Street harassment is a problem that plagues Millennial women– and men—in public places. But what are the real behavioral and emotional effects of street harassment and what can we do to help stop street harassment?
Generation Progress spoke with Holly Kearl, founder of the nonprofit Stop Street Harassment, about why she decided to found the nonprofit, her personal experiences with street harassment, the emotional impact of harassment, the effect of street harassment on men, and more.
“I wrote my master’s thesis on street harassment in 2007 at George Washington University,” Kearl told Generation Progress. “When I was looking for a topic to write about, I discovered there was a growing number of websites where women were sharing their street harassment stories—and they looked like mine. I hadn’t known the term ‘street harassment’ until then and I was relieved to know I wasn’t alone. For my thesis, I specifically studied how women were using the websites to vent, share ideas and find support.
“In 2008, two websites I liked the best went inactive, so I started my own, www.StopStreetHarassment.org. At first, I was just providing a place for people to share stories and I was documenting the activism others were doing—I also did this in my first book released in 2010—but in 2011, I began leading activism myself. For example, I founded and led International Anti-Street Harassment Week. As my work began to grow, in 2012, I applied for and received 501(c)3 nonprofit status for Stop Street Harassment (SSH).”
While Kearl said she doesn’t remember her first verbal harassment experience, she does remember the first time a man scared her in public.
“The first time I was scared by a man in public was when I was 14 years old and a man followed me in his car while I was on a marathon training run,” Kearl said. “I sprinted down side streets and got away. Recently, I found the journal entry I wrote about it and I said it was really ‘spooky.’ Since that day, I have faced thousands of incidents of street harassment, most often whistles and hoots from men speeding by in cars, but men have also grope[d], followed, and chased me. I have been the target of sexually explicit language.”
Jessica Raven was recently named the interim executive director at Collective Action for Safe Spaces, an organization dedicated to ending street harassment and gender-based violence. She explained the importance and motivation behind work of Collective Action for Safe Spaces to Generation Progress:
“Our mission is so important, because this is an issue that affects everyone — particularly women, LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming people and communities of color,” Raven explained. “Street harassment is so deeply ingrained in our culture that many people don’t recognize it as a problem, but it is a form of gender-based violence that encompasses everything from unwanted comments, unwanted touching, groping, and public masturbation. It isn’t unusual for this behavior to escalate to assault or even murder, as we saw with the recent assault of local comedian Paris Sashay or the murder of Keisha Jenkins in Philadelphia.”
Raven said she experiences street harassment on an almost daily basis.
“Growing up in New York City, I became accustomed to being catcalled, followed, flashed, and even grabbed when I walked down the street—it was just a fact of life,” Raven told Generation Progress. “It wasn’t until I was pregnant with my son and still being harassed that I became particularly sensitive to it. I’d get comments like, ‘Do you want to make another one later?’ and after he was born, ‘Do you think he wants a twin brother?’ Added to that, I had recently left an abusive relationship and just when I had started to feel empowered again, I became acutely aware of the way that men continued to control my decisions about the things I’d wear and the places I’d go. By asserting their power over me on the street, my harassers maintained control over my feelings of safety and my access to public spaces. I realized that street harassment wasn’t a compliment or a way to meet women. No one believes that shouting at me from their moving vehicle is going to sweep me off my feet. Street harassment is about power and control.”
“I face less harassment now that I’m 32—most harassers prey on teenage girls and college-age young women—and mostly work from home,” Kearl explained. “But I have two recent verbal harassment experiences. Last week, a man on the street told me to smile, ironically as I was walking to a high school to give a talk on street harassment. In August, an hour after my life partner of 12.5 years and I got married, two men harassed me in a grocery store parking lot. They started off by saying I looked beautiful and then escalated into sexually explicit language about my body, making me feel humiliated and gross. I have yet to meet a woman who does not have her own arsenal of harassment stories like these. And some men have several stories, too.”
