Street Harassment: Now is the Time for a New Normal
By Britnae Purdy
About the author: Britnae Purdy is a public health student at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She has been working in gender-based violence prevention, response, and research for six years and currently serves as a board member for the US-based non-profit organization Stop Street Harassment.
Across the world, people are taking action to create a safer environment. They’re staying home, wearing masks, checking in on neighbours, donating, disinfecting, and so much more. They’re doing it for children, for the elderly, for the immunocompromised, for first responders and healthcare workers, for their loved ones. For their collective future.
Changing societal norms is a monumental undertaking that typically requires decades of activism, consciousness-raising, and resource creation. But in the face of stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures, people have changed their daily routines almost overnight, some to great personal detriment. Seeing what people are capable of doing to fight off an invisible enemy gives me hope that we can collectively put a stop to another insidious virus – gender-based violence.
We all eagerly await a return to “normal” – to a time when we can leave our homes without worry of infection, stop fearing for the lives of our loved ones, when face masks won’t be our primary accessory. An uncomfortable truth, however, is that these worries are a constant fact of life for so many people – and it has nothing to do with COVID-19. Pre-quarantine, staying home wasn’t always done by choice, but rather out of a fear of facing street harassment, stalking, violence, and more. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve scheduled my day to ensure I’m home well before dark, changed my routes to avoid places I’ve been harassed in the past, or skipped out on plans because I didn’t feel I could safely travel alone. I have a phone full of texts between friends imploring each other to check in when we get home, let each other know we’re safe, call if we get scared walking alone. Instead of a face mask, for many, pepper spray, pocket knives, or whistles are “going-out-in-public” necessities. With 81% of women and 43% of men reporting experiencing sexual harassment or assault in their lifetime, none of these are empty fears (see here)
This isn’t a cut and dry “then-and-now” scenario, either. In the face of COVID-19, members of Asian communities in particular have reported an increase in xenophobic slurs, harassment, and even physical violence out in public (see here). Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism project recently wrote in The Telegraph that she’s “seen a spike in reports from women who have been harassed, verbally abused, followed, made to feel unsafe or even physically assaulted while venturing out for their single permitted session of daily exercise.”
“We are literally in the midst of a global pandemic and I just got catcalled TWICE while enjoying my one allotted trip out of the house today. Priorities people,” Bates says.
Home isn’t always a safe option for women either, with domestic violence reports increasing during social isolation.
I feel it’s safe to say that we are holding our time outside to much greater value these days. Walking my dog is often the highlight of my day. As we shoulder this uncertain, bizarre time, perhaps with a little too much time to think on our hands, I propose that we not only idealize a return to “normal” but reflect on which aspects of normal we are no longer willing to tolerate.
Picking a purse that’s both stylish and accommodates your pepper spray. Slurs and insults on your morning commute. Being masturbated at on public transportation. Rising pulse rates as you walk past a group of men. Being followed home by a stranger. Triple-checking your door locks.
As a friend of mine aptly pointed out, if women were to change their routines to avoid all possibilities of harassment or danger, such as literally following all the constant advice we receive to just “not walk alone” or “don’t go out after dark,” daily life would be like part-time, self-imposed quarantine. That is not an acceptable “normal” for me.
Imagine if we held harassers and abusers accountable, practiced bystander intervention, committed to health communication tactics, and supported organizations trying to make public and private spaces safer for women and minorities. Imagine if we did it for our children, for women, to honour our elders, for the marginalized, for our loved ones. For our collective future.
Don’t be silent. Be a good bystander and sign up for the free Bystander Intervention Workshop: