Stand-Up against street harassment campaign photograph visually representing street harassment. PHOTO COURTESY: L’ORÉAL PARIS

It was 1 a.m. Chantal Miller, 19, had just two blocks to walk to her car. 

She’d finished her shift at The Derrick Gin Mill and Kitchen in Calgary, when two men behind her started yelling, “Hey girl, what’s up! Come hangout with us.” She picked up her pace on the sidewalk, and the men began following her. Noticing they’d sped up, Miller sprinted the rest of the way to her car with her heart racing.

“That was definitely like the worst experience I’ve ever had, especially just not feeling safe walking to my car and after that I started carrying a knife with me,” says Miller. “I needed to be able to defend myself. Like what if my car wasn’t in a parkade where there’s cameras? What if I parked in an outdoor parkade; would they have attacked me?”

Calgary Coun. Druh Farrell of Ward 7, recently made a notice of motion which aims to fill-in the “grey areas” of street harassment in Calgary, following the lead of Vancouver, Edmonton and London, Ont., who have already put in place bylaws to address the issue.

Miller’s experience is just one of many women’s stories about street harassment. Street harassment is any unwanted, disrespectful, threatening or violent behaviour. It can be verbal, such as catcalling, or physical interactions between strangers in a public domain.

Chantal Miller outside of her workplace Blowers & Grafton, a Halifax street food and bar downtown Calgary. PHOTO COURTESY: CHANTAL MILLER

Farrell made the notice of motion Dec. 1, 2020, asking city administration to review the current bylaws related to public safety through Gender-Based Analysis Plus and identify gaps with respect to street harassment.

“What I’m asking for is our administration to look at the issue and come back in a year with some recommendations and wording for a bylaw,” says Farrell.

Currently, harassment is categorized under the criminal code, but only “physical assault” or “someone exposing themselves” fall under this category. 

“We don’t have bylaws to penalize catcalling, name calling or propositioning,” says Farrell.

“It’s something that has been identified by constituents that street harassment remains an issue even in this day and age, and it’s really one of the last areas where people feel comfortable harassing others in public,” she adds. “It would be unacceptable for someone to harass a coworker, [it] would be a firing offence. But in public spaces, it happens every day.”

Although catcalling is often shrugged off, it’s not funny or inconsequential. Maria Delgreco, a health communication researcher in Washington, D.C. found that street harassment was linked to increasing anxiety and depression as well as negatively impacting sleep quality.

Based on the 252 university-aged women who participated in her study, Delgreco concluded, “Our results show that street harassment is not just a trivial annoyance but rather a public health issue that should be further explored.”

Teaming up

When the cosmetics giant L’Oréal Paris surveyed women about their concerns, they found women all over the globe reported their greatest concerns are about harassment.

Taking the results of that survey, L’Oréal teamed up with Hollaback!, a global, people-powered movement dedicated to ending harassment. Hollaback!, which began in 2005 in New York City, means to “holla” or yell back at the harasser. Though their tactics of dealing with street harassment do not necessarily revolve around this idea, the essence is to take a stand against the negative behaviour and give women a platform to share their stories in a safe space. 

Emily May (right), founder of Hollaback! with L’Oréal Paris’ spokesperson, Aja Naomi King (left), March 8, 2019, in Toronto, on the red carpet at the Women of Worth event where the announcement of Stand Up Against Street Harassment. PHOTOS COURTESY: RYAN EMBERLEY/L’ORÉAL PARIS

Emily May, cofounder and executive director of Hollaback! has first-hand experience with street harassment. 

“My friend, Sam Carter, who grew up in Richmond, Va., like I did. Went to NYU like I did. He was just like ‘Emily, you live in this whole different New York City than I do.’ And I was like, ‘I do’.”

In an email, May describes one of “hundreds of times” she has experienced street harassment, where a man catcalled her in Greenwich Village, on the west side of Manhattan. He called her “baby” and told her “I want to fuck the shit out of you” to which she said nothing and kept walking.

