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.
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?
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