Street harassment is one major reason why more women do not take public transit, walk or bicycle. Cat-calling, the ‘holla’, whistling and beeping horns are reasonable expectations for any woman walking or bicycling down a Miami street. Who wants to put up with that?

As an advocate for both bicycling and walking, I hear a lot about what needs to be done to get more people out into the public space. Bike lanes, well-lit paths, access to dependable and well-connected modes of transportation are all good and well. However, just over one half of our city’s population has the very specific threat of street harassment to deal with and behavior is not fixed with white paint or street cars.

Street harassment varies widely from the more benign (whistle) to the downright frightening (groups of men, in or out of cars, following you for blocks at a time). All of it, however, is an unfair invasion of a woman’s right to some personal space. One generally accepted definition, from Cynthia Grant Bowman’s 1993 paper, “Street Harassment and the Informal Ghettoization of Women” is as follows:

“Street harassment occurs when one or more strange men accost one or more women . . . in a public place which is not the woman’s/women’s worksite. Through looks, words, or gestures the man asserts his right to intrude on the woman’s attention, defining her as a sexual object, and forcing her to interact with him.”

Street harassment makes me feel that, just because I’m a woman, I forfeit an otherwise reasonable expectation to not be vocally judged for my appearance or the mode of transportation that I choose when I enter the street. It feels like streets are not for everyone; they belong to men on street corners, in cars or who, like me, are walking or bicycling from one place to another.

Who Does Our Public Space Belong To?

I live in the heart of my beloved City of Miami, and I am happy that distance or weather does not keep me from biking or walking to galleries, restaurants, my work or shops. Riding my bicycle all around Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, I am used to hearing misinformed comments from motorists, pedestrians and even bicyclists when I ride safely and legally. I have almost been hit by cars more times than I can count (knock on wood). I certainly don’t let offensively maladjusted men convince me to grab the car keys. In fact, I used to think that I was immune to street harassment, having grown almost numb to it after years as, well, a woman.

Then this afternoon, while crossing Biscayne Boulevard at a particularly difficult intersection on my bicycle (the street is a mess of holey concrete, lumpy asphalt, massive steel planks and construction debris), some construction worker pierced my intense focus with a cattle-call. I looked just in case there was something urgent, some reason for extra caution or maybe a need to stop suddenly. But there, laughing at their buddy’s success, was a group of construction workers and a police officer. I kept my cool as I said, ‘Hey Officer, that wasn’t safe! Hey, isn’t it against the law to do that?’ The response? ‘What’s your problem? We were just…’ I didn’t catch the rest. I was consumed by something else:

It is not against the law to intentionally distract the driver of a vehicle without cause or to make a woman feel unsafe in public space.

As I rode back towards my office, I thought about all the women who tell me they don’t ride because they don’t feel safe. It’s not cars they are afraid of, it’s the men who drive them, following women on foot or bicycle, calling out to them with words unwelcomed. Who wants to take the bus to work when they have to wait at a bus stop at night to get home? I know what they are talking about but I just accept it. Most men are not mean. Interacting with people who are different than I is one my top reasons for riding or walking! I do not want to accept this anymore. More and more, studies are showing that it is not all in our heads. Many men do this because they feel it is culturally and legally acceptable but studies show that this behavior is connected to rape and other forms of physical violence towards women.

I think there should be a law against street harassment. There are movements to take action, like HollaBackDC, Back Up!, Blank Noise and others. Where is the movement in Miami? If we are serious about equal access to transit and transportation options, public safety has to take a more prominent and publicly supported role. Women are 50% of the population. If we could get just 1 out of 10 of Miami-Dade women to take public transit, bicycle or walk, we could take 125,000 cars off the road. Would you support a law protecting women from street harassment?

20 Responses to Does a Woman Have Equal Right to Mobility in the City?

  1. John says:

    I support it. Fine the idiots who think they’re cool for disrespecting women.


  2. Na says:

    Women have every right to be mad at these creeps but I think women are at fault as well..I am a man that’s been around these events and seen with my own eyes woman smiling back even giving phone numbers to the creep that just cat called my point is .if it works man will keep using it…I am one to always tell my guys freinds to stop .it just make you look so low class ..


