Street Harassment
                                                                                                                                                                               last updated August 2013
 
Street harassment is verbal, physical, or psychological harm done to women in public spaces. It is a unique overlap of the offenses of assault, stalking, and sexual harassment. The majority of street harassment is done by men towards women[1] and may include unwanted commentary, leering, vulgar sexual and racist remarks, threats, catcalls, whistling, touching, groping, indecent exposure, public masturbation, and assault.[2] Harassers may follow a victim in the street, block her pathway, stand uncomfortably close, or engage in other behavior that may cause the victim to fear violence and physical harm. Street harassment has severe consequences for women’s psychological health:[3] in addition to fear or discomfort, victims may feel embarrassed, ashamed, confused, angry, disgusted, or guilty, among other responses, especially because street harassment often occurs in front of other people and thus may be additionally humiliating for the victim.[4] Furthermore, women may justifiably fear that the harassment will escalate to rape or other forms of assault.[5] 
 
Although the term “street harassment” is a relatively new one, the practice itself is long-standing.[6] The subject has not been as extensively studied as other forms of violence against women. However, there are a number of formal and informal surveys and studies on the prevalence and nature of street harassment. Many organizations that work on issues of street harassment collect first-hand accounts of street harassment from victims themselves. This anecdotal evidence gives an insight into the various forms street harassment takes and its effect on women’s daily lives. For more information, see Prevalence of Street Harassment and its Consequences.
 
A defining aspect of street harassment is the one-way nature of the interaction; even if a woman responds to harassing words or behavior, it is the perpetrator who initiates the unwelcome exchange. Most women respond strategically so as to end the interaction as quickly and safely as possible, which may include not responding at all. However, there are risks associated with whatever response a woman chooses to make. Ignoring the perpetrator may cause him to escalate his behavior or make his language more threatening,[7] while polite but succinct responses may give the perpetrator an excuse to prolong the interaction. Street harassment thus disempowers women in a multitude of ways.
 
The non-profit organization Stop Street Harassment has compiled a list of definitions of street harassment from scholars and community organizations. In 2008, Stop Street Harassment also collected definitions of street harassment from over 400 people through an informal online survey.[8] The definitions from the latter survey are particularly important as they reflect the wide range of victims’ experiences while simultaneously illustrating common threads in most instances of street harassment (such as the behavior being unwanted, invasive, reflective of a power imbalance, done by strangers, and done with the intention or having the effect of making the recipient feel very uncomfortable). Another common pattern that emerges from this research is that women reported less frequency of harassment when accompanied by boyfriends and other men.[9] Men may be less likely to harass women who are with other men. Although the protection of a male companion may be an effective way for women to ward off harassers, requiring male protection is a limitation on women’s freedom of movement and independence. It also perpetuates the myth of the “fairer sex” needing protection from men.[10]
 
Street harassment emerges out of historical social and political inequality between men and women that informs gender relations in much of the world, including the United States. The objectification and hyper-sexualization of women’s bodies in film and other media also translates to women’s bodies in public spheres: once in the public space, women’s bodies are fair game for commentary, criticism, and abuse.[11] Because street harassment is often considered to be a form of flirting--hence its more playful names such as “eve teasing” or catcalling[12]--it is very difficult to engage in a dialogue about street harassment as a form of violence or injury to women, let alone develop legislation on street harassment as a punishable offense. These alternate terms for street harassment belie the harm it does to women and reflect the acceptance of this behavior as innocent or done in good fun. Many men report that they engage in this behavior as a way to have fun with other male friends or to prove their masculinity.[13] This rationale does not reflect the adverse effect street harassment has on women. In fact, this focus on street harassment as harmless entertainment for the harasser reflects the fact that the identity of the female victim is irrelevant: all women are potential targets.
 
