Every once in a while, as I am walking down Main Street, Appian Way or Any Street U.S.A. I am jarred from my deep contemplations—on food, the contradictions in our political system, what major paper I have been procrastinating from this week, and other meaningless flints of thought—by what I not-so-fondly call street harassment.

In case you have not been privy to discussions involving this subject matter before, street harassment is, according to stopstreetharassment.org, “any action or comment between strangers in public places that is disrespectful, unwelcome, threatening and/or harassing and is motivated by gender.” In other words, your good ole fashion “catcalling.”

I have been subjected to many incidents where my identity as a woman has legitimized (mostly young) men’s leering, jeering and honking from passing cars. Now, this may not seem like a large issue—it’s a compliment after all, is the often cited excuse—however, these unwanted “compliments” from unknown people serve only to restrict a fundamental right that all people have—that is, the right to walk in peace.

I know, as most of you do, that I am not alone in my experiences of dealing with unsolicited comments from strange men.

Ask almost any college-aged woman and she will more than likely have at least one story about someone commenting on her body as she is walking down the sidewalk, physically harassing her on public transportation, or being the butt of a joke from the group of men on the street corner.

According to a study published in the Christian Science Monitor, “Of the more than 800 women…surveyed in 2008 for a book about street harassment, 22 percent said they experienced it by age 12, and 87 percent by the time they were 19.”

Unfortunately, this high rate is not endemic to the United States alone, either, as was also documented by the same survey.

Harassment in Keene is, presumably, less prevalent than in a large, bustling metropolis like New York City or Boston; however, it still happens. And the fact that it still happens is at once deeply alarming and symptomatic of a larger issue in our culture—that of the oversexualization of women’s bodies and actions as well as the permissiveness and pervasiveness of harassment against women and women-identified folks.

Let me use an example. As some of you may have heard, recent news has broken about the famous World War II photograph of the sailor kissing the nurse—the oh-so-romantic poster that is often found in college dorms surrounded by photos of Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn.

What may appear at first glance to be a joyous celebration of the end of the war and a spontaneous romance between two people was actually a very physical form of street harassment.

In a new book called “The Kissing Sailor,” the identities of the unknown couple were finally confirmed and the woman who was pictured has stated in an interview with the Library of Congress that it “wasn’t my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and grabbed.”

The fact that this woman’s physical space was intruded upon by someone, and that person thought he had a right to do as he pleased in regards to that space signals directly to the acceptability of ignoring a woman’s bodily autonomy and her right to move around freely in a public space. Although this picture was photographed over 50 years ago, this problem is still very much relevant today.

Until street harassers are held accountable for their actions, both by the public and the law, the right to freedom of movement in a public space will continue to be denied to a majority of the population.

Because individual cases of street harassment are shrugged off as “no big deal,” women and girls are made to feel the effects of our culture’s dismissal of their experiences, to the point where the problem has become virtually invisible—that is, until you dig down a little deeper past the “Hey Beautifuls” and the sneering wolf whistles to the overarching theme of belittling women for being women in a public setting.


Hannah Walker can be contacted at


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