April 12 marked the start of the fifth annual “International Anti-Street Harassment Week,” a program that has been assembled by the Washington, D.C.-based Stop Street Harassment organization since 2011. According to the SSH organization, more than 110 groups in 30 countries pledged to participate in the event this year. The principal purpose of the week is “to allow [people] to join together in solidarity and amplify each other’s voices and work so that the world listens.”
For those who may not be aware, April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month in the United States. April also happens to fall in the spring season in this area of the world, one of the motivations for this month being deemed Sexual Assault Awareness month. A survey by the nonprofit photo blog initiative Hollaback! and Cornell University recently said 77 percent of American women under the age of 40 reported being followed by a man or group of men in a way that made them feel unsafe in the past year. Additionally, the study found that 85 percent of the women surveyed said they had experienced harassment before they reached 17 years of age.
Street harassment is something that occurs on a daily basis and all year round regardless of seasonal changes, but it is during the warmer months of the year that harassment significantly increases. It’s not hard to see why: Nicer weather and longer hours of the day mean more people are outside, and those same people usually dress according to the forecast. Too often, however, manner of dress, especially for women, brings about unsolicited attention from people on the street. You’re probably familiar with the name of such an act — catcalling.
This year, one organization has notably worked to prevent and reform catcalling and potential lewd behavior. Non-profit clothing company Feminist Apparel has taken their anti-catcalling message to many neighborhoods in New York and Philadelphia and has very cleverly done so in the form of average street signs. In conjunction with another activist group, Pussy Division, signs have been installed all over these cities displaying messages such as “No Catcalling Anytime” and “No Catcall Zone” in bold lettering.
As conspicuous as a “No Parking Zone” sign or a speed limit sign, anyone walking down a busy city street can take notice of them. These anti-street harassment signs have managed to call attention to a legitimate issue that continues to persist in our society. Ideally, these signs shouldn’t have to exist. People shouldn’t have to be publicly instructed on how behave around others. But sadly, we still live in a society where gender-based street harassment is real and is very much a problem. Women — and even men — of all ages, ethnicities, etc. shouldn’t have to worry about excessive and unwanted attention from complete strangers. No matter how “flattering” or “well-intentioned” a so-called compliment may be, it is more often than not a complete violation of personal space.
The signs developed by Feminist Apparel and Pussy Division may not end street harassment in all of New York or other cities across the country once and for all, but their efforts should be commended. It’s a way to “check yourself” and to get you to think before you act. Most importantly, it’s an effective way to grab people’s attention and perhaps provide an impetus for finally having a serious conversation about an equally serious matter.