Hey, baby! Oh mami, come over here. Smile for me, sweetheart!
Chances are, most of us have heard some variation of these catcalls. In fact, 65 percent of women and 25 percent of men in the U.S. have encountered street harassment, according to a recent study. Of the women surveyed, 57 percent experienced verbal harassment while 41 percent experienced physically aggressive forms, including sexual touching (23 percent), following (20 percent), flashing (14 percent) and being forced to do something sexual (9 percent). Of the men surveyed, 18 percent experienced verbal harassment and 16 percent experienced physically aggressive forms of harassment, with higher rates of harassment experienced by men who identified as LGBT.
The study, Unsafe and Harassed in Public Spaces: A National Street Harassment Report, uses the term street harassment to describe “unwanted interactions in public spaces between strangers that are motivated by a person’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation or gender expression, and make the harassee feel annoyed, angry, humiliated or scared.” It characterizes harassment as a human rights issue due to the restrictive and limiting power of fear and oppression. Stop Street Harassment (SSH), a nonprofit “dedicated to documenting and addressing and ending gender-based street harassment worldwide,” commissioned the firm GfK to conduct the survey this past spring. The 2,000 respondents were of various ages, races, incomes, regions, genders and sexual orientations.
Other key findings were that street harassment happens multiple times to most people (86 percent of women who have been harassed, 79 percent of men), begins at a young age (about 50 percent of harassed women and men experience it by age 17) and men are “overwhelmingly the harassers of both women and men.”
The report acknowledges some issues with the survey. Due to the small sample size and an attempt to reflect the demographics of the U.S., there’s a high representation of white and heterosexual respondents, and the survey doesn’t clearly reflect intersectional identies (such as black and gay). Additionally, with legal restrictions about interviewing people younger than 18, the research firm could not gather information about the under-18 demographic. Finally, many respondents were unclear about the definition of street harassment, as the report notes:
Because street harassment is a normalized experience, especially for older respondents who grew up with it, unless someone had an emotionally traumatic or recent experience, not everyone may have remembered incidents of harassment immediately. […] Additionally, the listing of types of street harassment people could select could have been longer. For example, men honking at women from their cars is a very common form of harassment, but we excluded it from the survey questions for fear respondents would skew the results by talking about traffic-related honking, rather than sexual-harassment-related honking.
Ultimately, street harassment is a symptom of inequality and outdated social attitudes. It is not a compliment, nor is it a problem that can be ignored or brushed aside.
For more information about how to join the fight to stop street harassment, visit the SHH webpage.
Photo courtesy of Carrie Sloan via Creative Commons 2.0
Simone Lieban Levine is a rising junior at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and an intern for Ms. Follow her on Twitter: @though_she_be.