International Anti-Street Harassment Week
Women In Cities International interview with Holly Kearl
International Anti-Street Harassment Week is a program started by Stop Street Harassment and takes place each April as April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month in the U.S. International Anti-Street Harassment Week raises awareness regarding issues of catcalling, sexist comments, public masturbation, groping, stalking, and assault, among others.
In light of International Anti-Street Harassment Week 2018 (April 8-14) WICI reached out to Stop Street Harassment’s founder Holly Kearl to gain some insight into the organization’s growth since 2008, upcoming International Anti-Street Harassment events, and ways we can help end street harassment. Holly’s interview also touches on the relationship between power and street harassment, the need to end socialized gendered behaviour, flaws in the #MeToo movement, and catcalling language. Read Holly’s interview below:
WICI: Stop Street Harassment began as a blog in 2008 and became an official nonprofit organization in 2012. Can you tell us a bit about the evolution of the organization over the years? In gaining new knowledge and witnessing the rise of new social movements (e.g. #MeToo) over the years how has the organization’s understanding of sexual harassment and assault and approach to tackling these issues changed and evolved?
HOLLY: I conducted my master’s thesis on street harassment in 2007, focusing on how women were using websites to share their stories and tactics for dealing with the issue. In 2008, when I saw that two sites I liked the best were gone or inactive, I started my site to fill the void left by those sites, to be a place for people to share stories and find resources. I also began to track activism happening globally and wrote my first book on the topic.
Over the years, my efforts have fallen into a similar pattern: elevate the efforts and voices of other groups and start initiatives that fill in gaps of actions that aren’t being taken by any other groups. So, for instance, I started International Anti-Street Harassment Week in 2011 because there were so many groups working on this issue all over the world but there was no unifying time to take actions together. I started the Week to create that space.
Overall, SSH’s efforts do evolve and try to meet the needs we see. For instance, after the #MeToo movement seemed to focus on workplaces, SSH fundraised, found partners and commissioned a large-scale national (USA) survey on sexual harassment and assault that was conduced in January of this year and released in February. It details the data behind the stories being shared and also shows how this issue is much bigger than just sexual harassment in the workplace. In fact, nearly three times as many people experienced sexual harassment in public spaces than in workplaces.
As one other example of an evolution, when I first began working on this issue, I only focused on women’s experiences, but a few years in, I expanded to be inclusive of men’s / all genders’ experiences, too.
WICI: With International Anti-Street Harassment Week approaching can you give us any insight into what events you are planning?
HOLLY: So far, I’ve heard from groups in nearly 30 countries that have planned actions, from chalking to flyering to workshops and tweet chats. I’m personally attending three events: 1) Chalking at George Mason University in Virginia; 2) A “Speakout” in Washington, D.C.; and 3) Flyering at Metro stations in the Washington, DC area. And I’m spearheading/attending two other events: 1) Drumming/chalking and flyering in Washington, D.C.; 2) NYC rally and chalking.
I’m also overseeing the Global Tweetathon on April 10, which is for all time zones, all languages, and will take place all day. People can tweet about issues relating to street harassment and if they add #EndSH, it will be included in the global conversation and the Storify I’ll put together afterward.
WICI: In a 2014 post titled “”Let Men Be Men”: Fox News Hosts Defend Catcalling” published on mediamatters.org, news co-host Kimberly Guilfoyle defended street harassment by arguing that we should “let men be men”, implying that this behaviour is part of male nature. In order to end sexual harassment, to what extent do you believe we need to go back to the basics and tackle the issue of socialized gendered behavioural expectations? Does the root of the issue lie in that boys are often expected to exhibit alpha-male, aggressive behaviour that then excuses harassment later down the road? (Maybe breaking down these expected gendered characteristics can also end the stigma related to sexual harassment against males as well).
HOLLY: Attitudes that street harassment is due to “men’s nature” is really troubling and inaccurate. There’s plenty of research that shows how harassing and bullying is LEARNED behavior, not natural. Boys don’t come out of the womb innately wanting to harass people… Plus, just look around, there are many boys and men who do not harass others. So logically, it doesn’t make any sense to say it’s their natural tendency to do so when so many don’t. So, yes, we need to address the socialization of boys and pinpoint and work to end the messages that promote sexual harassment as being acceptable, a joke and a compliment. Also, because street harassment is about power-control, we need to work on more efforts to promote gender equality so there is not a power difference between men and women.
WICI: In Christianna Silva’s 2017 article titled “Why Street Harassers Speak The Same Language Across The U.S.” the commonalities in catcalling language used across America no matter the city or state are discussed. Why do you think the typical catcalling language of “hey baby”, “hi beautiful”, etc is the same from city to city?
HOLLY: A lot of harassers are unimaginative, and they repeat what they’ve heard others say, in person but also in media consumed, from cartoons to commercials to songs to TV/movies. I’ve seen this kind of language used in these mediums. Plus, if they don’t say anything blatantly outrageous or offensive, they can dismiss women who get upset and respond with, “I’m just saying hi!”
WICI: In your opinion, what is the relationship between street harassment and power? Is street harassment less about the content of the catcall and more a way for one individual to exert power over another?
HOLLY: Yes, street harassment is a form of bullying behavior and it’s how one person tries to exert power over another. So often, the harasser is someone who is bigger or older than the person being harassed, or there are multiple people harassing one person, or the person harassing is in a vehicle while the harassed person is on foot, etc. There are often very visible power dynamics that put the harasser at an advantage and can make it harder for the harassed person to feel comfortable responding back.
WICI: Stop Street Harassment’s national report titled “The Facts Behind the #MeToo Movement: A National Study on Sexual Harassment and Assault” outlines the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault experienced by various demographic groups (age, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, household income, disability, and urban/suburban and rural). The #MeToo movement has been criticized for its inability to highlight the constraints that victims/survivors in these demographics may experience in sharing their #MeToo stories. What are your thoughts on this criticism? Is the #MeToo movement one that all victims/survivors of sexual harassment and assault can participate in?
HOLLY: Not all persons across these various demographics may want to or be able to actively add their voice or stories to the #MeToo Movement, but I hope the Movement still touches them by helping them feel less alone and know that whatever they’re going through or have gone through is not their fault. I think realizing our individual experiences are part of a broader problem can often help us feel more able to cope and deal with it, not engage in self-blaming and even take a stand (however that looks).
WICI: Lastly, moving forward, what future steps do you feel need to be taken to eradicate street harassment?
HOLLY: I have a few suggestions.
- More research on why some people engage in street harassment (including looking at specific aspects of the socialization of boys) so we can undertake more targeted messaging campaigns and related efforts to try to prevent it.
- Education in every school on sexual harassment generally, including street harassment, and on respect and consent.
- Bystander intervention training in every community.
You can check out Stop Street Harassment’s national study here: http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Full-Report-2018-National-Study-on-Sexual-Harassment-and-Assault.pdf