Street harassment of women: It's a bigger problem than you think
From Yemen to California, more than 90 percent of women have faced public harassment. It's not a compliment, a minor annoyance, or a woman’s fault. It’s bullying behavior. And we can't just ignore it. Here's how to respond.
“Hey, I’m hungry. Come satisfy my appetite!” yelled a man, laughing with his buddies in their car. Their target? A 12-year-old girl, walking to school. “You got great legs, baby!” a man in his 40s said to a 15-year-old girl as she waited on the subway platform, dressed in her school uniform. “You, in the white, turn around,” a man shouted at a 13-year-old-girl as she walked with her mother down the street. He wanted to get a better look at her.Skip to next paragraph
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These are recent stories submitted to my blog Stop Street Harassment. Across three years I’ve received hundreds of stories from women in 30 countries detailing the sexually explicit comments, following, groping, whistling, and public masturbation that men impose on them, simply because they are female and occupy public space.
A global issue
Street harassment impacts most women at some point in their life. Just ask us. The limited research that exists supports our stories. More than 80 percent of women in Egypt and Canada report street harassment. In Yemen, the figure is over 90 percent, even though most women are modestly dressed or veiled. In two of the only studies conducted in the United States, 100 percent of women in both Indianapolis and the California Bay Area said they had faced street harassment.
As the opening stories illustrate, street harassment usually begins when women are young. Of the more than 800 women I surveyed in 2008 for a book about street harassment, 22 percent said they experienced it by age 12, and 87 percent by the time they were 19.
While the prevalence of street harassment may be new to many men who read or hear about it, it’s not to women. For generations, grandmothers, mothers, aunts, and older sisters have shared tips and advice to girls to try to keep them safe from men: Don’t go out alone after dark. Memorize a fake phone number. Carry mace. Dress conservatively. Ignore them.
But it’s time to go beyond that well-intentioned advice which makes women feel less safe and often doesn’t work. Given how widespread street harassment is, those tips have the effect of limiting women’s access to public spaces. It keeps them on guard, off the streets, and dependent on men as escorts. No country has achieved equality and no country will until women can navigate public places without experiencing or fearing street harassment.
In short, street harassment must end.