Are Women of Color at Greater Risk of Street Harassment?

Catcalling has become an epidemic in New York City—99 percent of women say they've experienced some form of street harassment.

NYC Street
Most women in 2017 are unable to walk down the street as most men do, unbothered, without commentary on their appearance and attitude. Getty Images

Call it whatever you want—leering, honking, whistling, sexual harassment, catcalling—it’s an all-too-common experience for women everywhere. According to a survey conducted by Stop Street Harassment, 99 percent of women said they have experienced some form of street harassment in the past, while over 85 percent of women claimed that on the street, they were the target of sexist comments.

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Public sexual harassment is a way of establishing dominance. It’s an assumption men impose on women that they have ownership over the street and anyone on it.

It’s a display of power. Of the women I spoke to, many of them stated that men of all races have perpetuated catcalling and street harassment, but the women who are disproportionately targeted seem to be black and brown women

“I was walking on 34th Street and a guy slapped my butt…No one did anything,” Economic major and junior at New York University, Wesam Abdelzahera, told me recently. “Literally, I’m chasing him, I’m shouting, ‘Stop him! Stop him!’ And still no one did anything. People just watched me…I was ready to kill him…”

Wesam Abdelzahera, Junior at New York University
Wesam Abdelzahera, a junior at New York University. Personal Photography

Ashley Dalton, 26, a celebrity makeup artist who has worked with BET and New York magazine, shared a similar experience with me. “One night…I was coming home from my friend’s party. I was on 34th Street in the train station. A group of guys were walking by, I was on the top of the stairs, and one of the guys decided to smack my butt. So I’m on the top of the staircase and he was going down [and] I kicked him down the steps. That was my reflex. [Laughs] I just couldn’t believe that they were all the way up on the top of the stairs and then smack—a full-on smack.”

Two separate, unrelated women from different age groups and professions, the same shared experience in the city.

When asked if anyone intervened, both had the same response: “No, no one ever does, never.”

Street harassment is nothing new, but even as society grows in the direction of political correctness, it’s a problem that seems to disproportionately affect women of color.

Ashley Dalton, 26, celebrity makeup artist
Ashley Dalton, 26, celebrity makeup artist.

“I think it does happen mainly to African American women, mostly just because of the images they put in the media of us,” agreed Delton. “Just different stereotypes…since I have a voluptuous body and I’m more curvy that somehow makes you feel more entitled, or feel like I’m open to you putting your hands on me.”

Delton raises an interesting point—the history of misogynistic oppression on the street is systematic. There’s a long historical narrative of reducing the black body to something that is “abnormal,” going back to the 17th century, when black women’s bodies were fetishized as “freak shows.”

It’s a display of power. Of the women I spoke to, many of them stated that men of all races have perpetuated catcalling and street harassment, but the women who are disproportionately targeted seem to be black and brown women

Sarah Baartman, real name Saartjie, became one of the most popular figures of the 19th century because of her large buttocks and wide hips. Baartman was paraded around European fairs and “traveling shows,” by a Scottish military surgeon named William Dunlop. Put on display, audiences were charged two shillings a piece to gaze at her body and poke her buttocks with a stick. Both scientists and colonists of the time believed her body was “savage,” something freakish compared to the European body, a perception that lead to images of Baartman being used to “craft racist and sexist ideologies” about African women.

A century later, we’ve yet to progress beyond Sarah Baartman. There’s still a widespread perception that just by walking outside in tight or form-fitting clothes women are “putting themselves and their curves on display,” that they should expect and accept sexual commentary from men.

Honking a horn, shouting out a car window, making kissing noises or clicking sounds when a woman walks by, all of it diminishes women to animals who can be “summoned.”

heels and gates
While it’s a nice feeling to fight back, the larger issue is that there is no safety that comes with it, there is no system in check to protect our girls. Getty Images

Whether it be leering at women’s bodies or whispering lewd comments, men everywhere engage in catcalling. As a young black woman traveling in Italy for study abroad in 2016, the catcalling there was just as bad, if not worse, as New York City. Men shouted sexual obscenities and whistled at my friends and I everywhere we went.

While we didn’t see many Italian women receiving the same treatment, three boys close to our age asked to sleep with us, and a man on the street even grabbed my butt. In Barcelona, a group of young boys chased me trying to poke and touch my butt. Again, we were subject to the “Sara Baartman syndrome,” seen as the exotic other.

By justifying catcalling and street harassment as part of everyday life, and all in good fun you are telling black women to stay silent when they feel uncomfortable in these situations.

NYU professor Rene Black suggested that women should learn how to turn catcalling into a joke and fire back at their harassers, a dangerous proposition today.

Today, when someone can be accused of multiple accounts of sexual assault and still be elected president of the United States, you know this problem isn’t going to solve itself any time soon. Masculinity has become so fragile that simply rebuffing these public advances won’t stop these events from occurring in the first place.

While sometimes harassment can be nothing more than harmless flirting, a majority of black women can recount experiences in when they told a man they were not interested and they were followed home.