Especially in cases where street harassment does not involve physical touching, overt threats, or threatening behavior, it may appear to an outsider that there is no harm done to the victim. In fact, all types of street harassment can be extremely harmful to women, particularly when considered in the aggregate; many victims who have experienced street harassment report having suffered from street harassment more than once.[14] For example, some women in Cairo, Egypt, report being harassed every single day.[15] A study from 2000 of over 600 women in rural, urban, and suburban regions of the U.S. found that “for young women (ages 18 – 24) […] 30% of young women report being harassed once a week or more, with 27% report being harassed last week.”[16] Illustrating the quotidian nature of street harassment, the report noted that “for urban women, street harassment is as commonplace as going to the movies: in the last week, 15% of urban women report being harassed; 16% of urban women reported going to the movies.”[17] The constant threat of derogatory, sexually charged, or threatening remarks, as well as groping, indecent exposure, and other forms of street harassment takes its toll on women day by day. It also effectively restricts women’s movement in the public sphere, as many women feel compelled to find alternate routes through the city in order to arrive at their destinations without being forced to undergo this abuse.[18] Not only does street harassment limit women’s access to public spaces by closing off certain areas of the city, it also enforces the idea that women’s presence in all public areas is innately suspect. Once women leave their homes, street harassment serves to remind them that they are no longer entitled to their privacy and bodily autonomy. Rather, women’s bodies are available to be leered at, commented upon, and touched. Street harassment also discourages women from being alone in public, thereby further restricting their independence and mobility.[19]
 
Because many of the harms of street harassment are less visible than is the case in other crimes, this form of harassment is sometimes dismissed by those who do not feel its effects and therefore may be blind to its prevalence, severity, and damaging effects. Many men who engage in street harassment see the behavior as harmless or even complimentary. Indeed, part of the difficulty of engaging in a discussion on the perniciousness of street harassment stems from the perceived innocence of this behavior. However, even harassment that takes the form of complimenting a woman’s appearance is harassment if it is unwanted and unwelcome behavior. In her article on street harassment, Cynthia Grant Bowman discusses the rationale behind this behavior, according to the perpetrators. She cites a study in which researchers asked men why they harassed:
 
When asked why they hassled women, most of the men responded that the harassment alleviated boredom, was “fun,” and gave them a feeling of camaraderie with other men; many added, defensively, that it didn’t hurt anyone. Some said it was intended as a compliment.[20]
 
An important step in combating street harassment is raising awareness of its damaging effects on women’s mental and physical well-being. This behavior is a violation of women’s rights and should not be tolerated or trivialized.


[1] “Most perpetrators of all forms of sexual violence against women [surveyed] were male. For female rape victims, 98.1% reported only male perpetrators. Additionally, 92.5% of female victims of sexual violence other than rape reported only male perpetrator. M.C. Black et al., The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010 Summary Report. Atlanta: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011. Accessed August 1, 2013, http://www.ihollaback.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/NISVS_Report2010.pdf, 24.
 
[2] Although both men and women are targets of street harassment, women are the most frequent targets and the perpetrators of street harassment are most frequently men. LGBTQ individuals are also targeted. Hollaback. “Hollaback Research Page.” Accessed August 2, 2013.http://www.ihollaback.org/resources/research/. See also a 2012 survey by Hollaback Poland that found that 85% of women and 44% of men had been victims of street harassment. The survey also found that 78% of instances of harassment reported by respondents were at the hands of a man or men. Accessed August 2, 2013, http://www.ihollaback.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Harassment-in-public-spaces-in-Poland_Roszak-and-Gober1.pdf.
 
[3] For example, at least 14 women committed suicide in Bangladesh in 2010 as a result of unbearable sexual harassment in public. As an effort to help girls escape harassment, some families force their daughters into early marriages, a practice that can do severe physical and psychological damage to girls and young women. Salim Mia, “Bangladesh ‘Eve teasing’ takes a terrible toll,” BBC News, June 11, 2010, accessed August 1, 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10220920.
 
