From Airplanes to Street Corners, No Girl or Woman Ever Wants to be Harassed

06/29/2016 07:10 pm ET
DuPont Circle, Washington, D.C. 
Photo by Mark Hutchens
DuPont Circle, Washington, D.C. 

An Alaska Airlines flight from Portland to Anchorage was recently diverted to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport mid-flight. This was not because of engine problems, bad weather, or a terrorist threat.

Instead, it was because a 23-year-old man allegedly repeatedly groped a 16-year-old girl seated next to him. Another man in their row intervened and alerted the flight attendant who then notified the pilot. The pilot diverted the plane and the assailant was arrested in Seattle. I’m angered by the first man’s blatant disregard for the feelings and bodily autonomy of the girl, but I’m not surprised that the incident happened.

In 2014, my nonprofit organization Stop Street Harassment commissioned a statistically significant national survey which showed that in the U.S., 65 percent of women and 25 percent of men had experienced unwanted sexualized, sexist or homophobic/transphobic behavior by a stranger while in a public space, including public transportation. Among all women surveyed, nearly 1 in 4 had been sexually touched against their will. Most women and men cited a man or men as the perpetrator/s.

Despite concrete evidence that this is a widespread problem, too many people still dismiss such behavior as a compliment, no big deal, or the fault of the harassed person. No shocker, Rush Limbaugh is in this category. In March he said, “Do you know how many women would love being whistled at walking down the street?” But I have been disappointed when people or news outlets I respect suggest similar viewpoints. For instance, I was part of a CNN article (“Catcalling: Creepy or a Compliment”) and NPR show (“Catcalling: Ignore It Or Enjoy It?”) which both implied that street harassment may be complimentary.

Of course, some people may think it’s a stretch to connect groping and assault to “catcalls” and other verbal harassment. I do not. They are both ways that a stranger forces himself onto another person without her or his consent. And sometimes the verbal escalates into physical.

I’m not the only one who is upset by street harassment being viewed as complimentary. This month, there were more than 140,000 tweets saying in many different ways that #NoWomanEver thinks street harassment is complimentary. The hashtag was started by user @ImJustCeej and, using humor, it shows the ridiculousness of thinking that sexually explicit language, being barked at or followed is desired by women.

If there are still people who are not convinced by statistics or tweets, the Alaska Airlines story illustrates two main reasons why street harassment is not a compliment. 

First, girls and young women are often targeted, and often by adult men. In a similar incident this month, a man groped a 13-year-old girl seated beside him on an American Airlines flight. The flight attendant saw it and moved her and he was arrested at the airport. Also this month, a 15-year-old girl was followed and harassed by a man in Milwaukee before she was able to flag down a city bus and receive help from the driver.

In the national U.S. study, more than half of harassed persons said their experiences began sometime before they were 17 years old. Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti recounted in her new memoir Sex Object instance after instance of street harassment by men when she was a young teenager living in New York. Women regularly submit stories to the Stop Street Harassment blog recalling stories from around puberty – or even younger.

Even if some people think that it is fine for men to whistle at, verbally harass, grab and follow adult women, surely they will not afford that same right to men who prey on girls. Right?

The Alaska Airlines story also illustrates how street harassment can have serious outcomes. In that incident, the harasser not only upset the teenager, but he caused the diversion of an entire plane, creating unnecessary costs and delaying the schedule of every person on board.

Harassers can cause car accidents. The most recent example occurred in Syracuse this month. A man in a truck was honking at a woman walking to work. Because he was not paying attention to the road, he drove through a red light and hit another car. The driver of that car was knocked out and taken away in an ambulance.

Some harassers kill people. In January, Janese Talton-Jackson was killed in Pittsburg after she declined a man’s invitations to go on a date. On New Year’s Eve 2015, consensual conversations between strangers in two cars in Texas escalated into verbal harassment and then to a man shooting into the other car, killing college student Sara Mutschlechner.

Most often, street harassment causes harassed persons emotional distress and prompts them to change their lives to try to avoid future victimization. The latter can cause people to pass up leadership, education and job opportunities.

For some positive news, it seems that more people are intervening when they witness harassment, like the passenger and flight attendant on the two different airplanes and the Milwaukee bus driver. When it is safe to do so, people can make a difference if they speak out and step up to help persons in need and signal that the predatory, harassing behavior is not okay or a compliment.

Another way to break the “harassment is a compliment” cycle is to never frame it as such to children. Most importantly, we need to work to raise boys to be men that do not grope sleeping girls on planes, follow girls down the street, or honk at them from their cars.

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