Feminism | Posted by Liz P on 10/5/2010

Street Harassment and Sluts

there is no excuse for street harassment

there is no excuse for street harassment

I’m currently studying abroad in Quito, Ecuador, and I love nearly all of it so far. One of the things I do NOT love, however, is the prevalence of harassment here. I’m kind of accustomed to harassment because I go to school in Philadelphia. Usually when guys yell, “I loove youuu!” or call us pretty and stuff we’re on the street and they’re in cars, or we can easily get away from them.

However, last Friday, a few friends and I had to sit diagonally across from some 3 drunk harassers while we were trying to enjoy a French-fry break from our discoteca-night. And they would not give up. We ignored them for a while, and then one of them came over with a half-full glass of beer and offered it to us.

“Absolutamente no (Absolutely not),” I said immediately. It did work in the moment, and he went back to his table, but he and his two friends continued to wave at us and blow kisses. Later on I told them to “Callate, por favor (shut up, please)” which didn’t work. The men here seem to be all about harassing the gringas (foreigners). We talked about this in my Spanish class and I brought up the term “el terrorismo sexual (sexual terrorism).”

I first heard this term last Spring when my friend, Beth, and I were going to a friend’s party in South Philly. Like smart girls, we went together for safety, but unfortunately received a few shouted comments from cars and honks as we were on our way. “It’s sexual terrorism!” Beth said. And immediately it made perfect sense. She’d talked about it in a class, and it really is what street harassment should be called. Sexual terrorism forces women to work around a”rape schedule.” We don’t go out too late. We make sure to bring a buddy (like Beth and me!). We stay in lighted areas. We don’t go certain places. We carry protection (mace, air horn, whistle… etc.) It’s healthy to be attracted to someone you see in public. It is healthy to be attracted to people period. What is unhealthy is that some people (mainly men) are taught that it is okay to vocalize such attraction in an unnerving and terrorizing way. I know, “sexual terrorism” sounds kind of dramatic, but check out the definition. It works.

Also, the idea that we should be complimented by such actions is kind of sick. The “Well, you should feel complimented because it means you looked good”- explanation needs to go somewhere lonely and die a painful death. This post and comic at Sociological images does a perfect job illustrating how street harassment reflects a serious social problem in the way that we are constructing manhood/womanhood. And this post called “Hands Up If You’ve Experienced Street Harassment” at The F Word does a good job of illustrating how many people actually experience street harassment. I think the first time I got honked at I was in middle school and the first time it happened to me in person I was in 9th grade, and it was a very unnerving experience. (I still remember the guy’s name: Mitch. And he had both a missing tooth and a gold tooth. I know, right?)

So yeah, it definitely is not enough to simply identify the problem. And I’m sure it is somewhat healthy for these douches to get a healthy dose of “NO” (a la what I did), but it’s going to take a huge change in the way we think about sexuality and how to express sexuality. Right now there’s a lot of hyper-sexualized expression (street harassment, sexually explicit music videos, gender constructions in advertisements, “Girls Gone Wild,” scandals on shows like “Maury,” etc.) and a lot of hyper-repressed sexual expression (“Twilight,” Purity Balls/rings/True
love waits whatever, inadequate sex-ed,
slut-bashing and not a lot of healthy sexual expression in between. It’s easy to get sucked into either one of the extremes because that’s what’s in our (American as well as Ecuadorian) culture.

Among other things to do my part to make this shit better is that for the past year (since I read Slut! by Leora Tanenbaum I’ve been trying to eliminate “slut” from my vocabulary. (Think Tina Fey in Mean Girls: “You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores! It just makes it OK for guys to call you sluts and whores!”) Which for the most part, other than a few slips, I think I’ve done pretty well. All in all, I think it’s encouraged me to try and use a wider variety of vocabulary words and has made me quicker to ask others not to use “slut” either. If there are going to be men who continue to shout “slut” at me from the street, I will certainly not be contributing to the use of the word.

Liz P blogs about feminism, current events, pop culture, and teens at her blog Our Turn.

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  • Katherine C. @ at 11:56 am, October 5th, 2010

    Ugh. Have you heard of Hollaback.com? Their motto is “If You Can’t Slap ‘em, Snap ‘em” as in, snap their picture with your cell phone, if at all possible tell them that you’re putting it on the internet, and send it to Hollaback for them to post. This summer I was badly frightened/threatened at a dark and lonely bus stop and posting on Hollaback made me feel like I had some control of the situation.
    It IS sexual terrorism- it’s forcing us into fear.

