When Reston resident Holly Kearl spoke to students last week about the catcalls, leering and gestures women may face when walking in public, she heard one word over and over again in response.
“Creepy,” said Kearl, 29. “They all called it creepy.”
But this perception is actually what Kearl has devoted her professional life to changing.
“It’s not just creepy,” Kearl said. “It’s really harassment.”
Since writing her master’s thesis on the topic five years ago, Kearl has seen ballooning interest in her cause, to end what she formally calls street harassment.
“I saw there was this great need for information,” about the topic, Kearl said. So she decided to continue to oblige.
In the next few years, she published a web site (www.stopstreetharassment.org), and a book, Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe & Welcoming for Women. Last year, she organized the first day of awareness on the subject of street harassment. That was March 20, 2011.
“People were really excited,” Kearl said. “They wanted a week.”
So, this week is Meet Us on the Street: International Anti-Street Harassment Week. Kearl is founder and coordinator, but people attracted to the cause have organized awareness events in at least seven countries. Local events are taking place at various locations in Washington.
Kearl, who works at the American Association of University Women, continues to speak widely about the topic – even to teens, as she did last week to Matt Ravenstahl’s art students at South Lakes. Following her talk, Ravenstahl asked the students to create art that depicted street harassment, suggested ways to be involved with the cause, or envisioned a world without street harassment. Kearl is displaying the artwork at events this week.
With the class, Kearl dispelled a few myths for the students.
“Most harassers aren’t trying to get a date,” as some students assumed, she said. “They are trying to intimidate, humiliate or show off.”
Kearl said she was moved as some female students shared their experiences with her.
“It was really sad to hear how some of the girls have limited their time in public because they’ve experienced this harassment,” Kearl said. “To me that is why it is a human rights issue. Women need equal access to public spaces.”