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Teen Issues: Street Harassment (guest post by Pauline Holdsworth)

Street harassment isn’t how we envision teenagers learning about themselves. We don’t name it as a form of education or discuss its consequences or argue over its curriculum – and in leaving out the lived experiences teenagers have with harassment in public spaces from our conversations, we’re leaving glaring gaps in what they’re being taught. 
From Stop Street Harassment: “Catcalls, sexually explicit comments, sexist remarks, groping, leering, stalking, public masturbation, and assault. Most women (more than 80% worldwide) and LGBQT folks will face gender-based street harassment at some point in their life. Street harassment limits people’s mobility and access to public spaces. It is a form of gender violence and it’s a human rights violation. It needs to stop. “

Here’s the kind of education street harassment gives you . . . 

You learn that you live in a world where the act of saying no makes you ungrateful. You study the reactions of adults around you and learn it’s ruder for you to say you’re uncomfortable than for someone else to harass you. You learn that public spaces aren’t really open to people like you, and you start to chart a different kind of map of the world, one where you’re starting to limit the places you can go. You see the rest of the world operating on a 24-hour day, but you feel your own day steadily shortening: these are the hours of the day you feel comfortable outdoors. On some days you can count that number on one hand. 
Street harassment gives you a powerful and unsettling crash course in sexuality, power dynamics, and consent, and it’s rarely countered by any kind of positive counter-intervention that gives you a different set of rules to work with. It’s also a form of education that starts early. It starts before you’ve had the time or space to explore your sexuality or your body or your boundaries for yourself. 
View complete infographic at Hollaback

Perhaps most powerfully, what street harassment teaches you is that your comfort level, boundaries, and sense of safety aren’t seen as important by the world you live in. Street harassment leads to a slow erosion of consent. Over time, you find yourself saying no less and less frequently. You’re told that girls are supposed to be nice, and you begin to understand that when people say that, what they mean is that girls aren’t supposed to contradict or resist. You smile nervously and try to be polite when strangers approach you on the street, but then when you try to walk away, you’re accused of leading them on. Of asking for it. You are no longer a nice girl. You are an ungrateful bitch. 

The lessons young girls learn from street harassment are the lessons they bring to their relationships. Those lessons tell you that it’s not nice to say no, that you should be happy and grateful and welcoming when you receive attention, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Those lesson spill over into the way you approach public displays of affection, into the boundaries you set, into whether or not you feel comfortable enough to say when you’re not. For many teenage girls, the education they’ve received up until that point has convinced them they don’t even have the right to set boundaries, let alone to re-neogtiate them or demand that they be respected. 
What we need is a different kind of education. That education can come from school systems and teachers and parents and friends, but it can also come from creative alternatives, like books that show a world with different rules. Tamora Pierce’s books show a fantasy world where female protagonists encounter and resist street harassment, intimidation, and abuse, and go on to form all-female temple guards that work to create a sanctuary for survivors. They show communities that band together around collective values and refuse to accept harassment as inevitable. For girls who aren’t seeing those actions and those attitudes modeled around them, it can be incredibly powerful to have access to a fictional world where they are. In many cases, young adult fiction that shows these alternatives can prompt readers to start questioning rules they’ve taken for granted. 
For other readers, that spark can come from books that illustrate the consequences of that constant harassment and erosion of consent in a realistic setting. Jay Asher’s novel 13 Reasons Why is a powerful lesson in bystander intervention through the eyes of a teenage boy who was too late. As he listens to the 13 tapes left by his crush after her suicide, he begins to experience the way their town looked and felt different for her and the way the harassment she experienced slowly wore her down. For readers, especially straight-identified teenage boys, 13 Reasons Why is a desperately necessary window into the education they’re not getting – and it’s something that can prompt them to question the education they are getting about relationships, harassment, and their responsibilities as bystanders. 
When we counter the education street harassment provides with alternative lessons (fictional or otherwise) of our own, we’re equipping young girls with the knowledge they need to write their own rules. In a world where they’re constantly being taught they don’t have to right to, helping them draft those rules is a small but revolutionary act. 

To learn more and get involved visit these organizations:

Help us build a book list: What books can you think of that depict examples of street harassment?  What titles can you think of that show girls standing up to harassment?  And what titles can you think of that give us healthy examples of consent, healthy sexual relationships, and strong teenage girls?  Tell us in the comments.

Pauline Holdsworth is a Master’s student at the University of British Columbia School of Journalism, where she is writing her thesis on media coverage of sexual assault and gender-based violence. She covers gender and women’s issues for Campus Progress, the youth partner to ThinkProgress, and regularly writes about sexual assault prevention and representations of consent and assault in young adult literature and the media. She runs a series on consent-based education, which examines how teachers, librarians, authors, and advocates are working to engage teens in a conversation about consent. Pauline has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Toronto, where she worked at her student newspaper as an arts writer, Senior Arts & Culture Editor, and Editor-in-Chief.


  1. This is an amazing amazing post Pauline (hello fellow Canadian! Your thesis sounds so fascinating!) that touches on a very important topic.

    How gross is it that I consider myself “fortunate” to have only ever experienced approx 3-5 instances of street harassment? As if it is inevitable? Every time it has happened I feel sick to my stomach and wanted to cry. It made me feel incredibly vulnerable. Even the one guy who shouted out his window that I was beautiful no matter my size made me feel very uncomfortable. However, on my flight home from studying abroad in England, I sat with a young woman, about age 24 and we got talking. At one point she became distraught and asked if she could tell me something very disturbing. I said OK, and she confessed that on her way to the airport she was at a bus stop with a few other people. There was a creepy man there, and she just thought he was being weird, so tried to avoid eye contact. After a few minutes of his leering she turned in his direction and asked him what he was looking at. Then she realized he had been publically masturbating while staring at her. She screamed at him, told him to leave and get away from her, that he was being gross, to put his penis away. There were people around her who did nothing and it took several minutes for this man to leave. She cried for a good hour or so with me on the plain, us huddled together as I held her and told her that none of it was her fault, providing her resources I could think of like YWCA hotlines and such. She was upset and disgusted, and angry not only at the man but sadly, herself. She kept asking why had it happened (I can't remember but I think he made a remark about her dark skin color) and was angry that she didn't hurt him or call the police. It was heartbreaking!

    This also makes me think of a recent line I saw in a review on Goodreads that asked how telling it was that we teach children (probably more so girls than boys) to yell FIRE instead of HELP if they are in trouble!

    As for healthy relationships and consent: most recent read that featured this was Dare You To by Katie McGarry. Ryan refuses to have sex with Beth when she is drunk because she is not in her right mind. One of his best friends takes him to the store to buy condoms so they are protected. He also steps in when one of the football players from his school is drunk and attempting to kiss an unwilling girl and have him go off in the woods with him. I was really impressed with it!

  2. Rachelia, thank you for sharing your story. Unfortunately, there are way too many like these out there.

    Also, I thought Pauline wrote a fantastic piece as well. I was so moved by the topic and how well she expressed it.

    Loved Dare You To, good example

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