During my time in the 1980s, “hi, beautiful lady,” and other unsolicited comments were how a man who shined shoes expressed interest to young women walking by 8th Avenue and 42nd Street in Midtown Manhattan. This was and continues to be a very common experience in many American cities for teenagers and adults.
There are multiple names for this type of behavior, which is initiated most often by men targeting women. It is referred to by some as “street harassment.” It is important to note that men also have these experiences.
In the previous example from New York, the shoe shiner was a man who would whistle, comment, proposition, and single out pedestrians in a sexual tone — primarily young women who were simply walking down a street in the middle of the day or evening. Some people may think these types of comments are harmless, even a compliment. Others may blame the woman, questioning that it must be because of how they looked or what they wore.
However, according to the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network (RAINN): “Like other forms of sexual harassment and assault, street harassment is about power and intimidation.”
Other forms of behavior may be considered street harassment, such as verbal requests or demands, commenting on someone’s body, flashing, following or stalking, invading personal space or blocking the way, sexist and racist slurs, or any insulting or demeaning comments about someone’s identity.
Most teenage and adult women are familiar with those behaviors or forms of harassment, and many have experienced it themselves.
A 2015 international survey conducted by Cornell University and Hollaback, a non-profit working to end harassment, found that 85% of women first experienced street harassment in the United States before the age of 17. The most common form experienced was verbal, non-verbal harassment and being followed, which took place in both urban and suburban communities. The study states that over 50% of women in 22 countries reported being fondled or groped.
There are a few specific points to focus on when discussing this issue, especially as Catholics. First off, this behavior to intimidate and objectify people comes from a person’s desire to express power. To blame the person walking along the street perpetuates the myth that this behavior is about sexuality or modesty, and it fails to put the responsibility on the person who is attacking another’s dignity.
Secondly, a more nefarious issue people should know about street harassment is based on people like the shoe shiner from Manhattan. I later learned about the man who was commenting toward young women with the hope of getting their attention. He may have shined shoes during the day, but he was coercing young women to engage in prostitution at night. His daily comments were a way of making connections to determine if he could manipulate desperate, vulnerable young women into a life of prostitution, which we recognize today as human trafficking.
There are manipulative ways to coerce the vulnerable, desperate, and possibly homeless into sex trafficking. Young people are easily preyed upon and trapped into lifestyles that are difficult to escape. The shoe shiner’s technique is one of many ways people become trafficked.
The Catholic Church proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. This belief is the foundation of all the principles of the Church’s social teaching. Catholic social teaching is a central and essential element of our faith, and all forms of harassment violate the dignity of another person.
What are ways that we can create greater awareness, learn more and help stop this type of harassment?
RAINN suggests the following:
- “Never blame the victim. If someone tells you about street harassment they have experienced, … listen without judgment… [N]ever reduce their experiences by saying things like ‘this happened to you because you’re so beautiful,’ or ‘maybe you shouldn’t have worn that dress today.’”
- “Share your experiences. … This can not only let others know that they are not alone in these experiences but can help to raise awareness of the frequency of street harassment and its harmful effects among those who haven’t experienced it.”
- “Call out your friends. If you witness your friend harassing someone on the street … tell your friend to stop. Take time to explain to them why what they did was harassment and that it is wrong.”
Street harassment, even in its simplest form, is an attack on the dignity of a person and hurts individuals and our communities. It is imperative, as in this story, that we recognize how street harassment can be used as a tool that can lead to forms of human trafficking.
On Feb. 8, 2021, the International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking, Pope Francis reminded us about the importance of prayer to combat this issue.
“Prayer enables us to be beacons, capable of discerning and making choices oriented towards good,” he said. “Prayer touches the heart and impels us to concrete actions … trusting in the power of God.”
Awareness of street harassment, and discernment of this issue through prayer and reflection for those impacted, can lead to actions that protect the value of all people throughout the world.
For more information about sexual assault, visit RAINN.org or for help call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673. For resources and support, visit the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (ANDVSA) website at andvsa.org