Taking back our streets

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A photo of a person in a mask, in a crowd of other pedestrians. They look nervous and overcome with thoughts.
Being out in public, in the middle of crowd, is easily the worst part of the day for some of us. cegoh via Pixabay and Saydung89 via Pixabay, manipulated by lee lim

Our streets need to be safe for all of us; tolerating harassment does nobody favours

Most have heard of urban warfare and the devastation that this particular style of war commonly has, especially on innocent civilians. What many do not understand is that women and queer people are often forced to fight their own form of urban war in cities, gripped by an often-ignored and perceivably endless urban war – the war on street harassment.  

We walk streets that have been turned against us, forced to navigate the complexity of the terrain our harassers create. We fight for control over our cities and our alleys. We do not have the luxury of distinguishing combatants from allies, or others simply trying to defend their homes.  

CBC says there is “no right way to deal with street harassment,” which means that even if we think we know how to protect ourselves, we risk our livelihoods and the livelihoods of those around us by being wrong in how we ‘deal’ with it. What the CBC report on street harassment also means is that we cannot honestly know how to protect our friends, partners, or family members, especially when the harassment commonly involves them as well. Man or woman, straight or gay, street harassment affects us all, and it must be combated by us all to end the wars that our friends, spouses, family members, neighbours, and coworkers are affected by.  

While the comparison of struggles that vulnerable individuals face on the streets to the realities of civilian life during a literal urban war may seem arbitrary, the fact of the matter is that verbal street harassment constantly threatens to escalate into more extreme violence. Of the thousands of women who responded to the nonprofit group Stop Street Harassment’s survey, over two-thirds stated that they were concerned the harassment would escalate in aggression. Canadian sexual assault and rape statistics prove that these concerns are not unfounded.  

About 30 per cent of Canadian women over the age of 15 report having been sexually assaulted outside of an intimate relationship. When we read “30 [per cent] of Canadian women,” we oftentimes do not understand that 30 per cent here is the same as 4.7 million.  

We see the numbers. We read them. We understand the elementary math that explains 4.7 million looks like 4,700,000 and that there is a four, seven, and five zeros; however, our brains are incapable of fully understanding this number. To put it into perspective, the number of women over 15 in Canada who have been sexually assaulted outside of an intimate relationship is roughly 60 times the number of people we will meet and interact with in the entirety of our lives.  

Those numbers glare at us from the page as if to say, “look at me.” As if to scream, “LOOK AT ME,” like the people who spend their spare hours screaming slurs, insults, and making unwanted advances at people in the streets.  

And it’s not just statistics that scream at us from the page, filling us with rage. It’s firsthand accounts too. Accounts of people just as kind and full of spirit as the people we know and call our friends, family members, and partners.  

Ruth George who was raped and murdered in a parking garage by Donald Thurman. Firsthand accounts in this case are those that her murderer made – that he did not know Ruth George at all – and that he killed and raped her because he was angry that she ignored his catcall. Thurman was previously paroled on armed robbery charges. The fact that the justice system enabled him to commit further crimes is just as unfathomable as the statistics are.  

Michael Riordon interviewed many victims of street harassment for a contribution to The Body Politic titled “The Mirror of Violence.” Firsthand accounts made by “PD,” a gay man who was a frequent victim of street harassment that at one point came from five Toronto teens who joked about “smashing the fruits” while he was walking with another man in a local park.  

The teens, arrested weeks later, had violently attacked another group of gay men nearly immediately after leaving PD. More accounts of injustice include the fact that the attackers were paroled before their victims were even out of the hospital. The attackers’ reputations and criminal records were all kept scot-free because of the judge’s opinion that they were “of good families.”  

Holly Kearl, co-author of a 2011 study on street harassment, says part of the problem is adults who do not educate their children about the injustice of street harassment and thus contribute to a perpetuation of normalization and inaction. The reality is that, often, our parents are victims of the same systems that we are, systems that have taught us that harassment on the streets is normal and acceptable. 

I think we can move past this normalization by thinking about what victory in this case really means. Victory is holding hands on the street without cruel taunts or threats of violence. Victory is walking the city’s streets without having to navigate artificial obstacles or zig-zag from one side of the street to another in fear. 

Victory is having to worry about the people we love a little less.  

We also must remind ourselves that victory is achievable. Kearl’s study found that 91 per cent of respondents believed street harassment could be ended. We can achieve victory with laws such as France’s “Safe Streets, Workplaces, and Public Spaces Act of 2017,” which has since been passed into law. We can achieve victory with honesty and transparency about our experiences – not for pity – but to foster the understanding that street harassment is a reality and not just a statistic.  

We can also achieve victory with widespread social change using avenues such as education, taking action as bystanders, and by advocating for change in our justice system to better protect those who are vulnerable.  

With clearly defined consequences for street harassment, supporting victims and condemning attackers, an improved justice system, and widespread community action, we will reclaim freedoms lost due to the rise of modern-day tolerance for harassment. 

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