Holly Kearl: Stopping Street Harassment

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“Like them boobs!!” 

That's the most innocuous thing a guy has ever screamed at me from his car. But it’s hardly the most disgusting or offensive. Since I was a girl, it seems like I’ve heard every foul-mouthed proposition dudes can muster. If you take the time to ask, most women will tell you that--regardless of their age, location, or background --they’ve received unsolicited comments about their body and sexual propositions from guys in public. There’s a name for it: street harassment. And thankfully, there are many women -- several of whom I’m proud to call friends -- working to combat this nebulous but pervasive problem.

I met Holly Kearl five years ago when we were both doing anti-street harassment research and organizing. Working on her master’s thesis at George Washington University, Holly was interviewing activists around the country and compiling data on the frequency of gender-based harassment in public spaces. At the time, Holly, an avid runner living in Washington, DC, was getting harassed almost daily, a pattern she’d noticed for years. I was a grad student in Boston, also dodging similarly frequent inappropriateness, and was even followed home one night after getting off the bus after work.

As teenagers, we’d both been subject to lewd comments and frightening behavior from men in public. While some women find this sort of thing complimentary, we both felt threatened. By the time we were adults, we became aware of the long-fought battles against similar behavior, such as the struggle to educate the public about domestic violence or enact laws against workplace sexual harassment. Despite these victories, it seemed as though street harassment had never gained quite the same level ofattention. Public space was still a free-for-all when it came to harassment.

After graduating from GWU and landing a job at AAUW, one of the country’s biggest and oldest women’s organizations, Kearl kept returning to anti-street harassment activism. On her blog, Stop Street Harassment, founded in 2008, she’s published hundreds of women’s stories and news reports about how harassing behavior in public has escalated to incidents of sexual assault and even murder. She also regularly updates a resources section and collaborates with other anti-harassment projects like local HollaBack! chapters.

Here, she talks with a male ally at The Consensual Project about how men can approach women without engaging in lewd, threatening, or intimidating behavior.

In 2010, Kearl’s first book, Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women, was published. Since then, she’s traveled all over the country, speaking at bookstores, libraries, conferences, and universities about sexual harassment, public safety, and making cities safer for women and girls. She even traveled to Delhi, India, to speak at the Third International Conference on Women’s Safety

Also in 2010, alongside dozens of other activists and ordinary women and girls fed up with harassing behavior, she testified at the first-ever New York City Council hearing on street harassment.

In 2011, Kearl founded the first annual International Anti-Street Harassment Day. Thousands of women and men around the globe organized local awareness campaigns to shine light on this pervasive problem. “International Anti-Street Harassment Day will actually be International Anti-Street Harassment Week next year, spanning March 18-24,” Kearl told me. Planning to make several different types of toolkits available for activists wanting to create events or actions in their area. “So for example,” she explained, “One toolkit will be about putting together a community event, another one will be about doing a rally and march, another one will be how to teach this topic to high school students, and another will be about doing a community safety audit.”

This summer, Kearl is working on community safety audits in several DC wards in collaboration with Holla Back! DC. By surveying public safety from the ground level, everyday people can document poor lighting or impassable routes that might deter women from going out after dark or taking the safest, most direct route to and from their homes. Because street harassment is an underreported problem with so many factors involved, it’s critical for everyday people to think about how they can make their communities safer and more welcoming for everyone.

To learn more about how you can conduct a safety audit in your neighborhood or on our campus, visit Kearl’s post about preliminary planning for safety audits

To read more about how you can deter street harassers or to share your own story, visit the Stop Street Harassment website.

women in street

Credit Image: tedeytan via Flickr

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