An anti-street harassment ad on Philadelphia public transit. A new report shows that about 20 percent of street harassment aimed at women happens on public transit. Photo and ad campaign by Hollaback Philly.
As a society, we tend to brush off street harassment. Individually, when a guy hollers “nice ass!” I often roll my eyes and move on. Culturally, it feels like the institutional approach to street harassment is about the same—street harassment is so commonplace that it has rarely been the topic of systematic study.
Today, organization Stop Street Harassment took a big step in raising awareness about the realities of street harassment by releasing a major study of the nature and impact of street harassment in the United States. Its results clearly show that while the vast spread of street harassment can make it seem like just part of the landscape of living, street harassment’s disturbing daily acts affect the majority of Americans and have powerful negative repercussions on who feels safe in public space. Street harassment is not ubiquitous, instead it disproportionately impacts women, low-income people, LGBT people, and people of color.
The report provides a big picture of harassment that many people experience on their own. Many people know “street harassment” as catcalling, but the report, “Unsafe and Harassed in Public Spaces,” offers a more accurate description: any unwanted interactions in public spaces between strangers that are motivated by a person’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, or gender expression and make the harassee feel annoyed, angry, humiliated, or scared. That means catcalling, but also groping, following someone, whispering homophobic slurs, and sexual assault. The report surveyed 2,000 Americans, roughly split between women and men, ages 18 and up. They also gleaned information from 10 focus groups held across the country.
Here’s the big news from the report: 65 percent of American women report experiencing some type of street harassment in their lifetimes, including 41 percent who are subjected to some kind of physical harassment, like being touched or followed. A significant number of men—25 percent—have also experienced street harassment. In many ways, people of color, lower-income people, and LGBT people are disproportionately impacted by street harassment. Street harassment begins at a young age and has a big impact on peoples’ lives: the majority of people who have been harassed have worried that the incidents would escalate into something worse. One reason why more women find street harassment upsetting than men is that many women fear small comments and catcalls could escalating to sexual assault or rape.
All graphics are from the “Unsafe and Harassed in Public Spaces” report.
When people dismiss complaints about catcalling, they miss the point. As Suzy X noted after attending the first-ever intentional conference on street harassment last summer, “It’s not as simple as men harassing women; it’s one’s special way to remind you who the bosses are in this world—and those bosses exist across gender, race and class lines.”
Harassment takes a big emotional toll. Nasty comments and being made to feel unsafe clearly impacts who feels welcome using public space. According to the new study, almost half of women and a third of men who experience harassment have changed their lives to try and avoid any hassling, including making the decision to not walk alone or to even move neighborhoods. “Street harassment keeps many harassed people from feeling safe in public spaces. It can dictate where they go, when, with whom, and how they dress,” says the report.
Some cities have recognized how their residents do not all feel comfortable using public facilities and have worked with street harassment activists to cut down on abuse. The report notes the efforts of Boston and Washington DC’s public transit agencies have made to curb harassment: the DC transit agency worked with anti-street harassment groups for the past two years to train all 4,000 of its employees to recognize and deal with street harassment and have developed a system for riders to report harassment online. In a statement about the Boston program this spring, Cara Presley-Kimball, president of the Violence Recovery program at Fenway Health, noted that the city’s transit campaign is specifically addresses harassment and violence that is targeted at LGBT people.
The new report quotes California State University, Long Beach professor Shira Tarrant on why it’s overwhelmingly men harass who people in public. Part of the answer, says Tarrant, is that boys are taught that masculinity means exerting power over other people. Telling a stranger that she looks sexy is a way to control her attention and her physical space. Tarrant writes, “Our culture sends chronic messages to boys and men that they are entitled to access other people’s bodies, invade personal space, and even to violate our most intimate realms with impunity or lack of awareness if that other person is perceived to be less powerful.”
Related Reading: Seven Stories of Ways to Stop Street Harassment.
Sarah Mirk is Bitch’s online editor. She recommends this epic “Cats Against Catcalling” mixtape.