Interview with Holly Kearl, author of Stop Street Harassment

After her wonderful talk at PSU last week on harassment in school and on the streets, I had the opportunity to interview Holly Kearl and understand her views on why street harassment happens and what we can do to stop it.  Holly is clearly a wealth of information, and the interview below is full of helpful tactics and resources!

1. How did you get involved with street harassment and harassment in schools?

My involvement with street harassment began when I wrote my master’s thesis on the topic in 2007. There was an information gap and so I started to fill it in different ways, first with my website and blog, then with my book, and now by organizing International Anti-Street Harassment Week and giving talks across the country on the topic.

For my day job, I work at AAUW and addressing and preventing sexual harassment in schools and the workplace is included in their area of focus. Because of my work on street harassment, I had the opportunity to co-research and write a national study on sexual harassment in schools with AAUW’s director of research, Dr. Catherine Hill.

2. Why do you think street harassment is so pervasive in our culture?

Some of the root causes for street harassment include societal disrespect for women, the objectification of women, homophobia and transphobia, and unhealthy definitions of masculinity that encourage men to harass not only women but also other men, particularly men who do not seem to adhere to traditional definitions of masculinity. Some days it feels like everything in our culture reinforces and supports these behaviors. I know the media gets a lot of blame for things but they truly are prime examples, from marketers that use women’s bodies to sell products, to industries that value women’s looks more than their brains or talents, to commercials that tell men what “real men” do or don’t do.

I also see a lot of reinforcement of these ideas from generation to generation. From older women or mothers who tell girls that the harassment is a compliment or that they should just learn to avoid it or ignore it, to men who harass women in front of their sons or try to bond with sons or younger brothers over objectifying and harassing women.

Over and over I encounter people who believe street harassment is a compliment or no big deal or “the way things are,” and these attitudes reinforce street harassment, silences people who experience it, and give harassers a free pass to continue to do it.

3. What do you think are the best ways for someone to respond when they are harassed on the street?

Unfortunately, there is no one “best” way to respond to street harassment in every circumstance, in either public places or the workplace. Harassed persons must decide for themselves based on what is happening, where, and by whom, which response will make them feel both safe and empowered. However, the more informed people are about options for responding, the better they can be at making that decision.

Most people know how to ignore or avoid a harasser, but many may not know how to have an assertive response. Learning assertive responses is very important because those are often the most effective kind for holding the harasser accountable for his or her actions and deterring future harassment and because it usually feels empowering to the harassed person.

Here are five suggestions for assertive responses, informed by advice by former DC Rape Crisis Director and anti-sexual harassment trainer and author Martha Langelan, Defend Yourself founder Lauren R. Taylor, and sexual harassment expert and “godmother of Title IX,” Dr. Bernice Sandler.

a) Name the behavior and state that it is wrong. For example say, “Do not whistle at me, that is harassment,” or “Do not touch my butt, that is sexual harassment.”

b) Tell them exactly what you want. Say, for example, “move away from me,” “stop touching me,” or “go stand over there.”

c) Make an all-purpose anti-harassment statement, such as: “Don’t harass me” or “Stop harassing people. I don’t like it. No one likes it. Show some respect.” Speak it in a neutral but assertive tone.

d) Turn what they say or do around into a joke or make a clever statement in response.

e) Identify the perpetrator: “Man in the yellow shirt, stop touching me.” (This is especially useful if other people are nearby).

Reporting harassers to police, transit workers, store owners, and their employer (if they are clearly harassing on the job) are other viable options.

4. Other than responding in the moment to street harassment, what can we do to help fight it?

Share our stories to bring more attention and understanding to the issue. People care about issues that impact the people they care about…so I think more people would care about this issue if they realized how it affects their loved ones. Mentor and educate youth to know appropriate and respectful ways to interact and what their rights are if someone harasses them. Create awareness-raising initiatives at the community level. Campaign for concrete changes, like city ordinances, harassment studies, and awareness-raising public service announcement.

5. How do you think street harassment fuels the oppression of women and LGBTQ folks?

Street harassment causes many women and LGBTQ individuals to restrict their lives in different ways to try to be safe and unharassed. This limits their mobility and ability to do things like attend night classes, go to networking events, and freely walk around their city. The harassment reinforces and reminds them of their second-class citizenship and the way they are devalued in our society.

6. What is international street harassment week and what do you hope it can accomplish?

Amazing activists and ordinary individuals around the world work hard year-round to make public places safer…but there is strength in numbers. During the third week of March, the 18-24, everyone will join forces to collectively raise awareness that street harassment is a global problem and work toward solutions.  There are 6 options for how people can participate and together we can bring more attention to this pervasive problem and help facilitate time/space to brainstorm community solutions.


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