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Street Harassment: A Means of Control That We Need to Get Under Control

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Street harassment -- sexual harassment of women in public -- has gained notoriety in Western media since the start of the Arab Spring. Most recently, a harrowing first-person narrative of a mob sexual assault of a Western woman on Cairo streets had an editor from The Atlantic conclude that he would do anything to stop his daughters from going to Egypt and being exposed to that kind of abuse.

Unfortunately, research suggests that if you want to prevent your daughters from experiencing street harassment, you would need to keep them off the streets pretty much anywhere. The vast majority of women from Indianapolis to Beijing have experienced street harassment at some point, including leering, whistling, and sexual grabbing or touching.

And though most street harassment definitely is less physically aggressive than the story from Egypt, it is anything but benign. Enough scholars have examined the socio-political context and psycho-social consequences of street harassment to conclude that men harassing women in public is a symptom of the sentiment it perpetuates: women as inferior objects of prey.

I know what I am talking about, as does just about every women and post-pubescent girl. The worst case of street harassment I have suffered made me throw up and had me tank a job interview. Even now, 18 years after, I remember the smell of the guy who slid up behind me on a Paris metro escalator to hold me still while he whispered into my ear just what he was planning on doing to me. I froze, somehow unable to move. When the interminable escalator-ride was over, the guy was gone and I was retching. I did keep my interview afterwards, but lost the job.

But even the other, less horrible, cases of harassment took their toll. There was the adolescent boy who purposefully ran into me on a street in downtown Guatemala City some time in early 1997 and grabbed my crotch, hard, for precisely 3 seconds (I counted). Or the grown man who did the same on the F-train in New York City this very year. Both had me shaking and slightly disoriented for hours.

I could go on.

What I remember most clearly from each incident is the feeling of powerlessness and humiliation. The knowledge that this man, whoever he is, sees me as something (or rather, some thing) to crush and control. And the absolutely certainty -- born out in fact -- that no one around me was going to help.

I know, of course, that this is precisely what I am meant to feel.

I also know that the power imbalance and contempt of women's autonomy and sexuality that is acted out in sexual harassment of any kind is what makes it hard to talk about. That and the fact that bystanders often acquiesce or contribute to the abuse.

Take sexual harassment in college. Despite the fact that two-thirds of American college students say they have been sexually harassed, it is incredibly hard to get anyone to speak out about it on the record. Consider what Rush Limbaugh said about Sandra Fluke for defending access to contraception for college students for non-sexual reasons. Imagine what would be said of someone who acknowledged that a professor or other student had made an unwelcome pass at them. I certainly understand not wanting to expose oneself to that.

(I have been sexually harassed at college twice. One of those times, a professor asked me to sleep with him the night before he was to grade my final paper. I declined. A fellow student, who had witnessed the exchange, promptly and not without glee, informed me that now I was certain to flunk.)

The mob attack in Egypt highlighted last week in The Atlantic is, of course, closer to sexual assault than sexual harassment. Such assault is also not particular to far-off places like Egypt or South Africa. Statistics from the United States indicate a rape rate that is 13 times higher than that of Germany, and 20 times that of Japan.

Rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and any other form of violence and abuse directed at those the perpetrator wishes to control all come from a place that will continue to exist as long as we let it. Whether in Egypt, in Paris, in Cape Town, or in Brooklyn, the least we can do is speak up.

First published on RHRealityCheck