  3. Kathryn Moore says:

    Thank you both for your comments. It really has the impact of discouraging women from using their feet or bicycles for transportation. I’ve been getting more feedback through email and think your comments will help other feel comfortable thinking through this, as well.


  4. Leah says:

    Great post, Kathryn, and an important issue. I’m sure most women in this town are familiar with the feeling of “purse close, walk faster” when they pass a group of men on the street. It isn’t fair.

    On the other hand, I don’t know that street “harassment” can be made into a criminal offense, either (unless, of course, it can be proven that it … See Morecaused some kind of injury). Technically, you are free to call any one of these men assfaces before they start catcalling at you, right? Making this into a legal issue doesn’t address the real problem, which is the continued objectification of women, as well as the cultural acceptance of such behavior. If I were you, by the way, I would write a polite, but stern letter to the internal affairs of the police department to which that officer belonged and explain that respecting 51% of the population on the streets of Miami is not only good judgment, but enforcing by example.


  5. MrSunshine561 says:

    I’ve witnessed women being whistled at and called/shouted at while walking and biking, and I find it hard to believe that any woman in her right mind would even bother to give any of those low-life jerks the time of day.

    “Na” I think you’re full of (insert expletive here) and just trying to justify what is unacceptable behavior by any civilized standard.


  6. Cojo Moxie says:

    Thanks for posting this. Cat calls are distracting and downright annoying, and are one of the reasons I don’t ride more often.


  7. Keri says:

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Kathryn! I’ve been blissfully unaware of this issue as it doesn’t happened to me in Orlando.

    I suspect this is one of those social issues that is likely to be resistant to attempts to chance it with law. Law is too superficial to touch it… at best (if the cops bothered to enforce it) it’s like plucking the head off a weed, if the root is still there it’s not going to go away. Similar to the damaging beliefs at the root of our car-centric traffic culture, this issue has some deep roots. Effective culture change requires more than a surface treatment. But it is entirely possible!

    You’ve already started to do this in your research: to change something like this you have to identify the root causes, their cultural and emotional foundations, then look for key behaviors to target. Those must be replaced with new behaviors that offer some kind of reward (a better offer). The strategy for changing those behaviors really depends on understanding the culture you’re dealing with.

    I highly recommend the book: Influencer—The Power to Change Anything for inspiration. Strategic influencers have created strategies to change intractable cultural norms to dramatically reduce AIDs transmission in Thailand, spouse abuse in South Africa, illiteracy in Mexico City and turn life-long criminals and addicts into productive citizens.

    Anything is possible with the heart, the will, the intelligence and the vigilance to seek the right strategy and not get distracted by illusory quick fixes and other shiny objects ;-)


  8. tjblaze says:

    Thanks for addressing this important issue. Although I know this is a problem in all American cities, I have the sense that it is worse in Miami - more aggressive and threatening. Like others here, I don’t think the answer is legal. I think it needs to be handled on a grassroots level (almost, but not quite vigilante).

    Technology can be a great help in the effort. Particulalry if used by men who want to join in the effort to eradicate this behaviour and help women feel safer in public spaces. We need a website where we can out Miami’s Porcine Males - poor boys controlled by hormonal impulses. We film them and photograph them in the act and post to the website. When possible, we identify them and alert their mothers, sisters, wives, girlfriends and employers.

    Or, more simply, since Florida has this fabulous self-defense law, women could just shoot them and point out that they genuinely felt physically threatened. If a few of these guys took gunshot wounds from women on Miami’s streets maybe the message that this kind of behavior is unacceptable would penetrate their thick skulls.

    I am sorry you face this behavior in my home town. Please stay courageous and keep riding, walking and using transit.


  9. Mike Moskos says:

    In my limited experience with this (being male), its not really about objectifying or harassing the woman, its all about the camaraderie among the males. They’re generally trying to get the woman’s attention, not to taunt her or …… her, but to impress the other males. Just a woman dresses to impress other women, not to “entice” males.

    Unfortunately, I can’t think of a good verbal response that would eliminate the problem (and not make the situation much worse). It is a cultural thing that needs to change.


