The street harassment that plagues U.S. women in public spaces has far-reaching consequences for those women’s personal lives, according to new survey data released by the international nonprofit Hollaback!.
The survey, which polled more than 4,800 people living in the United States, found that the threat of street harassment results in a heightened level of fear and anxiety that can end up distracting women when they’re at work or school. It also leads many people to change their behavior in ways they otherwise wouldn’t have.
Among respondents under 40 years old, 85 percent said they have taken a different route home in order to avoid potential harassment, while 72 percent said they have chosen a different mode of transportation. Nearly 70 percent said they decided against attending a social event, like a party or a movie. Sixty-six percent said they felt pressured to change how they dressed. Thirty-five percent said they’ve either moved or considered moving to a different house to get away from the harassment.
Some individuals even experience professional consequences. Thirty-four percent of respondents said that dealing with street harassment has made them late to school or work. About eight percent have resigned from a job because of harassment.
“We hear stories of street harassment every day — and even so this data shocked us. The prevalence of street harassment in the U.S. is profound,” Debjani Roy, the deputy director of Hollaback!, said in a statement that accompanied the findings.
This isn’t the first evidence to suggest that Americans are routinely being harassed in public. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “non-contact unwanted sexual experiences” — which is a category that includes catcalls from strangers — is the most prevalent form of sexual violence experienced by both men and women. Last year, research released by the advocacy group Stop Street Harassment estimated that 65 percent of American women have experienced unwanted attention from strangers on the street.
Hollaback! released its new data to coincide with this year’s International Anti-Street Harassment Week, an annual effort to raise awareness about what activists say is a widespread yet often unacknowledged form of gender-based violence.
Some of the most pervasive forms of street harassment, like telling women they’re beautiful or asking them to smile, are often assumed to be harmless. Many people don’t understand what’s wrong with giving women a compliment.
But the vast majority of people who are on the receiving end of this attention don’t see it this way; in fact, according to Hollaback!’s new survey, just three percent of respondents under the age of 40 agreed that these interactions are complimentary. Instead, previous qualitative research has found that women report feeling angry, annoyed, disgusted, nervous, and scared when they’re the subject of catcalls. They’re often concerned the situation will escalate into something more threatening.
Indeed, it’s not uncommon for women to encounter violence after they turn down men’s romantic advances. There are well-documented instances of street harassment resulting in physical attacks against women. One woman in Detroit, for instance, was shot and killed last fall after refusing to give her phone number to a man on the street.
When you think about street harassment on the spectrum of violence against women, it becomes clear that women are expected to police a lot of different areas of their lives in order to avoid becoming a victim. Just like the people who have experienced street harassment end up taking a different bus, wearing different clothing, or even skipping out on parties, there are a lot of ways that women are also told to change their behavior to prevent rape. Women are told to dress more modestly, drink less alcohol, travel in groups, and carry a gun in order to avoid sexual assault. There’s an entire industry dedicated to anti-rape apps that women can download.
Feminist activists say that’s a central aspect of “rape culture,” a term that refers to the deeply-ingrained aspects of society that allow sexual assault to flourish. By placing the weight of prevention on women themselves, women’s lives quickly become consumed by constant efforts to keep themselves safe.
“One of the ways that rape is used as a tool to control people is by limiting their behavior,” Rebecca Nagle, one of the co-directors of an activist group called FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture that challenges the societal norms around sexual assault, told ThinkProgress in an interview last year. “As a woman, I’m told not to go out alone at night, to watch my drink, to do all of these things. That way, rape isn’t just controlling me while I’m actually being assaulted — it controls me 24/7.”