Why street harassment is still a very real threat for women

The tragic loss of a 27-year-old Detroit woman named Mary “Unique” Spears is a harrowing reminder of one of the biggest threats women face today. Last week, at an event, a man asked Spears for her number. Spears told him that she was already involved—a common tactic for women refusing unwanted advances, because a woman’s “no” is often and unjustly considered inconsequential. The man continued to harass her until security escorted him out of the venue. He returned with a handgun and shot her to death.

Spears’ death is the latest in a series of horrifying incidents in which a stranger’s verbal advances have escalated into physical violence. A week before Spears’ death, a 26-year-old woman in Queens had her throat slashed by a man whose romantic overtures she declined.

These women are not alone: in a 2,000 person survey conducted by Stop Street Harassment, nine percent of respondents had been sexually assaulted by harassers. More than twenty percent had catcalling escalate into unwanted sexual touching or having a harasser follow them. Violence is not an uncommon response for women who reject the advances of men in public places. And in the survey, 99 percent of the women who responded had experienced street harassment.

Time and again, harassers are excused. They’re just saying hi. They just want you to smile. You should take it as a compliment. You should just ignore it. You were probably asking for it, look at that skirt. The blame that should be placed on harassers has been shifted to the shoulders of the women they’re harassing.

It’s time to stop pretending that this kind of harassment is anything other than an overture to violence. It is not a nuisance, it is the continual atmosphere of danger for women to be outside of their homes. Catcalls are not compliments. They’re threats.

Every time a man whistles at a woman, bids her to smile, or comments on her appearance, he’s asserting a form of dominance over her—women are there to be assessed, a form of street entertainment, passing through a male space. Those comments are part of an overall culture in which men assume ownership over women’s bodies.

“You look beautiful,” coming from that context, isn’t a compliment. It means: “I own you.” It means: “You are required to respond to me.” It means “You are mine to assess or reject as a I please.” And in extreme cases, when women like Spears reject that assertion, it leads to violence and even death.

This has to end. If we want women to feel as safe leaving their homes, to experience the same autonomy as men, the only solution is to make serious changes in the way that we address street harassment. It should not be a “grin and bear it” situation. It should be one in which all of us work to make street harassment unacceptable, though policy changes and legal repercussions for people who continually threaten or harass women. It is time to stop making excuses for street harassment, and condemn it in the strongest possible terms.

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