Drawings Courtesy of Tatyana Fazlalizadeh of the mural campaign, “Stop Telling Women to Smile.”

Street Harassment Isn’t Just Annoying: It’s Psychologically Damaging

Catcalling and other forms of street harassment are so ingrained in our culture. But is there a way to stop it?

Street harassment and the effects of what it does to its victims has been a focus in mainstream media recently. From the company Hollaback!’s viral video, “10 Hours Walking in NYC as a Woman,” to a rebuttal video of why men think it is okay to harass women on the street the debate on whether or not street harassment is just harmless compliments or a reflection on rape culture is hotly debated by men and women. So let’s start with the basics. What exactly constitutes street harassment?

Photo Courtesy of Hollaback! from the video “10 Hours Walking in NYC as a Woman.”

Well, according to StopStreetHarassment.com, the definition of gender-based street harassment is unwanted comments, gestures, and actions forced on a stranger in a public space without their consent, and is directed at them because of their actual or perceived sex, gender, gender expression or sexual orientation. Since the definition says gender-based, it is explaining that men, women and non-binary individuals can be on the receiving end of street harassment. The definition goes on to say that street harassment includes unwanted whistling, leering, sexist, homophobic or transphobic slurs, persistent requests for someone’s name, number or destination after they’ve said no, sexual names, comments and demands, following, flashing, groping, and/or sexual assault.

Statistics from StopStreetHarassment.org

Many believe street harassment is harmless because it is so deeply ingrained in our culture. Anyone who lives in large cities especially experience street harassment on a daily basis. Statistics as of 2014 show that 65% of all women and 25% of all men will have experienced street harassment at some point in their lives. By the age of 12 years old 1 in 4 women will have experienced street harassment. Earlier in 2016 Disney star, Rowan Blanchard, of the show “Girl Meets World,” opened up about her first catcalling experience at age 12.

She began the hashtag, #FirstTimeIWasCatcalled, and the tag become flooded with stories of mostly women and non-binary people talking about their similar first catcalling experiences, some as young as 9 or 10 years old. Besides Hollaback’s viral video this was the first large mainstream conversation about street harassment. Street harassment was not really talked about until the last few years, research is just beginning when it comes to exploring the ramifications and consequences of street harassment.

As shown in the statistics above street harassment is an issue that mostly affects women, especially women of color, LGBTQIA people and gender non-conforming people, but it can definitely affect men as well. Our culture of hypermasculinity creates an environment that invites harassment towards men who may not express themselves or identify as the cultural masculine norm. The 25% of men who have experienced harassment as well have been subject to homophobic or transphobic slurs.

It is important that men are the ones to learn about and understand the ramifications of street harassment and how it is not just a joke or a compliment because men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of street harassment against men and women. Statistics show that only 3% of people who experience street harassment find it complimentary.

Men need to understand that street harassment inhibits a person’s mobility and ability to live a full life. Hollaback and Cornell University surveyed almost 5,000 people about street harassment and found that 85% of people under 40 years old have taken a different route home to avoid street harassment, 72% have taken a different mode of transportation and 70% had decided against going to a social event like a party or a movie because of potential street harassment.

People have changed their routines, hobbies and habits just to accommodate for street harassers and that is just not okay. 66% of people said they had changed the way they dressed or changed an outfit so they wouldn’t get harassed. Some people feel the need to pay for a gym membership instead of just running outside for safety reasons.

They will pay for a taxi or Uber late at night instead of taking public transit or walking just to avoid street harassment, and that can be a financial burden to people as well. In dire circumstances 35% of people had admitted that they had moved or quit jobs because of the high number of street harassers in their neighborhood or work area.

Street harassment can have detrimental psychological effects as well. A 2008 study of college women found that street harassment significantly related to self-objectification, depression, eating disorders, anxiety, and a harder time focusing in school. It can be traumatizing to sexual assault victims and can alter a person’s livelihood just because of safety concerns.

Some people believe that street harassment is just a few words yelled at someone out of a car window, a passing comment on the street or someone staring at you, but it can definitely escalate very quickly if the person refuses or ignores a perpetrator. People have been followed, stalked, harassed, physically attacked, sexually assaulted and even killed in not responding or responding negatively to street harassment.

This is why street harassment is a part of rape culture. On the spectrum of violence against people it becomes clear that people are meant to police and control different areas of their lives to avoid becoming a victim or target. Instead of telling people “Hey, stop catcalling people,” we are told over and over again that those people should dress differently, take a different bus, skip a party, or not walk in a certain area.

In the same realm of preventing rape instead of telling people “Do not rape other people,” we tell people to dress modestly, drink less alcohol or no alcohol, travel in groups, do not flirt or tease someone, download anti-rape apps, wear a special nail polish that detects date rape drugs, or even carry a gun to avoid sexual assault. By putting the onus of a person’s safety on their ability to not become a victim rather than on violent perpetrators to stop hurting people then street harassment will continue.

People have reported that they constantly assess their surroundings, avoid making eye contact, purposely wear clothes to attract less attention, avoid going out at night or going alone, and talk/pretend to talk on a cell phone to avoid street harassment. There has to be better ways to prevent this and take action, here are a few:

Here are some ways:

  1. Men need to be educated on the physical, psychological and emotional effects of street harassment so they can become male allies. They will be able to intervene when they see it happening and spread the information to their friends, family and children as to why street harassment is bad.
  2. Participate in International Anti-Street Harassment Week and its ongoing efforts throughout the year.
  3. Donate to Hollaback! And Stop Street Harassment which are non-profit organizations that help bring awareness, tools and education materials to bring street harassment to an end.
  4. Share your story with others to continue the ongoing conversation of the prevalence of street harassment. The more people talk about it the less it will be ignored. The bystander effect will be eradicated the more people know how prevalent street harassment really is. Help each other out.
  5. Download the Hollaback! app to report incidents of street harassment as a victim or witness in real time, information about where they experienced harassment on the street. It creates a map of pinned locations where harassment occurs, providing near-instant feedback to the city council’s and mayor’s offices. The app collects demographic data, too, to help officials better understand the details of where harassment occurs and who it happens to.
  6. View and buy art from the “Stop Telling Women to Smile” project, which is a public art project by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh who makes murals of women around the world.

A growing number of political powers, like the United Nations, governments, transit authorities, and organizations are recognizing the effects of street harassment and putting laws and tools in place to prevent it. Vote those bills into laws, help make street harassment a legal and financial consequence for perpetrators. Political organizations are taking concrete steps to make public places safer, and we can too.

Be a good bystander, if you see street harassment happening be a friend to a stranger, help them out of a potentially bad situation. Use your voice, be loud, call people out for harassing you. Be safe, be smart, and help bring an end to street harassment for good.


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