Street Harassment: In the Heart of the Action

By Camille Cusset

“The social sanction is strongest. The shame has to switch sides,” says Audrey Simard, community organizer and militant against street harassment, during a round table discussion held by Reflet de Société magazine. This militant doesn’t mince words when she says that street harassment will end when it is seen first and foremost as a social problem.

During this round table event all three panelists, Audrey Simard, Mélusine Dumerchat and Soraya Martinez Ferrada, discussed social issues surrounding street harassment.  

This type of assault doesn’t always take the form you might imagine. It’s “a violence that can happen at any time, most often in broad daylight,” Simard explained. She said that most victims are women or people of diversity; most perpetrators are men.

There is no strict legal definition of street harassment. And the absence of statistics means we don’t know if there’s been an increase in cases. But Simard has noted that this sort of violence against women has intensified in public places.

The Member of Parliament for Hochelaga, Soraya Martinez Ferrada, described street harassment as a “trivialized phenomenon” in society. “The word of those primarily concerned by the problem is not always believed, and that’s why we need numbers,” said the political representative.

Along the same lines, Simard specified that victims are best placed to know what they’ve experienced. They can best identify behaviors, gestures or looks associated with harassment. “A compliment is meant to give joy, not to raise fear,” she declared.

Social Consequences

From the point of view of all three panelists, the repercussions of street harassment on its victims are major and many. “Women withdraw from expressing their femininity in order to dissuade harassers,” said the MP for Hochelaga.

This element was also raised at the round table by Mélusine Dumerchat, a lecturer and doctoral student in sociology at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). She reported that victims of harassment find their rapport with their body and with public spaces affected by street harassment. For example, victims have to think about their route when they go out in order to avoid experiencing violence, so that they will feel safe during their travels. The psychological impact is “quite heavy”, said Dumerchat.  

In collaboration with the Centre d’éducation et d’action des femmes de Montréal (CÉAF), Dumerchat and Simard participated in the first ever study conducted in Québec aimed at documenting the impact of street harassment on women.

Moreover, street harassment has an impact on a victim’s social life. “You don’t know who to trust anymore. You ask yourself: if I do this, will it open the door to harassment?” Simard emphasized. “A feeling of safety in a neighborhood is also part of life in society. Street harassment is detrimental to social life in a neighborhood.”  

In the countryside, the problem is aggravated by proximity. In a city harassment is committed “quite often by strangers,” Simard said. But the paradigm changes completely in the country. Effectively, harassers and victims are more likely to cross paths in a village or a small town than in a big city.

Make Changes

For Martinez Ferrada, society needs to undergo a profound cultural change to get to the bottom of street harassment. She wants to see a “conversation” between different public actors in order to break the silence and discuss the issues involved. Within the framework of this exchange, young men should have a seat at the table.

“Young men don’t have any references for how to treat women. These young men must be a part of the conversation if we want a change of culture,” she told the panel.

The panelists all insisted on the importance of showing interest in someone by respecting their boundaries as well as their eventual refusal in any seduction attempt.

“It’s a problem we have to look at from an intersectional viewpoint,” Simard said. For example, the problem is different for transsexual women, for whom feminization is an issue and who are also victims of street harassment.

Martinez Ferrada sees paths to a solution using the justice system as an intermediary. “How, in the justice system, can judges understand that harassment is as serious as rape?” she asked.

Urban Planning for Public Spaces

Town planning regulations provide one way of increasing the level of public safety. For example, putting up enough streetlights is one challenge in making streets safer, not to mention parks and other urban blind spots.  “There are places that generate a feeling of being unsafe,” Dumerchat said.

Nonetheless, the doctoral student underlined that urban planning acts more on feelings of safety and security than on those of insecurity itself. But this measure alone won’t solve the problem: “Urban planning is a complimentary measure. The feeling of being safe would be much greater if we knew that street harassment isn’t tolerated,” Simard argued.

Solidarity through Being a Witness

Other solutions exist, like being a witness in solidarity with victims. “To defuse a street harassment situation, sometimes it’s enough to intervene and concentrate solely on the victims,” Simard explained. For example, go up and talk to the victim, or try to take the victim as far away as possible from the harasser.

Parity in terms of power could also be another solution, argued this community organizer. “Street harassment exists because there are power relationships at play. You have to understand who is assaulting who, and what the power relationship is between the two,” Simard argued.

She also insisted on the importance of being well prepared with adequate tools when faced with street harassment. Most importantly it should be social workers who are prepared to come to the aid of women who experience these situations.

In Simard’s proposals, the responsibility for being armed against street harassment shouldn’t lie with its victims. The weight must be lifted from their shoulders, in a context in which women – the main targets of these situations – are not heard from very much at all.   

According to Dumerchat, militants and researchers generally insist that society should work on the causes of the problem: “It would be more efficient, given the obstacles to applying the law. It should be a process where the emphasis should be on education, collective mobilization and awareness raising.” This doctoral student adds that we should in the future see more denunciations of street harassment, since people feel freer to express themselves.  

– As seen in Reflet de Société, Vol. 30, No. 3, March 2022    

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