Street harassment is a form of gender violence. Ironically, the fact that it happens daily to women worldwide has led to the normalization of this particular form of patriarchal aggression. Polls taken by Acción Respeto, an Argentine feminist organization dedicated to eradicating street harassment and educating the public to prevent it, show that 94% of the women polled have had to endure it. In addition, the polls taken by MuMaLa — another feminist organization in Argentina — reaffirmed that 100% of the women polled deal with street harassment during their lives as well.
When I started looking into the origins of street harassment, the answers as to why it happens became immediately clear: it is the patriarchy back-lashing against the gains women have made in our long overdue presence in the public sphere. Because public space has traditionally been dominated by men, it reflects a power dynamic derived from gender inequality. The male gender had ruled over public spaces for thousands of years. As the women’s rights movements won more and more battles, the female gender progressively began to break free from the domestic roles that served as our only purpose in life. We achieved rights over our bodies, our economy, our jobs, our studies and our ideas. We broke the household chains and we got out, literally and symbolically, to the public sphere. We walked the streets by ourselves, we rode public transportation alone. We filled positions in public administrations, in governments, in state affairs. But when a subject (or a gender) relishes in inequality, equality feels like a loss: a loss of power, a loss of physical space — which symbolizes its gendered dominance. And so it fights back: it exerts violence to regain what was “taken” from it.
One of the ways the male gender reclaims the public sphere is through street harassment. Street harassment is very much interpreted as “corrective” violence. The type of violence that has a specific purpose: to discipline women back to our homes. Because street harassment works a way of reminding us that we do not belong out in public, that we must feel unsafe — since the streets are certainly not ours to walk freely. When an unknown man feels entitled to comment on our bodies, our look, our appearances — disregarding whether we want to engage in that forced interaction or not — what he’s really saying is: “Because you’re in public space, you are public property. You are not a person, you are an object. And I will dispose of you in any way that I want”. He could have just thought about whatever he said to the woman he’s harassing, but that’s not enough…he has to let her know (thus reaffirming his gender privilege) and she has to be made known. The harasser has to unilaterally force his opinion on the woman of his choice because that’s the proper way to remind her that her integrity and her safety hang on a thread. And that menace is the price she pays for stepping out of the kitchen. Since the harasser is someone we don’t know -and he has already made clear that he can overtake the boundaries of our consent- we have no certainty as to how much further the violence can escalate. We don’t know if he’ll only comment on us, chase us, touch us, rape us, beat us or kill us.
The end result of this sexual terrorism is that women feel threatened, unsafe, uncertain, scared and limited. Some of us try to “avoid” being cat-called, as if it were our responsibility not to be harassed instead of the aggressor’s responsibility not to be violent. So we’ll change our clothes, we’ll limit the hours of the day we walk the streets, we’ll avoid certain places or groups of men, we’ll modify our looks in an attempt not to draw any more attention, we’ll even subconsciously resent our own bodies. Some people will even argue that we should be flattered by cat-callers, as if our self-esteem depended on some random stranger’s opinion of our bodies, because we’ve been conditioned to think that the male gaze is what ultimately defines us as women. The link between controlling women’s bodies and the hegemony of public spaces has never been clearer. But we women are prepared to fight back. Acción Respeto has been working for almost 3 years to eradicate street harassment, creating awareness through education, campaigns, sharing testimonies, counseling victims and pushing laws to penalize street harassment. We’re taking back the streets.