How Street Harassment Makes Me Feel About My Body
One woman shares her own experience (and experiment) regarding the pervasive issue of street harassment.
Sixteen: The age I began receiving unwanted attention from men.
One day, I ventured into center city Philadelphia from my suburban hometown with a high school friend. We were walking around a mall and a man stopped and stared at us. For whatever reason, he chose to make me his target.
"Hello, beautiful," he said.
Maybe this sounds complimentary and flattering. And it's true: His words weren't offensive or gross, but it felt jarring. I was disconcerted; I turned bright red and felt as if someone had undressed me in public without my permission. I immediately knew that no matter my response, it would feel wrong.
"Thank you," I said, averting eye contact.
This response is common for lots of people. It feels like the quickest way to move along from the incident and continue about your day.
Another example: At 16, I was sitting in a bookstore in Philly, when a man came up and started talking to me. I was reading, and I didn't want to be bothered, but I didn't know how to tell him that. He asked me about the Wi-Fi in the bookstore, and then he asked if I would go out with him. I responded, semi-jokingly, "Maybe when I'm 18!" He walked away, but moments later came back and slipped me a piece of paper. It said, "Dinner on me," followed by his name and number.
I uncomfortably put the piece of paper in my pocket and left the bookstore, leaving my leisurely afternoon behind. It stopped feeling leisurely in that exact moment. It felt sickening.
By the time I moved to Philly full-time as a college student, unwanted attention became such a common part of my day that I learned what to do to minimize my discomfort. I began completely ignoring men when they talked to me. This approach has led to mixed results. After all, men who choose to harass women are doing so as a power play, as a way of asserting authority, as a way of proclaiming to women that men get to decide when and where women feel safe.
The Pervasive Culture of Street Harassment
There's a reason it's called "street harassment." According to a national survey conducted in 2014 by the nonprofit organization Stop Street Harassment, 67 percent of women reported experiencing street harassment on streets and sidewalks, 26 percent reported harassment in public spaces like restaurants and stores, and 20 percent noted harassment on public transit.
Especially in large cities, it's easy for a man to yell something at a woman and then quickly disappear out of view. The anonymity of existing in a large public space allows street harassers to, well, harass, without fear of interruption or retribution.
Similarly, it's easy enough for a street harasser to follow a woman without her noticing. What's more, even if a woman is not actually physically endangered, it is that potential of endangerment that haunts us, causes us anxiety, and makes us feel generally afraid to go out alone.
For most women, it's an all-too-common reality. Take research conducted by Hollaback!, an organization that raises awareness and conducts research on the topic. In 2014, they collaborated with Cornell University on a global street harassment study. With over 16,000 respondents, it's the largest-scale analysis on the subject to date. Of the respondents surveyed, 71 percent reported that they have been followed.
A two-minute Hollaback! video called 10 Hours of Walking In NYC As a Woman, featuring an actress named Shoshana Roberts walking around New York City, revealed that Roberts experienced 100+ instances of street harassment through those 10 hours. That's the equivalent of being cat-called at least twice every 15 minutes.
Doesn't sound so foreign to you? You're not alone.
I feel it too. Each day, I walk a mile to and from work. I know the places street harassment is most likely to occur: the car wash, where I am always self-conscious of slipping on grease and up-skirting myself; the 7-Eleven parking lot, where no one follows any rules of traffic and yell things at women as they attempt to navigate across safely; any area where construction work is happening, because even if men don't say anything to me, the way they watch me walk past makes my skin crawl.
And I have occasionally-excuse my French-lost my sh*t on street harassers. One day, as I was walking home after a particularly exhausting day at work, a man started to yell things at me about what he liked about my body. He followed me for half a block. I turned around and screamed, "I don't need to f*cking talk to you!" He looked at me in silence, shocked, seemingly disgusted.
The words seemed to reverberate around the street. People stopped and stared in confusion or maybe pity. I went home and wept. I felt torn open, gutted.
Conducting My Own Research
I've thought a lot about the street harassment I've experienced, from the more innocuous-"Nice legs!" "How tall are you?!" "How are you today, baby?" "Damn!"-to the ones that nearly gave me public panic attacks-"Who do you think you are, walking by my house looking all sexy and not stopping to talk to me? Come back here." "I'd like to tear that ass up." "Let me suck on those titties." Knowing firsthand of similar (if not more disturbing) experiences from my friends, I wanted to create my own survey to document stories from a broader network of cisgender and transgender women, as well as non-binary people, transmasculine men, and a handful of cisgender men.
Over 100 people responded to my Google Forms survey. All results were submitted and received anonymously.
The results were overwhelming. Of the surveyed respondents, 98 percent reported experiencing street harassment. Twenty-five percent reported experiencing street harassment once or twice a week, while 24 percent reported that it happens every day or every other day. Respondents reported that they first began experiencing catcalling as early as ages 8 to 10. Most respondents recalled that it started during middle school years, around ages 11 to 13.