  • Toongrrl @ at 12:34 pm, October 5th, 2010

    Ugghhh….street harrassers. There is a documentary on that done by a woman who’d ask random men on the street on why they do it.

  • Liz @ at 1:16 pm, October 5th, 2010

    @Katherine C. : I have heard of Hollaback. There are a bunch of versions of that website for certain cities and I think they’re coming out with a book?

    @Toongrrl : Do you remember the name of this documentary?

  • A @ at 4:38 pm, October 5th, 2010

    I conveniently saw Mean Girls for the first time when I was 12, when slut was a curse word and I didn’t curse by any means. ;) I still seldom use that word for the reason that quote entails.

  • Natalia @ at 6:07 pm, October 5th, 2010

    I’m originally from Chile and I totally understand what you’re saying. It gets so bad sometimes that I go out in sweat pants, hair in a ponytail and wear no makeup on purpose. And even then I’ll get a comment on my ass. My cousins have been sexually harrassed on buses, on the streets, even in church!

    Worst story I ever heard was when my cousin was riding a bus and creepy older man sat behind her. She heard some noises behind her but she just ignored it. When she got off the bus she realized that he had been masturbating and he had ejaculated on her hair. I know, gross!

  • blakerivers @ at 11:55 pm, October 5th, 2010

    This is really good post. Thanks.

  • SarahC @ at 12:43 am, October 6th, 2010

    I haven’t really experienced street harrassment, but that comes from living in a rural area (I’m not walking), and wearing concealing clothing. That being said, I don’t consider women who walk from place to place and wear more revealing clothing to be asking for it.

    Personally, I also like the term “sexual terrorism,” because it describes better the state of fear that we live in. Even on a well-lit, Ivy League campus with a blue light system, I feel the need to carry a cell phone and a knife with me when going out at night. I prefer to travel in groups, especially to and from parties. When there’s a choice of paths, I take care to choose the one with fewer nooks and crannies. Why? I’ve never personally experienced any violence against my person. If I scratch around in my memory, I have experienced a sum total of three wolf-whistles in my life. But what happens to one of us spreads fear through all of us, just like terrorism.

    Also, thank you for pointing out that it’s healthy for people to be attracted to people they see in public. To those harassment apologists, I’m not saying people aren’t allowed to be attracted to me. I’m saying that expressing it comes in threatening and non-threatening varieties. Learn the difference.

  • Liz @ at 5:13 pm, October 6th, 2010

    @Natalia : Oh, god, that is foul. Sexual harassment in South America is really atrocious!

    @SarahC : Sexual assault is a real problem at all universities, not just the non-Ivy League ones. While blue lights do help some people, sexual assault tends to happen in much trickier situations, and far away from blue lights. A couple months ago, NPR did a four-part series on how badly colleges handle rape cases. The findings were, sadly, disappointing and horrifying. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124073905

    For anyone who is interested, here are some videos and documentary segments on street harassment:

  • Sophie @ at 6:02 pm, October 6th, 2010

    I am 13 and still in middle school. I started walking home from the bus last year, when I was 12. I have been harassed 4 times: once by someone in a car who yelled “nice hair!”, once by someone walking by who called me a “beautiful woman” and the rest by random people. I stopped walking by the street, and have so far had no problems this year. If anyone who has ever yelled at someone in the street, then please understand how much it hurts.

  • Emily @ at 1:58 pm, October 8th, 2010

    I think that the definition of street harassment also varies from person to person – for example, if someone yells “nice hair” to me, well, I cut and dye my hair so it’s just awesome, so no big deal to me. In a similar way, if I’m wearing a t-shirt with a physics joke on it and someone leans out the window of a car at a stoplight and yells “I love your shirt!”, again I just assume that the person is also a scientist of some sort because it’s almost like there’s an unwritten obligation to compliment fellow nerds on obscure t-shirts that you “get”.

    But what REALLY annoys me is when I’m riding the subway to class, studying and listening to my iPod, and a guy interrupts me to tell me I’m hot. Especially cause there’s a high probability that he’s 3x my age, doesn’t have any concept of personal hygeine, is incredibly stoned, has his child with him, or some combination of the above…

  • natasha @ at 11:02 am, October 9th, 2010

    oh my moms family lives in quito. ive been there before. when i was younger some guys made fun of me cuz i spoke english. it was pretty lame.

