INDIANAPOLIS (NNPA)–Catcalling, or “hollerin” at ladies may seem like harmless fun, especially for the catcaller. A seemingly normal “Hey, sexy” or “Come here, girl” may seem like no huge deal, but for many women it is. For some, a flirtatious comment has turned into being followed, verbally assaulted or even physically attacked.
Street harassment is defined by Stop Street Harassment, a nonprofit organization dedicated to documenting and ending gender-based street harassment worldwide, as any action or comment between strangers in public places that is disrespectful, unwelcome, threatening and/or harassing and is motivated by gender, sexual orientation or gender expression.
Januarie York, a local spoken word artist, said one confrontation with a man at an Indianapolis gas station left her momentarily fearful for her physical well-being. “I was cursed out to a point where when I walked away from him I really wondered if he was going to shoot me,” she said.
Her story began one Saturday evening three summers ago. York, who at the time lived near 38th and Illinois Street on the city’s Westside, decided to take a walk to the neighborhood gas station. It was around dusk, and she was wearing a T-shirt and capri-length cut off jean shorts. “For whatever reason that night they closed the doors early,” she said, forcing customers to wait in a line outside the station at an enclosed ordering window. Soon after, a man and his friend approached the line and stood behind York. She never turned around to see him but the man began conversing with her, asking if they could exchange phone numbers. After telling him she “wasn’t interested” things escalated. “I wasn’t rude about it, I was just trying to be honest,” she said. “The whole time I only turned to the side. I didn’t really look at him.”
The man proceeded to call York “ugly,” a “whore” and other expletives. Their entire exchange lasted seven minutes, five of which was spent with York being verbally harassed.
“This was becoming a loud scene and kept getting louder and louder and this is with me not responding,” she said. “Naturally I wanted to but for what?” Although there was a crowd of people around, no one intervened on her behalf.
This encounter and several others have caused York to avoid certain gas stations. “There are quite a few that I just won’t stop at. I’ve pulled up to gas stations in dire need of gas and have pulled off after taking in the surroundings – crowds of men hanging out, in and around vehicles, with loud music playing,” she said. “I know how a gas station experience can be.”
She said she is more cautious depending on how she’s dressed, adding that in those instances her chances of being harassed are heightened. “God forbid I’m wearing anything that shows the shape of my body,” she said.
York is not alone. Online in blogs and on social media postings, women all around the world have begun sharing their stories of street harassment. From being grabbed while walking down the street, to having to employ headphones as a distraction while using public transportation.
Statistically, 99 percent of street harassment survey respondents, (which included some men), reported being harassed at least a few times. Over 65 percent said they were harassed on at least a monthly basis.
Holly Kearl, founder of Stop Street Harassment, spoke with the Recorder about this issue.
Indianapolis Recorder: Do you believe the issue of street harassment is generational or is it something that has always been a problem?
Holly Kearl: Street harassment is not a new problem. For example, in the U.S., by the late 1800s and early 1900s, a growing number of people lived in cities instead of farms or small villages and many White men used the new anonymity a city afforded them to harass women. Around this time period, more middle-class women of all races were in public spaces unaccompanied by men as they went to work, shops, and the theater, and as “un-escorted women,” some men saw them as “fair game.” Phrases used by street harassers sound the same as today: “Hey, baby,” “Hey, honey,” “How much for you?”
Recently, there seems to have been several new awareness initiatives started on this issue. To what do you attribute the uptick in conversation?
While street harassment activism is not new, social media has been a major game-changer in helping it spread. Now people with Internet access can share their stories anytime and so every day there is new information, new articles, new ideas for campaigns happening. Also, compared to pre-internet days, we are able to more easily and quickly learn from each other and collaborate. Some of the groups I am most inspired by around this work are in Egypt, India, Nepal and Germany.
What can individuals, both male and female, do to prevent harassment or at least intervene?
Just talking about this issue and sharing stories can go a long way toward preventing it because then people are more aware of what it is and hopefully won’t engage in it or will be more likely to speak up when it does happen. As for intervening, always keep your own safety in mind, but when you feel safe, creating a distraction or interruption can be a diffusing way to stop something. I like the “fake friend” tactic of pretending to know the person being harassed and talking directly to them, ignoring the harasser. Michelle, @FeministaJones on Twitter, started the hashtag #YouOkSis? earlier this month because she’s had success stopping interactions by asking that simple question, ‘You ok, sis?’ Along those lines, I think at minimum, asking the harassed person if they are OK during or after the incident is extremely important. Often people who are harassed feel even worse if they were harassed and no one around them did or said anything.
For more information on street harassment, visit stopstreetharassment.org.