Maybe you’ve been there. Have you ever walked down the street—or past a fraternity bench—and heard unwelcome, objectifying comments about your body? Have you heard sexist, homophobic or racist slurs that make you feel unsafe on campus? Have you been touched inappropriately at Shooters or at a party, ruining what should have been a fun night out with your friends?
I know I have.
Maybe you felt demeaned and objectified. Maybe you felt embarrassed. Maybe you felt paralyzed and scared to respond. And, strangest of all, maybe you didn’t know why you felt that way. After all, isn’t it “just a compliment?”
In recent months, increased media attention has raised awareness about the very real impact street harassment has on victims and on society. I’ve written previously about the importance of treating street harassment as the very real social ill that it is, a part of rape culture whereby seemingly “harmless” behaviors actually help prop up a larger system of gender violence.
Street harassment, defined as sexual harassment in public spaces, is often accompanied by a dynamic of racism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism or classism. Far more than being “just a compliment,” street harassment exists as a form of violence on the same spectrum as sexual assault, rape and domestic violence. Let me be clear, when I’m talking about street harassment, I don’t mean consensual flirtatious behaviors or innocent public greetings. I’m referring to unwanted comments or behaviors that are rooted in sexual harassment, the product of a power dynamic and that cause harm—whether emotional or physical—to the victim. The definition may sound blurry at first, but trust me, it’s not difficult to tell the difference.
By allowing and accepting catcalls, groping, and other harmful behaviors, we create a culture in which it is seen as acceptable to disrespect women and other marginalized groups. Armed with this understanding of how violence operates, we understand how catcalls and harmful comments normalize the degradation and objectification of women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community.
And street harassment doesn’t just happen in big cities or in certain neighborhoods. It happens on campuses around the country—on our campus. A 2006 study by the American Association of University Women found that two-thirds of students had been harassed on campus. Harassment was common in residential areas (39 percent of respondents), outside on campus grounds (37 percent), in campus buildings (24 percent) and in classrooms (20 percent). While female students were more likely than their male counterparts to experience harassment outside on campus grounds, male students were more likely to experience harassment in residential spaces, bathrooms or locker rooms. At Duke, stories of harassment—whether at Shooters or in the classroom—are shockingly common.
It’s fabulous that we are coming to understand street harassment as a social phenomenon that women all over the world experience every day, and that the media and organizations are paying more attention to this issue. But it is still easy to feel alone and ashamed in the moment. It’s difficult to know how to respond—should I say something back and risk my safety, or should I keep walking and risk my pride?
That’s the challenging reality of how this type of violence operates. Street harassment makes women and other victims feel so ashamed and alone that their very mobility is limited. According to the 2013 United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, street harassment is used around the world “to intimidate women and girls who are exercising any of their human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
Yet the question remains, how should we respond to street harassment? The truth is that every situation and person is different. Some victims may prefer to say something. Some may prefer to ignore the harassment. Neither response makes someone weak, and neither makes someone a “bad feminist,” whatever that means.
After an experience of street harassment or sexual assault, many victims crave a way to process what happened to them. They look for a network of solidarity, healing and support. They want to be believed.
Enter Hollaback! Duke University. Hollaback!—yes, the exclamation point is crucial—is an international network of activists in 84 cities and 24 countries, all working to end street harassment and bring about a violence-free society. Hollaback! was the organization that brought you the viral street harassment video last year and has appeared on The Daily Show. And it’s coming to Duke University this week.
What is Hollaback! Duke University, you may ask? In is simplest form, it’s an online forum and support group for Duke students and community members to share their experiences of harassment and sexual violence on campus, over the summer or while studying abroad. It is rooted in the belief that sharing stories and creating a network of supporters is critical to healing and confronting this issue head-on.
But confronting street harassment takes more than just an online forum—it must be a social movement. Hollaback! Duke University aims to bring events, trainings and campaigns to campus to raise awareness about the harassment and violence that Duke students experience every day.
No one should have to go through the experience of harassment or sexual violence alone, particularly on a campus that can be so isolating already. Thanks to organizations like Hollaback! and others, women across the world are creating a support network, and, in doing so, are on the front lines of a social movement. It’s okay to stand up and say that harassment isn’t normal and it isn’t “just a compliment.” We’ve got your back.
Katie Becker is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Wednesday. She is the Social Media Chair for Hollaback! Duke University. You can follow Hollaback! Duke University at duke.ihollaback.org, on Facebook or on Twitter to learn about our efforts.
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