  • Weekly Round Up: October 10, 2010 « Stop Street Harassment! @ at 1:06 pm, October 10th, 2010

    […] F Bomb, “Street Harassment and Sluts“ […]

  • Jennifer Drew @ at 3:18 pm, October 11th, 2010

    You should’ve gone to Costa Rica…they enforce a law there that forbids men to make lewd remarks to women in the street with a prison sentence of up to 50 days.

    By the same token, any man wishing to visit Costa Rica should also be aware of this law, should he wish to make lewd comments to women.

    One thing however…the woman gets to decide what a “lewd comment” is & the law is enforced on a “trust” basis, ie. the law trusts the woman & not the man. So regardless of whether your comment was lewd or not, the women is taken at her word.

    Apparently women can always be trusted to tell the truth in Costa Rica. Why not extend that proviso to all laws? It would save a lot of time…”you’re a woman? yes, we believe you.”

  • Allison @ at 12:53 am, October 12th, 2010

    Oh I must be super weird here. I really love it when people yell stuff out at me as long as it’s not crude, like “You are beautiful” and “Hey baby” etcetera. Now that every feminist talks about feeling threatened, I don’t get it because I never do. Maybe it’s because it always happens in broad daylight (I’m not one to party it up or go out to eat in the city at night) when I’m shopping in the nearby city, but I guess if it was dark out I’d feel kind of nervous.

    People, regardless of gender, always feel threatened walking around alone at night because of the threat of getting mugged.

    How come people feel afraid when people yell compliments on their appearance? In daylight? In a public place? That’s all they see of you, they’re not going to be yelling out “Nice brain!” because they have no clue about your brain.

  • Pam @ at 12:35 pm, October 14th, 2010

    I was raped over the summer, and since then, I’ve become more and more determined to do something about this kind of behavior. Unfortunately I’m still not in the best mental state, so I haven’t been doing much yet– just research, really, figuring out what movements are already in motion and how I can get involved when I’m ready to.

    I really like how this article pulls in different cultures, too. I was in China when I was raped, but the guy who did it was from Uzbekistan. I think sometimes people tend to lose sight of the fact that this isn’t just a problem in the States– it’s a problem everywhere!

  • Seth @ at 10:53 pm, October 15th, 2010

    You would like that Jennifer wouldn’t you. I hope you get overpowered and raped.

    How dare you speak of abusing and raping men like that. Just because women are weak and dependent upon men for their survival doesn’t mean you get to rape men.

  • firefly @ at 1:23 am, November 1st, 2010


    Dependent is not a good word when used like that. And wishing someone else to get hurt is very childish and immature. Men, in general, do not know how to feels to be scared of yourself and of your life like that.

  • Matt SS @ at 10:33 pm, June 28th, 2011

    You guys are fucking clueless, Jesus Christ. Men aren’t afraid to go out at night because of rape, although it happens to us too, but we are certainly afraid of getting robbed. I live in St. Louis and sometimes we beat Detroit in the most dangerous city awards. If you see someone following you down the street for more than a block or two, you are scared shit-less. I was walking down a fucking major street and these guys came up to me and asked if I had a lighter or matches, and they kept asking and told me to turn out my pockets and asked me what was in my pockets and stuff. I ran. I thought they hit me, I felt something on my ear, and I ran, and they laughed, so maybe it wasn’t a fist, but a mosquito. Feminists talk all day about how we don’t know how women feel about being alone at night, or feeling like someone is following, and maybe we don’t. I know some girls who say they don’t get it, but then you turn around and pretend like men are never afraid. How the hell do you know? You aren’t men, you don’t read minds. We have black street gangs here, and if you are black especially, but sometimes white, and you wear the wrong color, you get shot. Period.
    Sure, when I went to college I wasn’t really concerned about being robbed, because I was out at night with my friends, and there are often other people out that are students, but not every place in the world is a college campus.
    Btw, in a 90% black school, as a white male, I get plenty of unwanted female attention, not because I’m cure really, but because black girls think its funny to hit white guys on the ass and stuff, so we experience sexual harassment, as well as fearing for our lives while walking alone at night. You don’t own fear.

  • Anna @ at 2:17 am, July 3rd, 2011

    @Matt SS
    You can’t compare being raped to being mugged. Women can also be mugged. This shouldn’t be a competition about who has it worse or who is in more fear. I know that men can be raped also and I have male friends who have been raped. I know that it just as horrible for them as it is for women, and in some ways I could say it is worse because, while there is very little support for female rape survivors, there is virtually no support for male survivors.

