In the first post of this series I discussed the difficulties associated with defining sexual harassment. As our legal definitions pertain to harassment in the workplace, research focus has been primarily on explaining harassment in that context. However, many individuals experience harassment in public spaces where it is more difficult to prosecute.
What Is Street Harassment?
Street harassment is defined as “any unwanted action or comment between strangers in public places that is disrespectful, unwelcome, threatening and/or harassing and is motivated by gender or sexual orientation or gender expression.” This harassment can include leers, whistles, kissing sounds, honking, evaluative comments, persistent requests for a person’s name or phone number, obscene gestures, sexual comments, following, exposure of genitals, public masturbation, touching, sexual assault, and other violent acts.
How Often Does Street Harassment Occur?
Answering the calls of those who have been victimized by public harassment, several organizations have stepped up to determine the scope of the problem and provide resources. Stop Street Harassment, a non-profit organization dedicated to documenting and ending gender-based street harassment worldwide, started collecting stories in 2008 and in 2014 conducted the largest national survey to date in order to confirm how many individuals experience public harassment and explore how harassment has affected these individuals. Their “Unsafe and Harassed in Public Spaces” study revealed that 65% of the women and 25% of men in their sample had experienced street harassment. Over half of the harassment experiences for women were of a verbal nature, however an additional 41% of experiences were physically aggressive – including being sexually touched, followed, or forced to do something sexual. Though fewer men reported experiencing harassment, 18% of their harassment experiences were verbal and 16% were physical. The most common harassment experience men reported was being called homophobic or transphobic slurs. Moreover, the vast majority of participants who had experienced harassment reported that it was a repeat occurrence.
Why Should We Care About Street Harassment?
There have been some vocal opponents of sexual harassment campaigns who have argued that these campaigns are intended to demonize men and exaggerate what is otherwise harmless flirting as offensive and violent acts. However, the Unsafe and Harassed in Public Spaces study show that such acts are not perceived as “harmless” and consequently are quite damaging. Two-thirds of women and half of the men reported concern that the harassment might escalate and experiences with harassment led many to change their routines in order to feel more safe – ranging from only traveling in groups to quitting work or relocating to different neighborhoods. Thus, harassment is a forms of sexual violence, damaging to a victim’s emotional and physical well being, and often restricting of their freedom of movement in the public space. Women especially may be intimidated from leaving the house or using public transit or going to certain locations. Moreover, because our legal definition of harassment is restricted to employment settings and many harassing behaviors are not recognized as criminal (e.g., leering, kissing sounds), victims are often left without any protection by enforcement authorities or legal recourse.
Security Through Sense Of Community
More and more victims of sexual harassment (mostly women, as well as some men) have utilized social media channels to tell their stories. Twitter hashtags such as #everydaysexism and #yesallwomen help victims to create a sense of community; by sharing their stories and reading about other people’s experiences they have learned they are not alone.
Change Through Collective Action
Such a need for community has empowered many to advocate for a collective action. A number of organizations and initiatives were established in the US and around the world with intention to raise awareness, provide victims with legal support when possible, and create a safe space for victims to heal. The initiatives endeavor to educate the broader public about the silent nature in which sexual harassment works to undermine and violate victims, particularly women.
Social media platforms and global actors such as the UN have allowed for a global movement against sexual harassment in the public space.
The following list provides a sampling of organizations that are working globally to advocate for a safe public space for everyone, particularly women and members of LGBT communities. A more extensive list can be found on the “Stop Street Harassment” website.
Act!onAid’s “Safe Cities for Women” campaign is sharing the voices of women in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas.
Hollaback focuses on the street harassment as intimidation and seeks to respond to such violations with exposure. Their campaign encourages everyone to document, map, and share their experiences of harassment in order to better understand where harassment occurs, ignite public conversations, and to develop innovative strategies to ensure equal access to public spaces.
The Huairou Commission is a coalition of grassroots women’s organizations that seeks to advance their capacity to collectively influence political spaces on behalf of their communities. In 2013 they launched the “Delhi and Beyond: Global Action for Safer Cities” campaign that brought together women’s groups and local governments in 58 cities around the world in joint action to make their cities and neighborhoods safer for women and girls.
The United Nations Secretary-General sponsored the UNiTE To End Violence Against Women campaign in order raise public awareness and gather political resources to be used toward preventing and ending violence against women and girls.
Valentina Luketa is a graduate student at Indiana University Bloomington’s Maurer School of Law, pursuing a PhD in Law and Democracy.