You can now call into a hotline and talk to someone about your experience with street harassment, in the same way as you might call a national hotline to turn to someone for support after a sexual assault.
The organization Stop Street Harassment has partnered with Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) and Defend Yourself to create the first-ever national street harassment hotline. The phone hotline launched last month and the online hotline, which you can find on the SSH website, launched on Wednesday.
The new tool is evidence of how much the conversation around street harassment has recently changed — from one that accepts harassment as a fact of life (mostly for women) to one that challenges the assumption that harassment is simply an inevitable and harmless part of life.
Just a few years ago, we as a society hadn’t found the right language to describe the pervasive intimidation and objectification that women face from strangers in public places. The language has evolved since then. Now we’re less likely to call it “catcalling,” a term that minimizes the offense, and give it the more descriptive name “ street harassment.”
Holly Kearl, the founder of Stop Street Harassment, said the media’s approach to covering street harassment has changed largely thanks to social media campaigns and videos of women experiencing harassment.
“I was part of a CNN article that was a homepage feature in 2008. And the headline was ‘Catcalls: Creepy or a Compliment?’ It was presented as a debate,” Kearl said. “Two years ago, there was another CNN article and it didn’t present it as a compliment at all. It took the issue very seriously. I think it’s very rare now.”
The purpose of the new hotline is to provide a place for people to work through their feelings after experiencing harassment, to explore legal options available in their state, or to speak with someone who is trained to speak with sexual assault survivors, since the people most hurt by these incidents are survivors who find street harassment re-traumatizing.
“Research shows survivors of sexual assault are the demographic that is most negatively affected by street harassment,” Kearl said.
Sixty-five percent of women have been affected by street harassment — with 20 percent reporting having been followed, 23 percent receiving some form of sexual touch, and 9 percent being forced to do something sexual, according to SSH’s survey of 2,000 people in 2014. LGBTQ people and people of color were disproportionately affected. Men weren’t spared, either, with 25 percent of men — most of whom identified as GBTQ — reporting they had been affected by street harassment, mostly through the use of homophobic and transphobic slurs. This data lines up with other research on which populations are disproportionately likely to experience some form of sexual violence.
Kearl said she hopes that the online hotline, where people can type messages to RAINN staff like many businesses’ help centers do now, will lend support to younger women and girls who may not want to call in. Despite changing societal attitudes, girls may still be receiving the message that getting harassed is somehow their fault, and many girls and women may not have supportive friends and family.
One of the first conversations that Kearl had with a woman who called into the new hotline illustrates this point.
“She blamed herself, [saying], ‘I started talking to him, so did I lead him on?’”
“This guy came up to her and started talking to her but it escalated to harassment, and he went as far as to kiss her without her permission. And she blamed herself, [saying], ‘I started talking to him, so did I lead him on?’” Kearl said. “And so the RAINN staff was able to talk her through it.”
Callers can also consult RAINN staff on what they should do if they choose to go to the police. For example, only a couple states allow someone who has been followed once to make a report that they were stalked, and only few states ban the practice of “upskirting,” in which a person takes a photo or video up a woman’s skirt — but that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything a victim could do. A victim could claim something like “disturbing the peace” if someone harasses them really loudly. RAINN staff can assist in providing context for that state’s laws while keeping realistic expectations for a possible outcome since most street harassment is legal.
When assisting people who wonder what they can do stop a situation from escalating and becoming potentially violent, Kearl said it is important that staff make it clear that there isn’t a “wrong” reaction to street harassment.
“What we emphasize with the RAINN staff is that this isn’t about dictating to anyone how to respond,” Kearl said. “They know themselves, they know the situation, but [we’re going to] provide them with a full range of options so they can make a more informed decision.”
Kearl said that she recognizes that although this hotline is necessary to provide support, the real solution goes much deeper. Ultimately, a cultural shift needs to take place that includes boys and men, the principal harassers of both female and male victims of street harassment. She said that although she feels conflicted about what kind of consequence, if any, should be given to people who commit severe forms of harassment, she is certain that education that focuses on toxic masculinity, respecting people’s space, and establishing consent would be a more effective route to reducing these incidents.