While the prevalence of street harassment may be new to many men who read or hear about it, it’s not to women. For generations, grandmothers, mothers, aunts, and older sisters have shared tips and advice to girls to try to keep them safe from men: Don’t go out alone after dark. Memorize a fake phone number. Carry mace. Dress conservatively. Ignore them.
But it’s time to go beyond that well-intentioned advice which makes women feel less safe and often doesn’t work. Given how widespread street harassment is, those tips have the effect of limiting women’s access to public spaces. It keeps them on guard, off the streets, and dependent on men as escorts. No country has achieved equality and no country will until women can navigate public places without experiencing or fearing street harassment.
In short, street harassment must end.
As a first step, everyone must acknowledge that street harassment is not a compliment, a minor annoyance, or a woman’s fault. It’s bullying behavior. The harassment is often directed at teenage girls and young women because it’s assumed they are too young to know what to do or how to respond, especially when the harasser is an older, larger man. And often the harassers are correct.
So, second, we need to give girls and women real help. We need to teach them empowering, assertive responses, self-defense, and how to report harassers. Ignoring and avoiding harassers changes nothing. It is disempowering and limiting.