Trigger warning: descriptions of street harassment.
“The first time I was catcalled, I was 11-years-old. Every day after school, I walked less than a block away from the bus stop to my house. One day, a man pulled up beside me in his car and rolled down the window and asked how old I was. When I didn’t answer, he told me not to be shy and that he was just having “a little fun”. I remember my heart starting to race – so fast that it felt like it was gargling in my throat.” — Faith Brar
In fourth grade and walking by an apartment building. Nine years old and walking with her grandmother. Twelve years old and walking the family dog. Nine years old, walking out of McDonald’s. Six to seven years old, going to a bathroom. Eleven years old and at school.
These are only some women’s stories about the first times they were catcalled. From as young as six years old, children and adults alike are subjected to street harassment every day. In fact, according to two online studies by Stop Street Harassment, at least 99 percent of respondents say they have experienced some form of street harassment — including but not limited to verbal comments, honking, whistling, leering, vulgar gestures, and stalking.
A ubiquitous problem, street harassment is a serious part of rape culture that normalizes unwanted, non-consensual sexual advances. Furthermore, it is a way for harassers to assert their “power and privilege over a public space,” thus further perpetuating a cycle of gender inequality. Street harassment leaves those targeted feeling unsafe, threatened, fearful, humiliated, and violated. And it’s not just the actual harassment itself, but as one writer describes it, “the fear of what might happen next is haunting.”
A little over a year ago, in May 2017, Pussy Division – a feminist activist group – put up “CATCALL CRIME SCENE” yellow tape around Philadelphia as part of a public art installation to raise awareness about street harassment.
“If our tape is inconvenient or annoying, then think of how inconvenient it is being chased by men and too scared to say no because we could get hurt or even killed,” stated Lara Witt, the group’s spokesperson.
Inconvenient is an understatement. According to a large-scale research survey conducted by Hollaback! and Cornell University, 72% of American women reported taking different transportation due to harassment. Globally, the numbers are even worse. More than 76% of Argentinian women reported avoiding an area in their own town or city because of harassment. 80% of German women and more than 88% of Italian women reported taking different routes home because of harassment, 80% of Indian women reported being unwilling to go out at night because of harassment, and 80% of South African women reported changing their clothing because of harassment.
Not only does street harassment intrude into victims’ everyday lives, hindering their freedom and forcing them – instead of the harassers – to sacrifice their comfort and convenience for their safety, but it is psychologically damaging as well. According to a 2008 study of college women, street harassment was significantly related to self-objectification, which has been linked to depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Another alarming study of 297 undergraduate women found that objectification was associated with decreased sexual assertiveness, which was associated with an increased risk of sexual victimization. This means that frequent harassment can often lead to diminished sexual assertiveness, which can leave people at a higher risk of sexual assault.
Furthermore, unwanted sexual advances such as street harassment can be “insidiously traumatic,” according to a study published in 2014. As one writer stated, “every instance of harassment contains the threat of violence: what if I don’t respond the way the harasser thinks I should? Will he follow me? Will he pull me into his car? What if I see him again when it’s dark, or I’m alone, or he has friends with him?” This constant state of fear that harassment could escalate to assault or other forms of violence can have serious impacts on individuals’ mental health. It is also important to note that street harassment can be triggering for survivors of sexual violence.
Street harassment is often done with a sense of entitlement – entitlement to comment on other people’s appearance and bodies, entitlement that other people and their bodies exist solely for the harasser’s “visual pleasure.” This same sense of entitlement – entitlement to sex, entitlement to someone else’s body – is one that can lead to sexual violence.
This month, France passed a bill that outlaws catcalling and street harassment, making them punishable with on-the-spot fines of up to 750 euros. While extra policing might not necessarily be the answer, as it can lead to unintended consequences that disproportionately harm people of color, it is reassuring to see a nation take street harassment seriously and attempt to put an end to it. There are various other ways to address street harassment, from educating others about its detrimental impacts to using the Hollaback! app to report instances of street harassment and let others know that you’ve “got (their) backs.” Regardless of how each individual chooses to address the issue, what matters is that we keep the conversation going and continue to raise awareness on the prevalence of this problem.
In our fight to end violence and inequality, there is no such thing as an unimportant or “small” issue. Every instance of oppression is one that ultimately feeds into a greater cycle of inequality and violence. If we want to see a world free of violence, that must be a world where threats of violence, objectification, and harassment are not brushed to the side – a world where everyone feels safe to go outside.
 The report did not address gender non-conforming individuals.
Featured image source: http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/2013/09/stwtskickstarter/
Maryum Elnasseh is a rising junior at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is double-majoring in journalism and political science, with a concentration in civil rights. At the Action Alliance, Maryum has worked as the Real Story Intern since February, and this is her last post as an intern. We wish Maryum the best as she heads back to school!