“Throughout college I was harassed two, three, sometimes four times a day. I shut up.  I pretended like it didn’t hurt. I taught myself to be silent.  I thought that if I let their words in – and I let myself really feel the hurt – that it meant I wasn’t strong. But what happened is that street harassment started slowly chipping away at me. And part of me believed it was my fault,” says May in the email.

May, along with a group of her friends, created Hollaback! after hearing a story of a young woman named Thao Nygen, who was on the subway and had seen a man masturbating across from her.

“She took a photo of him with the intention of taking it to the police, the police ignored her and made it to the front cover of the local Daily News, which is a tabloid here in New York. We were just inspired by her ability to, by sharing her story, really create a conversation around it,” says May.

Educating allies

The Centre for Sexuality is a Calgary community-based organization, delivering programs and services to normalize sexuality and sexual health, it has also taken on street harassment through a few programs.

“We have a program called WiseGuyz with 14-year-old boys and part of the work of that program is to create male allies, for men to understand their role and then to also have them stand up when they see something, to do something,” says Pam Krause, president and CEO for the Centre of Sexuality. Krause has a background in political science and was deeply involved in pro-choice work many years ago before going on to work with the Centre for Sexuality.

“So in the example with WiseGuyz, it would be having an awareness of the impact of street harassment on people, the impact of misogyny and sexism on people. And then lastly, and most importantly in some ways, is then get them to speak up and say something when someone else does it,” says Krause.

The goal of the program is to dismantle the misogyny where men feel the right to catcall a woman, and educate young boys about the issue. Catcalling is whistling, yelling or commenting in a sexual nature towards another person in a public space.

“We work with both youth and adult populations on things like bystander awareness, so people do have some of the tools that they need to be able to stand up, of course in safe ways,” says Krause. “But to be able to stand up and say this isn’t actually what we believe is okay. Because if we don’t have a critical mass of people saying we don’t believe this is okay, guess what, the bad guys think it’s okay.” 

In another of Delgreco’s research articles, she examines the motivations behind street harassment. The results suggested that men expect positive reactions and they feel they have the freedom to act as they choose, although the survey revealed that college men who perceive themselves to have “lower power” than women were most likely to engage in street harassment.

Delgreco states in the research article, “There were significant differences in how men and women viewed motivations for street harassment, with men reporting the motivations to be more positive such as to demonstrate affection or to have fun, while women reported a mixture of positive and negative motivations by men such as the attempt to control women’s behaviour.”

Local actions

In Calgary, street harassment or catcalling of young women continues to affect the way women act in public and have an impact on their self-confidence.

Next Gen Men — a team of staff, volunteers, board members and experts focused on changing how the world sees, acts and thinks about masculinity — took-on the issue of street harassment in July of 2017

On their website, Next Gen Men says, “We have just finished sorting through catcalls submitted from more than 100 Calgary women and recording them verbatim with a group of our male friends and volunteers. It was a very uncomfortable experience for us, to say the least.”

Partnering with Terra Lopez, a California-based artist, they brought the “THIS IS WHAT IT FEELS LIKE” project to Calgary. The project is an auditory art exhibit to provide attendees with the experience of being on the receiving end of catcalling.

The impactful video on the THIS IS WHAT IT FEELS LIKE website features participants talking about their experience after walking through the art exhibit and how it made them feel. One of the participants in the video says, “It’s disheartening to know that these are real experiences that people have.”

Katherine Ryan, a 26-year-old sales and growth lead at Mikata Health, a healthcare tech startup in Calgary, has been on the receiving end of catcalling since she was about 16-years-old. 

“I think having that attention at that time in that way really did not do a good number on my self-esteem and had me, kind of, I don’t want to say pointed me in the wrong direction as to where to find attention, but it definitely did not point me in the right direction. So I think it was detrimental in that sense,” says Ryan.

Katherine Ryan, a 26-year-old Calgary woman, says she has experienced catcalling since she was 16-years-old. PHOTO COURTESY: KATHERINE RYAN

It is not uncommon for street harassment to start young. When Miller recalled the first time she was catcalled, she says, “Oh man, definitely like under 18.”

