I’ve lived in New York City for a year now, but it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I experienced one of the final rites of passage on the way to full-fledged New Yorker status: I was groped on the subway. The train was crowded, and the man beside me saw this as a golden opportunity to press his body up close to mine and lay his hand across my rear end. He was a complete stranger who apparently believed he had the right to touch my body without my consent.
This was my first groping, but it certainly wasn’t my first experience with street harassment. As a woman walking in public, I have been honked at, hooted at, barked at, meowed at, whistled at, leered at, screamed at, lunged at, and told by a multitude of male strangers that they would, in so many terms, like to “tap that.”
Unfortunately, my experience is hardly unique. A staggering 80 to 99 percent of women report being the targets of aggressive and unwanted attention from male strangers, and more than 50 percent of them report having been followed, touched, or grabbed in the street. This is, in a word, appalling. It is also, according to scientific research, bad for everybody — not just the targets of harassment, but even the people who casually witness the interaction.
I’ve chosen to share my personal experience here, which can be hard to do. But if we want to reduce the pervasiveness of street harassment, talking — about what it is, why it matters, and how and why to shift our cultural ethics — is key. Luckily, these conversations are happening more and more, demonstrating that it’s possible to change the way we perceive street harassment — and, hopefully, to lessen its prevalence and impact.
Harasser Says What? — Definitions and Consequences of Harassment
Street harassment is a form of sexual harassment that, according to the nonprofit Stop Street Harassment, involves “unwelcome words and actions by unknown persons in public places which are motivated by gender and invade a person’s physical and emotional space in a disrespectful, creepy, startling, scary, or insulting way.” According to Collective Action for Safe Spaces, “Public sexual harassment occurs on a continuum starting with words, stalking and unwanted touching, which can lead to more violent crimes like rape, assault and murder.” Men are much more likely to be harassers than women, and adult women are the most frequent targets, followed by LGBTQ individuals.
While street harassment by definition occurs in public places, its purpose and effects are similar to any other form of harassment: Researchers and cultural theorists say harassment is about asserting power, and it communicates to targets that they are not safe. The consequences of these interactions are striking. One University of Connecticut study found people who experience street harassment are prone to greater body shame and preoccupation with physical appearance. Other research has found targets of street harassment demonstrate heightened fears of rape. Sexual harassment and objectification in general are associated with an increase in depression, the limiting of social interactions, and even the impairment of cognitive function in targets of harassment, while street harassment in particular tends to promote the internalization of shame.
These psychological effects can have serious repercussions not just on a target’s psyche, but also in her or his day-to-day life: As many as ten percent of women report quitting a job in order to avoid a harassment-heavy commute, and many women think about harassment (and how to avoid it) every time they go outside. For a comparison of the ways in which men and women (in a small sample size) think about and attempt to protect themselves from sexual harassment and assault, check out the video below. Spoiler alert: Women tend to think about it all the time; men don’t.
Just the Way It Is? — Why the Status Quo Isn’t Good Enough
Because street harassment is so common, it can easily be perceived as simply a fact of life, its rampancy — and consequences — swept under the cultural rug. Many men view street harassment as harmless or even desired by women (“It’s a compliment!”), while most women resign themselves to its occurrence. But accepting the status quo not only harms 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.
Research suggests street harassment promotes a phenomenon called “bystander sexism,” a catchphrase for the fact that female witnesses of harassment report heightened feelings of negativity and aversion toward men. In other words, a cat-call directed at one woman effectively demeans all female passersby. This also complicates interactions between sexes — men who don’t harass women may find that the way they’re perceived is (understandably) influenced by women’s experiences with other, harassment-prone males.
But perhaps the most pernicious social effect of street harassment is that it creates a cultural environment in which gender-based violence and discrimination is seen as OK. This phenomenon is often referred to as rape culture, or a culture that condones physical and emotional violence against women and in which people assume that sexual violence is a fact of life — rather than (to quote Transforming a Rape Culture) “the expression of values and attitudes that can change.”
And that’s the good news: If the example of workplace harassment is any indication, things can change. Fifty years ago, sexual harassment in the workplace was considered status quo, and targets had little to no resources with which to fight back (see: any episode of Mad Men). Today, targets of workplace harassment now have legal protection under Title VII and states’ non-discrimination laws. Just as importantly, society generally now condemns the abuse of power by bosses in the form of sexual harassment. Arguably, a similar shift in cultural ethics could bring an end — or at least the beginning of an end — to the ubiquity of harassment on the streets.
The Good News — How Digital Technologies Empower Targets of Harassment
Research suggests one of the most important tools for dismantling street harassment is the act of labeling it for what it is. Naming harassment shapes the way we talk about it and can empower targets and bystanders to deem harassment “not okay.” (For ideas regarding how to apply these labels in your own life, check out this (tongue-in-cheek) infographic and the video embedded below.)
Conveniently, digital technologies are making it easier than ever to spread awareness of street harassment and empower its targets. The Internet makes it possible for videos such as the one above to go viral, prompting millions of people to start talking about the issue in a down-to-earth, accessible way. It also enables nonprofits such as Stop Street Harassment, Collective Action for Safe Spaces, and Hollaback! (which encourages targets of harassment to share their stories in public forums) to share information, support, and resources with diverse audiences and mobilize individuals to reclaim the streets. Meanwhile, apps such as Not Your Baby, Safety Siren, Circleof6, and SOS Response empower targets of harassment by helping them to feel a little less alone in the face of a threat, all because of the phone in their pockets.
Digital technologies are immensely helpful in addressing and bringing awareness to street harassment, but ultimately the responsibility for ending it rests in the hands of everyone (including, of course, the harassers themselves). The process begins with communication, with speaking up, and with supporting targets instead of their harassers. Dismantling the cultural dynamics that make street harassment “commonplace” or “okay” is, to be sure, an uphill slog. But, for the benefit of everyone, it’s a trek worth making.