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A few days ago, a friend working on a PhD in another state sent a text:
My immediate response was one of shock – if this had happened to me, I would have lost it, infuriated at the invasion of privacy. So I was perplexed as the conversation continued:
My friend and I had a chance to talk through this a bit more yesterday, and she expressed surprise that I would equate this encounter with street harassment. I acknowledged that, because of the work I do for Hollaback! and the time I spend reading, writing and speaking about street harassment as more than catcalls, but as part of a larger culture that values her sneaky suitor’s wishes and time over hers, I’m predisposed to think of harassment. I understand that I’ve focused my attention that way.
Discussing street harassment, especially with those not already primed to consider it a problem, or even a thing that happens, can be challenging for all involved. While activists like Hollaback! site leaders, interns and volunteers are working to frame street harassment as part of a larger, global phenomenon, millions of women around the world are having minor interactions like my friend’s – and sometimes, they might welcome them. While I was busy being furious for her, my friend felt that in the context in which she had this experience, it was more clever than creepy.
It’s important, I think, in the midst of our discussions of how to respond and how to intervene, to also acknowledge the right of an individual to assess their situation and decide that in that moment, in that context, they feel flattered. Accepting this doesn’t lessen the importance of working to change the culture that allows for the exchange to take place as it did, with (in my opinion) a huge presumption on the part of the stranger, but it does remind us that in the end, individual experiences are all valid, and that’s what this is all about.
Street harassment doesn’t have to make you feel unsafe in all cases to still exist, and to still be identified as such; our experiences can illustrate the culture behind street harassment without necessarily having ruined our day. These stories are valid, too – and Hollaback! is for sharing them!
What do you think? Would you have been furious as I would have in my friend’s situation, or do you think it was clever and mostly harmless?
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