Welcome to today’s edition of The V Word


Street Harassment, has this happened to you? It has happened to me.

One day I was walking in the Fan area, heading toward Carytown. A male riding a bike comes up alongside me. He starts making sexually suggestive comments to me. I try to ignore him and keep walking. He asks me for a date. I say no and keep walking. I turn down a street and he follows me. So then, he starts yelling obscenities at me for not agreeing to go on a date with him. He continues following me several blocks until I get to a business and go into one to ask for help. Only then does he ride away.

In case you are wondering where I am going with this, I am going to talk about street harassment.  And I know I will get a resounding “YES”, from every woman and trans-woman to this question: Have you been the subject of street harassment such as forced conversations, cat calls, sexually suggestive comments and obscene gestures? Did the offender keep it up even when you said no or tried to walk away?
Some people have asked me, what exactly counts as street harassment? And is it just on the street? The advocacy movement defines it as any action or comment between strangers in public places that is disrespectful, unwelcome, threatening and/or harassing, and is motivated by gender, gender expression or sexual orientation. And no it does not just happen on the street. It can happen in stores, college campuses, concert venues, etc. Any place where a person is harassing you publicly. And to top off an already bad experience of being harassed in public, women or trans women are either told it’s a compliment and/or are often blamed for its occurrence because of their gender, their gender expression, what they were wearing, where they were walking or the time of night. And, amazingly enough, women and trans-women are often told that males cannot help themselves. Now that argument always shocks me, because if men can not control themselves, there are a lot of things we ought to limiting them from. And another thing happens, many people minimize street harassment thinking that since it doesn’t involve touching, it is therefore less dangerous. Not so. It is just as dangerous as other forms of harassment and interpersonal violence. And it can escalate to stalking and assault.

Remember my story above? The offender did not stop bothering or following me until I got to a business section and went into a store.  Street harassment is a human rights issue because it limits women’s and trans women’s ability to be in public as often or as comfortably as most men.

So to review, street harassment includes:

  • Verbal harassment – like yelling sexually suggestive comments,
  • Up-skirt photos – which is taking photos up women’s clothing or down their shirts.
  • Indecent exposure – and yes you flashers listening – that means your junk specifically,
  • Following people,
  • Groping – which is grabbing, touching, fondling any part of the body.
  • Obstructing paths – which is preventing someone from getting by you so you can harass them in all the ways I just listed.

So listeners, has any of this happened to you? What can you do? Or listeners, any of you doing any of the above?

In Virginia, there are 5 laws that may apply to the various forms of street harassment.
1. Disorderly conduct (this one is rarely used but can apply in some circumstances) – and is a Class 1 misdemeanor with 12 months of jail and/or $2500 fine.
2. Profane swearing and intoxication – and since street harassers are often mixing alcohol with their abuse, this one can apply – and is a class 4 misdemeanor with a fine of $250
3. Slander and libel – This law, interestingly enough, focuses specifically on banning people from falsely and derogatorily speaking about a chaste female’s character. While evaluating women based on their chastity is outdated, this statute can be used when women are called derogatory names.
4. Soliciting Prostitution – soliciting for the purpose of prostitution is illegal. If a street harasser solicits sexual activity from you or yells “how much”, you can report him or her. This is a Class 1 misdemeanor and may result in jail time of up to 12 months and/or a fine of $2500 – the penalty is higher if the person solicited is a minor.
5. Unlawful Assembly – it is illegal for 3 or more people to gather for the purposes of doing something through force or violence that is likely to jeopardize public safety, peace or order and that makes someone else fear for his, her or their safety. So, if at least 3 people are engaging in street harassment together and they make any kind of threat of force against you or make you fear for your safety, you can report the persons. The penalty is a class 1 misdemeanor with up to 1 year in jail and/or a fine of $2500

Need help or more information? Local rape crisis and domestic violence shelters can provide services. To find a center closest to you, you can call the Virginia Family Violence & Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-838-8238.

The V Word is recorded in the studios of WRIR 97.3 LP, read and produced by me, Carol Olson.