“Every time I go out on the street [it feels like I get harassed]. You don’t even have to be dressed. Literally I have my hood on [points to winter coat], you can’t even see anything, my jacket is to my knees. I was followed like two days ago. Some guy in his 50s followed me,” Abdelzahera said.

“[As] I was walking to my dorm, two blocks from there I was walking back and it was like 7 p.m., so it was already dark. Some guy….came and stood right next to me and was like this [leans so that her face is about an inch away from my face]….I just started walking really fast and he was still following me. I thought he would go into my dorm but he didn’t. The only reason I wasn’t that scared was because that has happened to me before—that’s not even the worst thing that’s happened.”

It’s important we acknowledge women have ownership of their bodies regardless if they’re in public or not.

Almost every woman has a story like this. When masculinity has grown this fragile, there is no safe way to defend yourself from unwanted advances. When I’ve stood up for myself in the past, it has consistently ended horribly.

Just last week I got into an argument with two men on the train taking pictures of my body and commenting on my physical appearance loud enough for the whole train to hear. No one said anything; everyone stared at the floor. When I approached the men about how they were old enough to be my father and should have more respect they stood up to get in my face—and still no intervention.

Justifying this behavior as part of society, and just playful, is problematic in itself. Labeling it as “a part of life” also negates the effects it has on many women of color. Many girls say that they’ve changed how they’ve dressed to avoid commentary or groping.

“Especially, living in New york City, if I’m wearing a dress or if I’m wearing skinny jeans I will wear my trench coat just because I’ve become more aware that my body maybe more curvy so someone may say something to me,” Delton said.

“It makes me feel a little more secure in the fact that I’m less likely to be approached. And the summer, that’s a whole different beast. In the winter time you may get harassed on average like seven times a day but then in the summer it’s double and triple that amount. [Laughs] God forbid, you walk out the house with shorts on or even leggings. It’s like, how dare we.”

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 03: A woman pauses under a light inside the Park Avenue Tunnel after it has been temporarily transformed into an art exhibition for pedestrians on August 3, 2013 in New York City. Part of New York City's Summer Streets program, people were able to walk through the 1,300 foot-long tunnel to experience a voice-activated light show. The tunnel, which dates to the 1830's, carries one lane of northbound car traffic from East 33rd Street to East 40th Street. Artist and creator Rafael Lozano-Hemmer is known for his large-scale interactive art.
The first step in combatting street harassment? Teach women our voices matter. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

So how do we reclaim our bodies on the street? A large part of fighting back is utilizing whatever medium you feel provides you with the loudest voice. Perhaps marches and protesting? Maybe a march similar to the “Wall Street Oogle In,” where women marched down the street in large groups ogling and catcalling men, in response to the harassment they endured after a local newspaper published an article listing their work schedules.

Marches aren’t the only way to speak out. Kara Walker used artwork to reclaim power when she constructed A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby at the Williamsburg Domino Sugar Factory. The 35-foot sculpture made entirely out of sugar is of a Sphinx with black features, a head wrap, and an exposed body. In a way, Walker reclaims the male gaze; she makes the monument larger than life, god-like, looking over everyone, leering back at the public and forcing people to acknowledge, yes, this is my body type, but you have no control over it.

It’s important the public acknowledges this—women have ownership of their bodies regardless if they’re in a public sphere or not. Street harassment is not something we should just accept as a part of everyday life. A man does not have a right to critique and analyze our bodies aloud.

By just chalking up catcalling and street harassment as part of everyday life, and all in good fun you are telling black women to stay silent when they feel uncomfortable in these situations.

By telling black women not to speak up and instead learn how to communicate and react differently with men, it is perpetuating a rape culture in which many women of color’s voices are not heard. That is when it becomes O.K. for a man to say and do anything. If a woman feels uncomfortable it is not your right, whether you are a cis-gendered woman or a man to tell them to get over it.

Kara Walker's 'Sugar Baby' statue, previously located at the Domino factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Kara Walker’s Sugar Baby statue, previously located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Flicker

There is no one definitive solution but the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of ways to reduce street harassment is first to defamiliarize it to young boys. Which is hard when we have a President of the United States who chalks sexual assault up to “locker room talk” and a social norm.

We should also teach our young girls that their voices matter, that men do not have a right to tell us to smile or look happy just to please them. We do not owe a man on the street a hello. We do not owe any man that we do not want to interact with on the street acknowledgment or an explanation as to why we will not give them our number.

We must start evaluating and questioning these situations when we’re in them. Instead of telling a man “I have a boyfriend” to get him to leave you alone, ask why men only respect our boundaries when they think we are in a relationship with another man. Why does the simple phrase “I’m not interested” always lead to a follow-up question “why not?” but saying I have a boyfriend leads to “Oh, I’m sorry.”

Why do we need the presence of another man to justify our refusal? We must remind men that just because they think we should be “thankful” that they’re paying us a compliment. We do not owe them anything. We only owe women the responsibility to treat them with respect.

Are Women of Color at Greater Risk of Street Harassment?