Those are just two examples of violence perpetrated against women over the past week. And while those cases grabbed news headlines, other acts of aggression on the street may have very well gone unreported. Advocates working to stop street harassment say the two incidents are a clear illustration of why catcalls and come-ons aren’t harmless for the people on the receiving end.
“You never know when street harassment is going to escalate into violence — and too often it does,” Emily May, the co-founder and current executive director of Hollaback!, an international nonprofit working to combat street harassment, said in a statement. “These recent cases are chilling.”
In Detroit, witnesses say that a 27-year-old mother of three named Mary Spears was harassed by a man after leaving the funeral of a family friend. He was asking for her number, which she refused to give to him because she was in a relationship. But the man wouldn’t leave her alone. Once her fiancee tried to intervene, the man opened fire, killing Spears and wounding five other people.
“What was on your mind that you could be so evil,” Spears’ aunt told a local Fox affiliate. “Because she said no to you?”
A similar situation recently unfolded in New York City, according to the New York Post. Police say that a man in Queens started pestering a 26-year-old to go on a date with him, but she turned him down. He reportedly became enraged, grabbed her, and slashed her neck with a blade. She was rushed to the hospital in critical condition but is expected to survive.
It’s not uncommon for women to become the subject of violence if they turn down men’s romantic advances, a phenomenon that was put on full display in May after Elliott Rodger went on a shooting rampage against “every single blonde slut” who rejected him. That tragedy, which resulted in the deaths of seven people in the Santa Barbara area, sparked a national conversation about gender-based violence. It also gave rise to a Tumblr called “When Women Refuse” to compile incidences like the ones that just occurred this week. Sometimes, the people who try to intervene on women’s behalf also end up on the receiving end of this violence.
Groups like Hollaback! say that it’s important to think about catcalling in this larger context. While some people may think of it as harmless, or expect women to interpret it as a compliment, it’s actually part of damaging culture that disempowers women and treats them like objects at the disposal of men.
“Street harassment is on a spectrum of gender-based violence,” May pointed out. “When street harassment is okay, it makes groping okay. And when groping is okay, it makes assault okay. And when assault is okay, it makes murder okay. We need to stop this cycle where it starts.”
Nonetheless, harassment in public spaces is routine for many women. According to a recent report from the advocacy group Stop Street Harassment, an estimated 65 percent of women have experienced unwanted attention from strangers on the street. Most women report feeling angry, annoyed, disgusted, nervous, and scared when they’re catcalled, and — for good reason — they’re often concerned it will escalate into something more threatening.
“I think people are starting to understand that these cases aren’t just assault. They are hate crimes, borne out of the idea that if you’re a woman walking through public space then you must be public property,” May told ThinkProgress via email. May pointed out that, while resistance to this idea isn’t new, modern technology has given activists an “unprecedented opportunity” to push back, both by easily documenting incidences of street harassment in real time and by disseminating stories of everyday violence through blogs and social media.