Seventy-eight percent of respondents reported that they have been bystanders to street harassment. Many respondents noted that it felt unsafe to intervene; those who did intervene experienced mixed results. Most respondents reported being harassed or insulted as a result of intervening, while others say that the harassers responded with confusion or embarrassment and stopped their harassment. (Related: The Harsh Truth About Running Safety for Women)
Fifty-three percent of respondents reported that they have been victims of sexual assault; 11 percent of those respondents have been assaulted by street harassers.
One respondent, a straight black cisgender woman who lives in a semi-rural area of the Midwest, said "I hate that fear that I often feel during and following [street harassment]. It makes me afraid that I won't leave the next situation unharmed if it were to occur again." Another respondent, a bisexual cisgender woman who identifies as Latina and white, reported that "A man changed directions to walk with me and talk to me; I kept walking until he left me alone so he wouldn't see where I lived. I was polite to him but went home and cried." Both respondents have experienced street harassment for years, just like me.
Also just like me, women have developed their own coping mechanisms for street harassment. Some tactics include: walking or biking a different route; avoiding public transit in favor of ride-sharing services (which is not always accessible or affordable for many people, an important note a survey respondent mentioned); wearing an outfit that feels potentially less likely to garner attention; walking close to strangers as a protection buffer; wearing headphones; learning self-defense strategies; carrying knives or mace; informing men that women are not dogs and therefore should never be whistled at; ignoring men; and my two personal favorites: a woman who farted on a man who tried to rub up against her on a train; and another woman who yelled "F*ck off and die in a fire" at a group of construction workers who yelled inappropriate comments at her.
For many people, however, staying home because of anxiety, fear, or PTSD, or leaving events early either as a result of street harassment that occurred earlier in the evening or to prevent it from happening later on in the night, are sometimes the only manageable solutions.
An At-Risk Population
For trans- and non-binary-identifying people, street harassment can be even more anxiety-inducing, multifaceted, and potentially dangerous. One respondent to my survey, a queer transfeminine white woman who lives in the Northeast, reported "hateful, transmisogynistic street harassment that makes [her] feel dehumanized and alienated."
Another respondent, a queer transmasculine white man who lives in the South, discussed how street harassment has evolved for him throughout his transition: "When presenting as a woman, I had a lot of comments related to breasts. Street harassment pretty much went away when people were reading me as male. When I was read more as a butch lesbian, I got a lot of demeaning comments related to my gender and sexuality. Basically, people don't talk to me on the street anymore because I look like a [cisgender, heterosexual] dude."
For non-binary people, street harassment can be wrought with misgendering and invasive questions about their gender identity and sexual orientation. A respondent who is white, queer-identified, and lives in a suburban area of the Southwest, said that they once "told a man I was a lesbian so I could buy toilet paper in peace." Another respondent, who identifies as pansexual and lives on the West Coast, says that they were subjected to more street harassment when they had long hair, which made them feel "vulnerable and unsafe." As they've gotten older and have started to present in a more masculine manner, the harassment has dissipated. Other non-binary respondents report being called "dyke" or "faggot," having a man tell them he had razors so they could shave their legs, and asking if they're a man or a woman.
An op-ed recently published in The New York Times, The Thrill and Fear of 'Hey, Beautiful' by Jamal Lewis, speaks to the likelihood of being subjected to substantially more harassment if you are a person of color who is gender-nonconforming or trans. "Trans women and gender-nonconforming people of color are dying because people, especially cisgender men and women, cannot police their imaginations," writes Lewis. As the author notes, at least 27 trans people were killed in 2016, a horrifying new record. "Some of us live and thrive because we are desired; none of us should die because of that."
How Do We Stop Street Harassment?
By far, the most difficult question in my survey was about how we can stop the ubiquitous epidemic of street harassment. One respondent said, "As a cisgender man who doesn't harass women, I need to get my head out of my ass and pay attention." Another referenced the indelible connection between street harassment, rape culture, and sexual assault. A societal shift, she said, will require "harsh, consistent punishment for those who commit sexual assault." Another respondent agreed: "Massive cultural shifts [are necessary]. Men don't respect women. They just don't."
Other respondents noted the importance of teaching consent and comprehensive sexual education at an earlier age with an emphasis on the consequences of rape culture, as well as drastic changes in how women are represented in the media.
For those of us who face street harassment on a near-daily basis, the idea of working to help eradicate it can seem insurmountable. As Alok Vaid-Menon, a gender-nonconforming artist has said, "I notice that a lot of strategies when it comes to ending harassment are oriented around making women and trans people modify our behavior and appearances, and never around actually challenging societies which enable and encourage harassment against us."
Luckily, there are important organizations working hard to combat these unrealistic societal expectations of women and trans people, including Hollaback!, which offers bystander trainings and opportunities to launch Hollaback! sites in your local community, and Stop Street Harassment, which provides resources for educating boys and men about the effects of street harassment. (Related: The Psychology Behind Street Harassment-and How You Can Stop It)
Ultimately, I hope the stories shared here, from courageous individuals all over the United States (and Australia and Western Europe!), can serve as a reminder to you, whoever you are, wherever you are, that you are not alone. Your existence is brave. Your choices are brave. Your body belongs autonomously to you and only you. And no one can ever claim that power from you.