[4] Kavita B. Ramakrishnan, “Inconsistent Legal Treatment of Unwanted Sexual Advances: A Study of the Homosexual Advance Defense, Street Harassment, and Sexual Harassment in the Workplace.” 26 Berkeley J. Gender L. & Just. 291 (2011): 318. HeinOnline. accessed 30 July 2013.
 
[5] Ramakrishnan, “Inconsistent Legal Treatment,” 318. See also Cynthia Grant Bowman, “Street Harassment and the Informal Ghettoization of Women,” 106 Harv. L. Rev. 517 (1993): 536: “[…] rapists often harass women on the street and violate their personal space in order to determine which women are likely to be easy targets - a practice called ‘rape-testing.’ Because potential rapists frequently select their victims by looking for women who appear vulnerable to assault, they may approach a potential victim and ‘test’ her by a variety of means, including making lewd or insinuating remarks, to see if she can be intimidated.If the target reacts in a passive fashion to the harassment, the rapist may assume that she will probably not fight back, and he is more likely to rape her” (citations omitted).
[6] Bowman, “Street Harassment,” footnote 7.
 
[7] See Bowman, “Street Harassment,” 569-70. “Such a shielding response also appears to provide little protection for women. Instead, a failure to respond usually leads to further criticism, taunts such as “What's the matter? Stuck up?,” and possibly physical attack.”
[8] “Public Interactions and Street Harassment,” Stop Street Harassment,September-October 2008, accessed August 2, 2013, http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Kearl_2008Survey_DefineHarassment.pdf. Respondents were asked “How do you define street harassment?”
 
[9] Ibid.
 
[10] Bowman, “Street Harassment,” 540.
 
[11] Bowman, “Street Harassment,” 526; Laniya, Olatokunbo Olukemi. “Street Smut: Gender, Media, and the Legal Power Dynamics of Street Harassment, or “Hey Sexy” and Other Verbal Ejaculations,” 14 Colum. J. Gender & L. 91 (2005): 103, accessed July 30, 2013.
 
[12]United Nations Economic and Social Council, Integration of the Human Rights of Women and the Gender Perspective: Violence Against Women, U.N. doc. E/CN.4/2003/75 (2003): par. 48. http://www.unhchr.ch/Huridocda/Huridoca.nsf/0/d90c9e2835619e79c1256ce00058c145/$FILE/G0310100.pdf.
 
[13] Bowman, “Street Harassment,” 542-543.
 
[14] Amaya N. Roberson, “Anti-Street Harassment,” Off Our Backs, (May-June 2005): 48.
 
[15] Cynthia Johnston, “Two-thirds of Egyptian men harass women?” Reuters, July 17, 2008, accessed August 2, 2013,http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/07/17/us-egypt-harassment-idUSL1732581120080717.
 
[16]“Oxygen/Markle Pulse Poll Finds: Harassment of Women on the Street Is Rampant; 87% of American Women Report Being Harassed on the Street By a Male Stranger,” Oxygen/Markle Pulse Survey, The Free Library, June 22, 2000, accessed August 2, 2013, http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Oxygen%2FMarkle+Pulse+Poll+Finds%3A+Harassment+of+Women+on+the+Street+Is...-a062870396.
 
[17] Ibid.
 
[18] Ibid. See also Hollaback Ottawa, Our city, our space, our voice: A report on street harassment in Ottawa, July 2013, accessed August 2, 2013, http://ottawa.ihollaback.org/files/2013/07/Our-city-our-space-our-voice.pdf, finding that 32% of respondent victims of street harassment “had changed their route or final destination because they were being harassed.”
 
[19] Street harassment reduces women’s safety in public spaces. See the 2012 Gallup poll, “Women Feel Less Safe Than Men in Many Developed Countries,” accessed July 30, 2013, http://www.gallup.com/poll/155402/women-feel-less-safe-men-developed-countries.aspx.
 
[20] Bowman, “Street Harassment,” 543.