exists on a spectrum. On the mildest end sit comments. On the most severe end sits sexual assault and rape. Nobody involved with Hollaback! will (or should) pretend that sexually-charged verbal harassment and rape are interchangeable experiences. However, nonviolent incidents of street harassment can still cause considerable mental and emotional damage. For individuals previously victimized by molestation, sexual assault, rape or other acts of sexual violence and exploitation, even a seemingly “harmless” sexual comment potentially serves as a trigger. And once this trigger gets activated, it can mean anything from traumatic flashbacks to panic attacks. Depending on the individual, such a disruption could mean hours or days of recovery. Acts on the least severe side of the scale leave no physical scars, but that doesn’t mean they can’t hurt those on the receiving end in other ways.

Even those without any sort of sexual violence in their past can still find verbal street harassment traumatizing. Many women and men who have to contend with commentary on a daily or weekly basis may find the emotions piling on over time. Just because they’re at a lesser risk of panic attacks or flashbacks doesn’t mean internalizing their frustrations is a healthy habit.