When Will We Take Street Harassment Seriously?

Fifty percent of people who report harassment experienced it first before they were 17 years old.

Last week, when in the wake of the Elliot Rodger’s killings more than a million tweets were shared using the hashtag #YesAllWomen, the role that fear plays in women’s daily lives was evident. One of the most common daily interactions that women have in public that reflects the reality of an underlying and pervasive threat of violence is street harassment.

Every woman I know lives with harassment. If they can’t remember a specific story or incident or are among the fortunate ones who don’t experience it daily, they can recount various strategies for avoiding it: not making eye contact, exercising inside, avoiding certain commutes, or dressing in ways they hope will not draw attention, not that that matters.

The first national study conducted to determine how pervasive this harassment is was released today by Stop Street Harassment, one of the earliest global movements to raise awareness and end harassment.

The study found that:

Among women…

  • 65% had experienced street harassment
  • 23% had been sexually touched
  • 20% had been followed
  • 9% had been forced to do something sexual
  • 70% of those being harassed were harassed by a man acting alone

Among men…

  • 25% had been street harassed, with higher percentages of LGBT-identified men reporting
  • The most common form of harassment was homophobic or transphobic slurs (9%)

Some notable findings included…

  • 86% of women and 79% of men had been harassed more than once and some, mainly women, reported frequent, sometimes daily, harassment
  • About 50% of harassed women and men experienced street harassment by age 17
  • Harassment was not limited to streets, but takes place in restaurants, movie theaters, and other venues
  • 66% of the harassed women and 49% of the harassed men said they were very or somewhat concerned that the incident would escalate into something worse.

I’ve written about what street harassment is, why it should be taken seriously, and the role that fear plays in controlling people in public space many times. It is a global phenomenon, but the effects are the same: the regulation of women, or people who violate gender rules that maintain heterosexual male hierarchies, in public space. Men are overwhelmingly the harassers, often operating in groups. We adapt and adapt and adapt.

Like many others, harassment is such a frequent part of my life that it never fails to amaze me when I realize that that’s not the case for some people. My husband is very tall, by all rights I should always be racing to catch up with him, but he used to routinely laugh and stop in his tracks so that I would stop and he could catch up. Finally, it dawned on me why and we talked about it.

Last week, when I tweeted, “BC when my husband asks me to slow down when we walk together I realize he hasn’t spent his life avoiding street harassment #YesAllWomen” it’s been retweeted or favorited almost 2,000 times and still going.

Most notably, many men contacted me to say thank you, they hadn’t realized why their mothers, sisters, girlfriends, and wives similarly moved fast. This is a small and simple example of the way we adapt without thinking about it.

Many women I talk to don’t pause to think that this isn’t “normal.” There are many costs to women’s adapting to violence, in their homes and out, that society willfully ignores.

Frequently the harassment is verbal and, therefore protected by laws regarding freedom of speech. We don’t think about the way speech laws are, however, normatively biased against women. Take “fighting words” for example. The “fighting words” doctrine—in which one person says something that might provoke a “reasonable man” to violence—doesn’t help women, very few of whom would “reasonably” respond to a man’s “fighting words” by engaging in physical violence. What we need is “reasonable women” standards in the law so that these experiences are validated and can be legally challenged.

In addition to having to absorb words that can be assaultive and aggressive, and frequently obscene, we routinely ignore what is clearly assault. I was 15 when a man grabbed me on a street so he could, in his words, “get a good look.” I punched him squarely in the neck and ran. I wasn’t flattered. I was angry and scared.

One of my teenage daughters has also had a man reach out and touch her for a similar reason. This is not rare. On May 8, Laura Bates of Everyday Sexism started a hashtag, #grabbed, so that people could share their stories of, well, being grabbed. Within two hours it was a trending topic in the U.K., as thousands shared their stories.

For teenagers, especially teenage girls and members of the LGTBQ community, the harassment isn’t limited to the street, but also takes place in schools. The degree to which school administrators’ enforcement of dress code policies can resemble, to a teenager, harassment, is real and largely ignored. Encountering harassment like this can be overwhelming, enraging, and anxiety-provoking, especially for young people who, in the absence of conversation and information, can and do blame themselves, develop health problems, and learn to navigate public space with trepidation and the feeling that it is hostile. “Hey Baby Hurts,” discusses some of the psychological implications for teens, which includes fear, self-objectification, and withdrawal. The fact is that the fear is justified and oppressive.

These statistics attest to the role that street violence and harassment play in enforcing heterosexual, patriarchal rules. That the most common form of harassment of men was homophobic or transphobic is a clear indication of this.

Members of the LGTBQ community face heightened risk of violence in these encounters. Four days ago, in what can only be described as a hate crime, a young trans woman was stripped and brutally beaten by a group of men on a train in Atlanta. Bystanders didn’t stop them and filmed the assault, which began with verbal harassment. Last year, a man dragged a 14-year-old girl into his car, assaulted her, pushed her out, and ran her over twice after she declined his offer of money for sex.

While these are two extremely violent examples, there is no end to these stories because they happen every day.

If you have a daughter or a child who does not conform to rigid gender and heterosexual standards of appearance and behavior, and your child is a teenager, chances are they’ve already been harassed. Fifty percent of people who report harassment experienced it first before they were 17 years old. The first thing that has to happen is that we talk openly about these fact and challenge people who would scoff, trivialize, and say, “You have nothing to complain about…women over there have it much worse.” In general, that’s an oblivious high-status, self-serving deflection borne from a lack of empathy. It’s best to just move on without nary a pause.

Here are seven things you can do to help your child understand what street harassment is, how to think about it, and what their rights are.

1. Spend some time learning more about harassment. Hollaback and Stop Street Harassment are only two of the many organizations that provide information and help.

2. Know your rights, which vary city by city, and state by state. For example, Stop Street Harassment conducted an extensive review of laws and published them in the aptly named, Know Your Rights report.

3. Ask you child if they have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment or been made to feel uncomfortable or concerned for their safety in the course of their average day. Harassment can be confusing and is often framed as a “compliment.”

4. Make sure your child’s school is aware of the definition and scope of the problem on campuses, especially theirs. AAUW’s Crossing The Line study is a terrific resource for these purposes. The study revealed that nearly a third of students who experience harassment “said the harassment made them feel sick to their stomach, affected their study habits, or fueled reluctance to go to school at all.” Some school’s have a hard time understanding that sexual harassment is bullying and are still married to “boys will be boys” ideas about “teasing.”

5. Let your child know that they are not alone and that there are many people who understand the problem and are developing ways to combat it.

6. If you see a person being harassed, say something, even if it is just to show that you acknowledge what is going on and understand what they are experiencing.

7. If you have sons who aren’t being harassed, talk to them too.

I’ve never understood what harassers think is going to happen when they harass, and have come to the conclusion that this kind of harassment is not about the person being harassed so much as a display of dominance by the person doing the harassment. The way we experience street harassment is informed by the power dynamics of race, gender, sexuality, and disability.

Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.

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