Street harassment is typically seen as a problem that affects women, but both Raven and Kearl said that they had found a negative impact on men in their research.
“Street harassment absolutely affects men, too,” Raven told Generation Progress. “Though this issue mostly affects women—and disproportionately affects women of color and transgender women—we also see incidents of men being harassed and groped in public spaces. Just last week, there was an incident where a man was sexually harassed at a DC gas station and many commenters on the story minimized it. Our culture of hypermasculinity hurts men, too.”
“In the 2014 national study SSH commissioned, 25 percent of men had experienced some form of street harassment, with the most common form being homophobic or transphobic slurs,” Kearl explained. “Men who did not identify as straight were overall more likely to experience street harassment than men who identified as straight.”
The study also found that most harassers of both men and women are men. Street harassment tends to start before the age of 17 for both men and women. Unfortunately, women face a number of physical forms of street harassment. According to the SSH study, almost one in four women had been sexually touched or groped against their will and nearly 10 percent said they had been forced to do something sexual by a stranger while in a public place.
Generation Progress spoke with male Twitter user Rob / Unseen Perfidy about his thoughts on the problem of street harassment.
“Men need to be educated into understanding street harassment isn’t right,” Rob / UnseenPerfidy explained to GP. “It’s not just ‘complimenting’ someone. It can put women in real fear for their lives and safety. Men need to understand that women have been followed, stalked, harassed, physically attacked and even killed for responding negatively—or not at all — to street harassment. Men also need to be encouraged to intervene if they see it happening as well. Street harassment is a huge problem that unfortunately not many people take seriously. Hopefully, with further education and focus on the issue, this will change.”
Kearl said that street harassment has a huge behavioral effect on the lives of many people, as well as a deeper emotional impact, according to several studies.
“Street harassment inhibits people’s mobility and ability to live a full life,” Kearl explained. “Too often, we feel we must—or are told we must—change our lives to avoid harassers. We may change where we go, when, with whom, and how we dress. We may change our hobbies and habits, our routes and routines. Street harassment can have a financial impact, like if we feel we must pay to exercise at a gym instead of outside or if we pay for a taxi late at night instead of taking public transit or walking. It has even caused some people to move or quit jobs because of harassers in the vicinity.
“A 2008 study of college women found that street harassment was significantly related to self-objectification, which predicts negative outcomes like depression, eating disorders, harder time focusing on school. A study released in January 2015 shows that the treatment of women as sexual objects, including through street harassment, contribute to increased feelings of anxiety about their physical safety. A study released in late 2014 found that sexual harassment is traumatizing for women, especially for those who have experienced sexual abuse.”
Another recent study showed that frequent catcalling often leads to diminished sexual assertiveness, placing women at higher risk of sexual assault.
“We need to make it clear that street harassment will not be tolerated in our communities,” Raven said. “In many ways, our PSA campaign with [the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA)] accomplishes this goal. It names a problem that many people had come to accept as a fact of their lives, it lets people know that they don’t have to tolerate harassment and it lets harassers know that their behavior is unacceptable. But street harassment is one of many symptoms of rape culture—and we need to change the culture before we can end the problem. It’s going to take some time, but CASS has ideas and programming like Safe Bars and our PSA campaign with WMATA to help us move cultur[al] change along.”
“Because street harassment keeps harassed persons from many resources and opportunities that should be available to them, it is a human rights violation,” Kearl said. “Fortunately, a growing number of entities, like the United Nations, governments, transit authorities, and organizations are recognizing this and are taking concrete steps to make public places safer.”
These organizations hope their campaigns and actions will help limit the amount of street harassment over the next few years. Kearl recently published a book about the activism surrounding the issue of street harassment, titled “Stop Global Street Harassment: Growing Activism Around The World.” Raven noted that DC City Council is hosting a round table discussion on street harassment on December 3 at 10 a.m. in Room 500 of the John A. Wilson Building.