Alberta addresses street harassment through their public safety services/information on preventing violence against women and girls.

Current initiatives

A 2018 study conducted by Ipsos showed that worldwide the number one issue facing women and girls as selected by people that took this survey was sexual harassment.

When Ipsos and L’Oréal Paris teamed up to conduct further research on street harassment, the statistics were “eye opening” finding that 78 per cent of all women have been sexually harassed in a public space, while in Canada the number is higher, at 84 per cent.

Similarly, according to a 2018 survey done by Statistics Canada, 32 per cent of women, or 4.9 million individuals in Canada over 15-years-old, have experienced some form of unwanted sexual behaviour in public spaces. 

The women in that survey reported experiencing more incidents of street harassment in the core of major cities such as Calgary, Ottawa, Toronto, Regina, Vancouver and Victoria. 

“I know I’ve experienced it,” says Zagari, “I think as I took on the project,  it was eye opening for me to see the sheer statistics, that it was one of the most selected issues among participants that are facing. Like one of the most important issues facing women and girls.”

Taking that knowledge of the issues women and girls face, L’Oreal Paris partnered with Hollaback! to create a global campaign called Stand Up Against Street Harassment, which launched Mar. 8, 2020, on International Women’s Day.

May says, “They wanted to take on this issue of harassment but harassment has the challenge of people feeling like there is no solution, you know, and at the time plenty of folks had come forward and shared their stories on MeToo, so they wanted something that really gave people some sort of action or step that they could take to address harassment. We had been providing bystander intervention training since about 2012, and so they had come to one of our trainings and they were interested in partnering, and then we took it from there.” 

Addressing the issue of street harassment, the Stand Up campaign aims to train one million people globally on how to deal with street harassment through bystander and victim training and to raise awareness of the issue.

“Our goals in Canada would be 48,000 to 50,000 and then globally one million by the end of 2022, and then obviously the goal of awareness is really important for us too,” says Zagari. “We want to sensitize people to the issues, so we want, you know, as much awareness surrounding it as possible and surrounding the stats.” 

Calgarians can access this training online, with the option of being educated as an active bystander, to intervene safely when they see it happening, or for when it occurs to them.

Raising awareness of the issue and providing training to people across the globe is a step in the right direction to combat street harassment.

The Stand Up training uses a variety of tools that people can use whether the harassment is happening to them or if they see it happening. If it is happening to you, the training suggests to say something to the harasser if you feel safe enough to do so, ask someone else for help around you and to consider taking a photo or video of what is happening.

However, the bystander training uses different tactics to stand up to street harassment, such as the 5 D’s, which were created by Hollaback! in response to street harassment: delay, delegate, document, direct and distract.

The 5 D’s can be used alone, or in some kind of combination, which will allow people to safely step in when they see it happening.

“I think everyone should kind of have the right to be able to go about their day without having to worry about unwanted sexual comments in any way shape or form,” says Zagari.

Moving forward

Now 26, Ryan takes a different approach when she is catcalled, “I shoot mean glances, or I just ignore them…. I try not to give it two thoughts. If it’s really bothering me I’ll probably swear at them, but usually I just try to ignore them, because they probably want some kind of reaction.”

However, the guidelines made by the Stand-Up campaign and Hollaback! suggest there are different ways of dealing with street harassment, dependent on what makes the individual feel the most safe.

Miller has taken a different approach to dealing with street harassment, “My biggest thing is like stand up for yourself, like I wish I kind of learned that at more of a young age.”

Due to working in the bar industry and leaving late at night, Miller has now taken self-defense courses, including security training and Muay Thai at a UFC gym. 

“I feel like I can protect myself now. So for me it’s not that scary, but definitely when I was younger it was just like, I got into the industry when I was 18,” says Miller, now 24-years-old. 

“Especially like being in the industry, catcalling and guys giving you unwanted attention and hitting on you, you think it’s normal, and you think you need to deal with it, and I realized that you don’t have to take it.”