Opinion

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.

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“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.

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.

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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.

Four key steps

As a first step, everyone must acknowledge that street harassment is not a compliment, a minor annoyance, or a woman’s fault. It’s bullying behavior. The harassment is often directed at teenage girls and young women because it’s assumed they are too young to know what to do or how to respond, especially when the harasser is an older, larger man. And often the harassers are correct.

So, second, we need to give girls and women real help. We need to teach them empowering, assertive responses, self-defense, and how to report harassers. Ignoring and avoiding harassers changes nothing. It is disempowering and limiting.

Third – and perhaps most important – we must focus on potential and current harassers. We have to stop looking the other way or saying “boys will be boys” when we see harassment. Fathers, brothers, uncles, and friends need to stop trying to bond with other men through objectifying, harassing, and raping women. And just because men have the ability to access girls’ and women’s bodies through pornography, strip clubs, mail order brides, and brothels, doesn’t mean that they should.

Organizations like Men Can Stop Rape, the Coaching Boys into Men program at the Family Violence Prevention Fund, and the global Man Up Campaign all focus on healthy definitions of masculinity and teach boys and men how to respect themselves – and women. These initiatives are fantastic and need our support, and we need more organizations like them so we can reach every young man.

Finally, we need to change the society that lets street harassment occur. We must challenge comments, forms of media, and policies that disrespect and discriminate against women. We must challenge all gender-based violence and harassment; it’s all interrelated.

The problem may be massive, but each of us has the power to chip away at it right now. Learn more about street harassment, share a story, talk to someone about it, and find and share strategies for dealing with it and ideas for ending it.

If you care about the current and next generation of girls, if you support equality, if you believe in human decency, then don’t sit by. Do something.

Holly Kearl is a national street harassment expert, writer, and nonprofit professional. The author of “Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women,” she runs the website Stop Street Harassment and works full-time for AAUW, one of the largest and oldest women’s organizations in the nation.

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