- Ingvard Ashby
Imagine being alone somewhere. Perhaps you’re walking down the street, taking public transit or just getting gas. You hear a voice come from behind you or maybe from a passing car. Someone is yelling at you.
Maybe the shout is a provocative statement about your appearance, or maybe it’s a question about what you’re doing. Maybe it’s a demand to smile or provide personal information.
Even though these interactions are given the innocuous label of “catcalling,” this is a form of street harassment. And most women will experience it at some point in their lifetimes, even in the wake of widely covered sexual harassment scandals and the personal accounts of the #MeToo movement.
According to Virginia-based nonprofit organization Stop Street Harassment, street harassment constitutes any form of unwelcome comments, gestures or actions directed to a stranger in a public place.
The harassment is usually of a sexual nature, based on the victim’s actual or perceived sex or gender. It can range from verbal harassment to unwanted touching, flashing or following.
Stop Street Harassment founder Holly Kearl has studied gender-based street harassment since 2007, and she founded the nonprofit in 2008.
“I think that street harassment is a manifestation of the inner qualities that exist in our society,” Kearl said in a phone interview. “And we still live in a sexist, racist, homophobic society.”
In 2014, Stop Street Harassment conducted a national study in cooperation with market research company GfK and found that of 2,000 individuals surveyed, 65 percent of women and 25 percent of men experienced street harassment.
For many victims of this harassment, one of the first questions after the experience is, “Why?”
“There’s women’s research on why men harass and self-reporting from them,” Kearl said. “Actually, some of the best research that we have is from women who would turn around and ask the men who harassed them, ‘Why are you doing this?’”
Kearl said the explanations given include boredom or a desire to bond with male peers. Kearl said some men could even be mimicking what they’ve seen in the media, like children’s cartoons that show male characters leering at female characters.
Lindsey Churchill, the director and founder of Women’s Research Center and the women’s, gender and sexuality studies minor program at University of Central Oklahoma, said she believes street harassment is an expression of some men’s perceived power.
“I recently read an article interviewing men who catcalled and asking them why they did it,” Churchill said via email. “The answers ranged from them just being ‘playful’ to thinking they may get some sort of positive response to wanting to feel like they have power. I think a lot of it comes down to power. Street harassment makes many women feel unsafe and gives the catcaller a form of power and control.”
Rape cultureHeather McLaughlin, assistant professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University, also said that street harassment is about the catcaller’s desire to assert authority and manhood.
“Research shows that sexual harassment is about power,” McLaughlin said via email. “Catcalling, like many other forms of harassment, is a way to express control and domination by reducing targets (usually women) to sexual objects. In many cases, it is also used to ‘prove’ masculinity to other men.”
Kearl agreed that street harassment is a product of rape culture and catcalling forces men’s views on women without consent or respect. Being made to have unwanted contact with someone is uncomfortable, annoying or scary.
“And also, for so many women, we have an underlying fear of rape,” she said. “And we never know which man who approaches us has an underlying intent to do something more.”
According to the Stop Street Harassment study, many victims of this form of harassment change their behavior as a result. They become more aware of their surroundings or travel more frequently in groups.
Kearl said that although street harassment has always been something women discuss, social media and viral videos have helped bring attention to the issue on a wider scale.
“For so long, it has been invisible to the men in our lives or to the women who are no longer experiencing it,” she said. “Anyone with internet access can write their story, they can tweet their story, they can take a video and put it on YouTube, they can put a picture of a harasser on Instagram, whatever they choose to do.”
Kearl said that telling harassers “no” can be empowering, but for those who don’t feel they can safely respond, talking or even posting about it later can help.
Marginalization and justiceStop Street Harassment’s report acknowledged that men, particularly members of the LGBTQ+ community, also experience street harassment. The study found that people of color are also more likely to experience street harassment more often.
Churchill said that combating street harassment begins with challenging and changing societal norms.
“Some people have suggested taking pictures or videos of the harasser or engaging with them,” she said via email. “Others say that many women do not feel safe doing this. However, I think the best way to combat street harassment is to change rape culture. This is obviously a monumental task. This starts with challenging the normalization of victim-blaming in our culture.”
Kearl also emphasized the importance of education.
“Education is just huge, especially with young men, because I think so often, they are just mimicking what they’ve seen, and they don’t really realize that women don’t like it and don’t want to have that experience,” Kearl said. “And so working on breaking that cycle is really, really important.”
Stop Street Harassment has partnered with Promundo-US as part of its effort to curb street harassment. Promundo is an international nonprofit that focuses on gender justice.
Kearl also said Men Can Stop Rape’s youth development program, Men of Strength Club, and the Coaching Boys Into Men program by Futures Without Violence are good educational resources.
Both Churchill and Kearl said they have experienced street harassment on multiple occasions. Kearl had just eloped with her longtime partner when she nearly got into a confrontation with two men making sexual remarks at her.
“I was like, of course, on my wedding day, I can’t even escape men on the street harassing me and making me feel degraded,” Kearl said.
She made the quick calculations — there were two of them, and she was in heels — and she chose to ignore them.
Stop Street Harassment provides online resources and a toll-free 24-hour hotline in both English and Spanish. Callers can get support and legal advice. The hotline can be reached at 855-897-5910.