The Disturbing Data Behind America’s Street Harassment Epidemic

NYC protester against street harassment CREDIT: HOLLABACK!
NYC protester against street harassment CREDIT: HOLLABACK!

For the majority of American women, public spaces aren’t necessarily safe.

Sixty five percent of women have experienced street harassment at some point in their lives, according to a new national report conducted by the advocacy group Stop Street Harassment. And 41 percent of those women have experienced physically aggressive forms of harassment, including being followed, touched, flashed, or forced to do something sexual. Men — and particularly male individuals who identify as LGBT — also experience street harassment, although at a lower rate than women do:

CREDIT: Stop Street Harassment
CREDIT: Stop Street Harassment

According to the report, which relied on interviews with 10 different focus groups across the country, men are overwhelmingly the harassers of both men and women. The majority of respondents reported that they’ve been repeatedly harassed by the same men.

Some of the most pervasive forms of street harassment, like telling women to smile or whistling at women, are often perceived as compliments. It’s difficult for some people to understand why women wouldn’t welcome being told that they’re attractive.

But the activists who work to put an end to this type of gender-based harassment point out that it’s actually based on a damaging culture that disempowers women. It’s unfair to exert pressure on women to interact with men in a certain way, or to assume women will be receptive to every sexual advance made toward them. The majority of women report feeling angry, annoyed, disgusted, nervous, and scared when they’re on the receiving end of catcalls, and they’re often concerned it will escalate into something more threatening.

Holly Kearl, the founder of Stop Street Harassment and the author of the new report, told ThinkProgress that challenging street harassment is a critical part of ensuring equality in our country — particularly since it disproportionately impacts the lives of women, LGBT individuals, and people of color.

“At an individual level, I urge everyone to pay more attention to this issue: listen to and share stories, take this topic seriously and do not dismiss street harassment as a compliment, harmless, or the fault of the harassed person, and involve men in the discussions and solutions,” Kearl said.

Kearl, who conducted her master’s thesis on street harassment several years ago, isn’t the only researcher who’s uncovered these type of findings. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “non-contact unwanted sexual experiences” are the most prevalent form of sexual violence for both men and women in the U.S.

Lately, there have been some creative efforts to combat this issue. Activists have rallied during International Anti-Street Harassment Week to draw more attention to the cause. Last fall, a street art project began plastering images on public walls with messages that are intended to speak directly to harassers, like “Women do not owe you their time and conversation” and “Stop telling me to smile.” And activists in New York City partnered with local lawmakers to develop a smartphone app that allows people to report incidences of street harassment in real time. Some of those efforts appear to be paying off — the media coverage of the topic has steadily increased over the past several years. Still, there’s more work to be done. The report includes a long list of potential recommendations for local government leaders, law enforcement, transit agencies, businesses, and educators. And Kearl pointed out that it’s critical to start talking more about these issues with youth, especially because half of the Americans who report street harassment had already started experiencing the harassment by the time they turned 17.

“Most youth have no idea what to do about it and many don’t even know it is wrong because it seems so normal,” she said. “In nearly all of the 10 focus groups across the country, participants suggested educational workshops and activities with youth as a way to try to break the cycle of harassment and end its social acceptability.”