    Sexual harassment aimed at women,(I don’t know the experiences of all men and all women, no one does. This is my experience as a sexual assault and domestic violence advocate for men and women, and from my experience communicating with people in and outside my community) is generally not a joke, it is a pass, and it feels like a rape threat (I’m not going to get into the intention of the perpetrator VS the impact right now). It is not something that happens to us on occasion. It is something that has been happening to me since I was in elementary school and happens almost every single time I leave the house alone, night or day, shorts or mumu. If you are saying that the idea of being mugged is where you hold your fear, let me try to make an analogy. What if nearly every time you left the house, since you where in elementary school, random strangers or people you know said things to you, yelled things at you, and touched you in ways that indicated that they wanted to mug you? And I’m not talking only about the drunk person on the sidewalk, I’m talking teachers, employers, peers, people with kids, people who looked like your dad, people who might actually mug you, people you imagine never would/could, people from all walks of life. What if you saw friends getting mugged, authority figures knowing about it, and not doing anything on a regular basis? After years of that, and maybe after being mugged once or twice, would those comments or actions start to piss you off? The ridiculousness of this comparison helps to show why you may not be able to understand our anger/fear. There is nothing for you to compare it to. It is not that rape is one act, that sexual harassment is one act. It is a system of actions that put us in fear and it is a system that does not hold accountable the people who perpetrate those actions. Matt, we can be allies in this instead of being combatant.

  • Liz @ at 12:23 am, August 15th, 2011

    @Matt SS
    Here is my response to you

  • Amadeus @ at 2:31 pm, May 11th, 2012

    @Matt SS
    I’m sorry, man. Your life sucks.
    Thing is, you’re a wuss.
    You weren’t raised right. You can’t defend yourself. And getting “hit on the ass” by fellow female students who’re black doesn’t count as sexual harassment. If a blonde had done it you’d probably pleasure yourself to the memory. Keep your borderline racism to yourself, kid. The dilemmas of your pathetic life cannot be compared to the horrors women face everyday, all over the world. So, my response to you is that don’t go about trying to vent about your problems on a feminist blog and grow a pair.
    -Amadeus. :D

  • Maddie @ at 8:30 pm, August 20th, 2012

    Last year I went to Holland on al trip with my orchestra and while we were there there was an awful day with some German tourists. We’d gone tobogganing and I ended up on the track next to them, waiting for space to set off meant I got cat calls, jeers, and demonstrations with the joystick showing what they wanted me to do to them. As a 14 girl no where near confident enough to confront it it was terrible and uncomfortable. This then continued at tea, every time a girl on the trip walked past their table in order to reach the restaurant there were cheers and clapping, drawing more attention to it and humiliating them further. They even as far as waving money at the older girls. Because of my experience earlier in the day with them I was terrified, so clearly that a male friend on the trip actually took me the back way out of the restaurant so I didn’t have to face them again. The teachers response to this was to not use the front entrance of the hotel and to ‘try and avoid them’.

  • Pablo @ at 4:19 pm, August 23rd, 2013

    Great read, I grew up in quito as was told and taught never to harass girls often one would pass and see girls harassed often it comes down to this, class and education.

    I think Feminism has lost it’s way by trying to be more blokish than men are. Girls calling each other bitches and ho’s. in addition video clips and main stream advertising do not help when girls are treated as a commodity.

    I am not preaching prudish Victorian behaviour at all there is nothing more attractive than a confident woman, whether she is dressed in a short black dress or in a mould of Audrey Hepburn. The trick is wear these clothes without behaving a like a chic from an episode of jersey girls.

    So long as I breathe air in this beautiful world when a beautiful woman strolls down the street I shall pause and stare and smile at such beauty as I will stare at another woman and smile and think oh dear WTF

    You are right the sisterhood needs to stand up and challenge the daily norms. You as a yank, I do mean this as a compliment, has an advantage to change and lead the world everyone still looks to the US. It’s a pity that you guys have forgotten this.

    Back to my point picture a young impressionable man who happens to see a music video where girls are portrayed as sluts and the girls look so different to his mother or sister that person will often link foreigner must be sluts because the dude in the video is so ugly and manages to score the chicks.

    You and I know that is not necessarily true hard to explain this to a numbskull. I guess your experience will be no different had the encounter been back in the US you would have treated that incident as a redneck one.

    Keep writing and keep at it! Battles will be won the war will take forever if mainstream does not change

    Adios y viva Quito

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