Street Harassment: 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 harassed feel annoyed, angry, humiliated or scared.
If you’ve spent any time in a big city, it’s very likely you’ve seen someone experience street harassment or experienced it yourself. It can happen no matter what you’re wearing, who you’re with, or where you are. Although people try to claim the opposite, street harassment is not a compliment. It’s humiliating, degrading, and often makes the victim feel afraid. It’s a form of gender violence, and a human rights violation.
In a 2,000 person, nationally representative survey conducted by Stop Street Harassment, a nonprofit organization dedicated to documenting and ending gender-based street harassment, it was found that at least 65% of women have experienced some form of harassment, with 57% of women having experienced verbal harassment. The statistics for men are much less, with 25% of men having experienced harassment.
It is clear that street harassment has become pervasive in our society. Only 14% of women say they have experienced street harassment once, whereas 78% of women say that they experience it sometimes. Furthermore, 68% of women and 49% of men that had experienced harassment were somewhat afraid of escalation. Even more concerning is the fact that street harassment begins at a young age. For close to 50% of people, they first experienced it at age 17. Furthermore, we can’t look at this solely in the gender binary. Statistics prove that LGBTQ individuals experience up to 20% more verbal harassment on the streets than heterosexual individuals. In addition, certain races are targeted more heavily than others. Black respondents reported experiencing up to 10% more verbal and physical harassment than white respondents.
So what do all these big, scary statistics mean? They point to the disturbing normalization of street harassment. Think about that. It is now normal to harass a stranger on the street. These statistics also highlight the prejudice that motivate this harassment. It disproportionately affects women, people of lower income, LGBTQ-identifying individuals, and people of color. Clearly, street harassment is not meant as a compliment- it is intended to intimidate and humiliate.
It’s easy to brush off street harassment as no big deal if you haven’t experienced it. After all, one looking at these statistics might find it difficult to imagine how it would actually feel to be cat-called. But for women who have to deal with it on a daily basis, it’s emotionally taxing. One Latina woman living in New York City tells the story of a time she was the recipient of an unwelcome cat-call simply walking down the street drinking coffee. “The simple fact that I couldn’t even do something as mundane and normal as taking a sip of coffee from a straw without having a man make a completely inappropriate sexual comment is ridiculous on so many levels.” Another woman spoke of the time she was volunteering in a park, and the leader of the project told her to “move over a little please- you wouldn’t want me to accidentally grab your butt! If I’m going to do that, I’ll do it on purpose, right?” For these and many women, street harassment is constant, it’s inescapable, and incredibly difficult to get away from.
The dominant issue with street harassment is that it perpetuates the idea that women do not have ownership of their bodies, even on the streets. This idea is a part of a larger “culture that 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 person is perceived to be less powerful.” (BitchMedia) Not only does it denigrate women to being at the service of men, it also takes an extreme emotional and psychological toll. A 2008 study in the Journal of Social Justice Research found that street harassment was positively related to women objectifying themselves, as well as linked to an increase in rates of depression, anxiety and eating disorders as well as lower academic achievement. By telling women that catcalling is “just a compliment” and they should be flattered, we are reinforcing the message that women “exist to sate the sexual urges of men who feel entitled to [their] attention.” (PaganActivist)
If this problem feels extensive, that’s because it is. It would be impossible to prevent every single instance of street harassment, because there will always be people who believe that they have the right to comment on and even physically violate other people’s bodies. However, the way to fight against street harassment is to educate yourselves, educate others, and talk about it. “By accepting the status quo we not only harm the targets of street harassment, who as human beings deserve the right to move around in public without fear- it’s also damaging to society as a whole.” (Greatist). It creates a culture in which gender-motivated violence and discrimination is viewed as acceptable. By speaking up about the issue, we can empower targets and bystanders to deem harassment “not okay.” When we use our voices, we can fight back and call out catcalling.