  10. HollyKearl says:

    Thank you for writing about this important topic. Yes, I would support a law against street harassment and wrote an op-ed for the Huffington Post stating as much:

    I run the website and blog Stop Street Harassment. I accept stories about street harassment from around the world and track them on google maps and my website has tons of resources. My book on the topic of street harassment will be available Aug. 30.


  11. Leah says:

    I just want to respond to one of the comments above:

    “In my limited experience with this (being male), its not really about objectifying or harassing the woman, its all about the camaraderie among the males. They’re generally trying to get the woman’s attention, not to taunt her or …… her, but to impress the other males. Just a woman dresses to impress other women, not to ‘entice’ males.”

    While I do agree with you that this a “cultural thing” that needs to change, I fail to see how kind of behavior, as you explain it, isn’t objectifying women. The woman is not a person, but rather the unwitting target of a game played by a group of males. It doesn’t acknowledge her as anything BUT an object, wouldn’t you say? Plus, that explanation doesn’t really take into account why women experience plenty of street harassment by men who are standing alone.


  12. [...] A blogger for Transit Miami asks, “ Does a woman have equal right to mobility in the city?“ [...]


  13. Hi, Kathryn,

    Thanks for your hard work toward Safe Places to Women. I´m Brazilian, 27 y/o Woman. And here, in my country, we face all those harassments you have spoken about. And those men think they are pleasing us with their disgusting and offensive gestures or words. Even though, there are some women who really feel themselves pleased for the harassments. Oh, give me a break!

    Lve your work and words, Kath

    Blessings in Sisterhood


  14. Prem says:

    I’m on the fence about a law banning street calls.
    I think it’s horrible. I’ve seen it happen many times, and it’s been done to me on occasion (it’s not like men can only harass women!) but wonder if a law will help.

    Just as it’s a law in Florida to ride 3 ft next to a bicyclist one passes in a car, a law about street calls doesn’t ensure changes in real life.

    I think we might agree that enforcing such a law would be very difficult. However I think just like in the case of bike lanes, it’s not actually the law, but educating and informing people to a problem that will help.
    Men who cat-call and want to make women feel unsafe or vulnerable will listen little to a law, but the average man who does it out of naivette and immaturity does not intend to objectify women, but rather to fulfill pathetic notions and emotions of attraction and courting.
    How can we educate these people to not only cat-calling but to all the issues about which education could cause significant changes in how people act on the streets in their every day lives?


  15. FLaws, my mother told me. says:

    I can’t have chickens because they make noise and irritate people.
    I can’t play my music loud because just the volume is offensive.
    I can’t hang my clothes in the yard because it devalues property.

    But I can still put a woman in her place. She has no right to complain if I try to make her fall off her bike, even if she gets hurt. No officer is going to give me a ticket for irritating, verbally violating, offending or devaluing her.


  16. Peter S says:

    Streets that are safe and comfortable for women are safer and more comfortable for everyone. That’s why I support women participating in and actively promoting better facilities for bicycling and walking as Kathryn does. She is more tuned in to some city problems than men are. Respect and courtesy are the essence of so many problems on our streets. If we can improve that then we’ll have real progress.

    Why did men once upon a time tip their hats to women they passed on the street? Appreciation and respect go together.


  17. Thank you for your comments, everyone.
    Please see my latest post - In the state of Illinois it will soon be illegal to harass anyone on a bicycle. While this deterrent does nothing for women walking down the street, it should have a direct, positive impact on women, men and children driving bicycles in that state. What do you think?


  18. [...] a internet achei uma outra hipótese nesse post, que fala sobre os assédios de que as mulheres são vítimas nas ruas e sobre como isso influencia [...]


  19. [...] de mulheres que utilizam a bicicleta como meio de transporte. Me deparei com a hipótese nesse blog, e agora, após fazer uma pequena pesquisa e organizar os pensamentos, volto a desenvolver o [...]


  20. [...] a $2,500 in fines. This means that beginning in 2011 (the law does not take effect until January 1) street harassment in at least one form will be a punishable offense in the 24th largest [...]


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