The Deeply Disturbing Truth About Street Harassment in America

For the past few years, grassroots efforts to end street harassment in the US have been gaining support and amplifying their message. At the beginning of April, 150 groups organized in 25 countries for the third International Anti-Street Harassment Week. Rallies were held in cities all across the US. On June 3, Stop Street Harassment, the gender justice nonprofit that founded Anti-Street Harassment Week, published “Unsafe and Harassed In Public Spaces,” the first comprehensive, nationwide report on street-harassment.  

“This is the largest study that has been conducted in the United States,” said Holly Kearl, founder of SSH and author of the report. “It’s the largest sample size, the first to include both men and women as respondents at the national level, the first to look at the findings to see how race, sexual orientation, and income impact people’s experiences.”

GfK, a market research company commissioned by SSH, conducted a 2,000-person, nationally representative survey for the report. SSH also lead 10 focus groups in communities all around the country, from Brooklyn to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The men and women in these groups, mostly in their 20s and 30s, articulated the specific ways in which street harassment has impacted their lives and the lives of others in their communities. 

Examples of street harassment, according to the report, include honking and whistling, catcalling, persistent requests for name and number after being denied or ignored, sexists comments and telling women to smile, homophobic or transphobic slurs, vulgar gestures, flashing or public masturbation, stalking, grabbing and rubbing, and sexual assault. Whether these assaults take place on subways, in movie theaters, in restaurants, or on sidewalks proper, they fall under the umbrella of street harassment.

Violence In the Streets

Turns out, public spaces are not safe spaces, especially for women.

The number of women and men who reported having experienced street harassment is 65% and 25% respectively. This number is high, but not unexpected, given that a 2010 study conducted by the CDC found that 70-99% of women worldwide have experienced “non-contact unwanted sexual experiences.”

A major finding of the SSH study, however, is just how much contact is being made. Fifty-seven percent of all the women surveyed reported verbal abuse, and 41% reported physical aggression and violence. 84% of women who reported street harassment said it happened to them multiple times.

“So many women have been groped in public spaces,” said Kearl. “I hope that this report can address people who say [street harassment] is just verbal—even if it was, that’s not okay, but it’s not. And if we are verbally harassed we don’t know if they’re going to touch us because a lot of us have had that experience in the past. One in four women have been touched or brushed up against. One in five have been followed.”

Given these numbers, it’s no shocker that two-thirds of harassed women reported they were very or somewhat concerned that their experience of harassment would escalate. The percentage of respondents who were very concerned about escalation is higher when you just look at those with reported household incomes below $25,000 a year and is highest among Hispanic respondents (71%).

Another important finding of the report is how young so many men and women were when they had their first experience of street harassment. Around 50% of respondents said they had experienced street harassment by age 17.

Kearl suggested that had she had more funding for the project she would have liked to focus the study on individuals ages 18-30 who, “experience [street harassment] more often for a variety of reasons.”

The report also found that “Men are overwhelmingly the harassers of both women and men.” For this finding there was no statistically significant difference across income, race, or sexual orientation.

Disproportionate Effects

“In many ways,” the report reads, “persons of color, lower-income people, and persons who identify as lesbian, gay bisexual, or transgender were disproportionately affected by street harassment overall.”

For example, 38% of black respondents reported having experienced physically aggressive harassment, 33% of Hispanic respondents, and 27% of white respondents. Forty-eight percent of black respondents and 45% of Hispanic respondents reported experiencing verbal harassment, compared to 36% of white respondents. People of color were also more likely than white people to say they experience street harassment often, sometimes, or daily.

Respondents who identified as LGBT also reported significantly higher rates of street harassment than those who identified as heterosexual. Fifty-seven percent had experienced verbal harassment and 45% had experienced physical aggressive harassment compared to 37% and 28%, respectively, of heterosexual respondents. Seven percent of LGBT respondents said they were harassed daily, compared to 1% of heterosexual respondents.

Behavioral changes in those respondents who had been harassed also varied amongst these different groups. For example, 15% of women and 10% of men reported wearing headphones, sunglasses, or clothing they thought will attract less attention to deter harassers. Individuals who reported a household income below $25,000 were more likely to avoid harassers by changing the way they dress.

Undo Patriarchal Structures, Or Further Empower Police?

The report did have at least one positive and hopeful statistic: 91% of respondents believe there are ways to stop street harassment.

Suggestions of ways to combat street harassment varied. Fifty-three percent said the answer is educational workshops in schools and communities that would teach how to respectfully interact with strangers and disseminate information about street harassment. Another common suggestion, proposed in equal shares by men and women, was, “more training of law enforcement and transit workers so they can better identify and intervene in harassment situations.”

This was the sort of response that was largely endorsed in the discussion portion of the report. As ways to remedy street harassment, the report suggest increased involvement of boys and men in the anti-street harassment movement, having local government, law enforcement, businesses transit agencies conduct training and informational sessions on street harassment to educate their employees and their local communities.

But the most popular response at 55% of all survey-takers, was that street harassment can be stopped through increased security cameras and police presence. Given that the populations most often and most severely affected by street harassment—people of color, LGBT people, individuals whose household income is below $25,000—are the same ones disproportionately targeted by police and surveillance methods, the popularity of this approach is puzzling.

While the report explicitly states that “Over-policing and over-arresting in low-income neighborhoods and among communities of color is a problem in the United States and not something SSH supports,” one of the less popular recommendations among respondents —“Stop police officers from profiling black people”—is not explicitly endorsed in the concluding sections of the report.

It’s been argued again and again that stop-and-frisk and other racial profiling policies should be considered a form of street harassment. This way the interests of those who are harassed in public can be purposefully aligned, while still allowing for a multitude of stories and difference. For example, when Hollaback! launched its app for reporting incidents of street harassment in New York City back in August, many raised concerns that the influx of reports into the city council’s database would be used as an excuse to increase police presence and arrest rates. Likewise, it’s useful to think about the kinds of street harassment examined in the report as forms of policing and punishment, which is condoned and perpetuated by patriarchy, rather than a police force.

When asked why police violence was not addressed in the survey questions or the discussion that followed, Kearl said “it’s hard because people are harassed for all types of reasons. So I didn’t ask about being targeted because of your race and I think it’s a different but often related and interrelated issue.”

Kearl pointed out that the kinds of street harassment addressed in the report are often perceived as compliments or a healthy part of male sexuality, whereas police violence is not. In addition, Kearl claimed, activists have organized much more around issues of racial profiling “A lot of groups looking at racial profiling and not at this issue. You’d think there are a lot of groups, but they’re really online-based, if you look at the national level there isn’t a huge presence.”

Kearl also pointed out that while those who experience street harassment usually don’t feel comfortable reporting these incidents to the police for a variety of reasons, it’s important to recognize police as an important resource for some. “I’ve never even considered calling the police, it just wasn’t even in my train of thought,” says Kearl, “but I do know a lot of people do want to turn to the police and they want to get help, especially for the severe forms and I want to respect that, but at the same times there are so many problems with police. If you report it they may laugh at you, they may hit on you, they may react differently based on your race.”

This report serves to lend legitimacy to and serve as a point of reflection upon the work that SSH and other anti-street harassment groups have been doing over the past few years. “I don’t believe we’re going to see gender equality unless we address this,” said Kearl, “unless women can safely go places without this fear of being harassed, so I hope that this report with this data can draw attention to the issue and that it can supplement the thousands of stories that can be shared and legitimize these stories."

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