#StopTellingWomenToSmile: On Street Harassment and Its Greater Implications
After three years living in NYC, it wasn’t until my nine month stay in Bedford-Stuyvesant that I was met with the double edge sword that is walking down the street as a woman. Fully clad in a knee- length coat, scarf, and winter hat, it was a bitterly cold December morning as I hustled from the J train to my new abode. Luckily, my new neighbors gave me an incredibly warm welcome into the neighborhood with a persistent stream of cat calls.
20 years old at that time, it had been six years since my first unfortunate experience with leering, kissing noises, grunts, hissing, and unsolicited pet names. The first time, at age 14, I was harassed by a group of young males at a shopping mall in my home state of Florida.
Though 14 might seem young, in a national representative survey conducted by Stop Street Harassment, almost 1 in 4 women experience street harassment by age 12 and nearly 90% by age 19. The problem with street harassment is that it’s not adequately addressed in the same manner as rape or physical sexual harassment. Instead, it’s considered to be menial, trivial, or just annoying.
Because the act of street harassment is deemed too difficult to identify, the law has failed to act as protection for the rights of women. Women not being able to freely move about in society’s public spaces without being harassed is a broach of fundamental human rights.
In many cases the victim, perpetrator, or law enforcement may characterize the act as light hearted or simply a compliment. But “Hey beautiful” or “Thank God for coming outside today” can instantly become much more than a nuisance, especially when it is unwanted. It can just as easily be followed up with a
if the unsolicited gesture is met in silence. We are not only in danger if we respond, but also in equal danger if we don’t.
It’s more than just being called names in the street, though. Street harassment is indicative of more pressing societal shortcomings. Each time an individual walks past a harasser in silence our position in society is challenged. While some feel objected to dismiss the action, often times other are left to questioning the capabilities and intentions of the harasser, wondering if it be an introduction to a rape attempt.
Attempts to prosecute or hold the harasser accountable of their actions are difficult even if their speech is crude or hostile. Coupled with the lack of state or national legislation on street harassment is that it can be said the act of it comes into direct conflict with First Amendment rights.
The same laws that make it difficult to tackle street harassment as a valid crime has enabled Brooklyn-based artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh to speak out against and raise awareness of this taboo’d phenomenon.
Only three avenues away from the same J train station that brought me into the Stuy, Tatyana had introduced her art series Stop telling women to smile several months prior in the fall of 2012. With self-portraits of a dozen young women sketched by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, striking quotes like “I am not here for you” or “Women do not owe you their time or compensation” are read underneath each portrait.
Through art, Fazlalizadeh brought a voice to the thousands of women victim to street harassment on a daily basis. The movement has made waves from Philadelphia to Georgia, and Tatyana has opened up a dialogue with the general public, including the younger generation who often dismiss social and political dilemmas impacting individuals every day. She’s shown great humility in her role as an activist making a real impact.
Much of the media’s target demographic revolves around 18-25 year old males and with that females have often been hyper sexualized with little to no censorship. In my article “The Miseducation of Women in Hip Hop” I talked about the image of female emcees in a culture that has been heavily patriarchal and misogynistic, but many of those qualities affect men and women daily at an early age. In 2007, Congress entered a meeting on the subject of women’s over-sexualization in music videos but little to no change has happened over the last seven years. If anything, our accessibility to sexual images in that time has grown.
2009 studies proved that exposure to sexually explicit video games and music videos are linked to men’s acceptance of rape myths and sexual harassment. This has caused many including feminist group like Ultra Violet to question whether this new generation has embodied and given life to rape culture.
In the spring of 2013 when Rocko dropped his now infamous “U.O.E.N.O,” Rick Ross’ blatant and explicit date- rape lyrics stirred immediate controversy; “Put molly all in her champagne/ she aint even know it/ took her home and enjoyed that/ she aint even know it.” Several music blogs and hip hop artists weighed in on the backlash, their responses indifferent. For the first time, hip hop culture was forced to rethink the casual approach of rape and sexual harassment within a progressive society.
Female emcee Iggy Azalea found herself in the middle of her own sexual harassment contention when she declared over a Hot 97 interview her decision to stop crowd surfing at her shows to avoid getting fingered by her fans. The 23-year-old rapper, who now wears three layers of underwear and uses security barriers, admitted her assaults mostly came from women, “girls will try to do it more than guys,” she said, ‘cause girls think it’s cool.”
Danny Brown encountered a similar experience early last year when a female fan pulled down his pants on stage and performed oral sex. While fans and artists like Kendrick Lamar applauded Browns experience, (Kendrick tweeted “You really just got that head on stage Stanny??!!), close friend Kitty Pryde took to her blog in outrage:
“Everyone wants the option of blaming it on Danny, because people can’t accept the fact that a white girl raped a black dude in front of a bunch of people,”
In the face of street harassment many groups like iHollaback.org or Stopstreetharrassment.com have given both men and women the platform to anonymously express themselves and share their experiences with the public. Muddled by the right to freedom of speech, we have disparaged sexual harassment as a simple compliment or an artistic position in a rap lyric without identifying our immunity to its social injustice or the powerful affect it has on women. For many, this daily occurrence disrupts a simple function like walking down the street, getting on a crowded train or bus, or in my very own case, taking out the trash. At best, this cognitive issue becomes psychologically tumultuous when we must resort to trivial shifts in our plans from what to what to wear to a cautious reroute.
Rapping about date rape provokes the same threat as my uncertainty toward the grown man who felt it necessary to leer at my body and grunt as I walked to the bus stop, or to the women who have been followed, and the rest who are forced to reroute their routine in order to create some normalcy. There are hundreds of textbook definitions in place to address street harassment, but “just a compliment” continues to miss the bar.