New study suggests street harassment is widespread

June 4

This chart from the “Unsafe and Harassed in Public Spaces: A National Street Harassment Report,” illustrates the prevalence of street harassment among men and women in the United States. (Raquel Reichard)

Stop Street Harassment, a nonprofit working to end sexual harassment in public spaces, just released the first national study on street harassment. Titled “Unsafe and Harassed in Public Spaces: A National Street Harassment Report,” it consists of data reported by 2,000 people surveyed by market research company Gfk, and information from 10 focus groups SSH held across the United States between February and March 2014.

Many of the study’s findings support what has been suggested through the reader-submitted testimonials that SSH has been collecting since it was founded in 2008.

“Across all age[s], races, income levels, sexual orientations, and geographic locations, most women in the United States experience street harassment. Some men, especially men who identify as gay, bisexual, queer, or transgender, do as well,” reads the executive summary, written by SSH’s founder, Holly Kearl.

“There is a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about what street harassment is. A lot of people think of the stereotype of a woman in a short skirt walking by a construction site, when it’s so much more than that. It really has a negative impact on harassed people’s lives,” said Kearl in a phone interview.

“While my Web site and Hollaback‘s Web site collect so many stories, which are powerful, I think that they need to be supplemented by data to show the statistics of how many people are impacted,” she said.

According to the study, 65 percent of women and 25 percent of men in the United States have experienced street harassment. Fifty-seven percent of women and 18 percent of men surveyed reported experiencing verbal harassment. Forty-one percent of the women and 16 percent of the men reported experiencing physical forms of street harassment, like flashing or groping.

The study, which was funded by individual donors, had its limitations, the main one being diversity. Kearl would like to have gotten more responses from people of color, members of the LGBTQ community and teens  to get a better understanding of how individuals’ intersecting identities alter the street harassment they experience.


The types of street harassment reported by race. (Raquel Reichard)

The study also showed respondents who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender were more likely to have experienced street harassment. “This includes verbal forms (57 percent compared to 37 percent  of those who identified as heterosexual) and physically aggressive forms (45 percent compared to 28 percent, respectively),” the study reads.


From “Unsafe and Harassed in Public Spaces: A National Street Harassment Report.” (Raquel Reichard)

“Some of the demographics I’d like to see more research on include queer men of color, transgender individuals in general, and older gay/bisexual men, since my research identified an age curve for harassment, where the youngest and oldest participants experienced the most harassment. I’d also like to see more research on harassment of queer men by other queer men,” said  SSH board member  Patrick McNeil.

“I’m happy that SSH’s report gave voice to some groups who often are not included, such as immigrant and Native American women,” he said. He said he also was glad that SSH has broadened the conversation about street harassment to include gay and bisexual men, particularly because he believes this form of street harassment is about perception.

Cis, straight men can certainly be perceived as gay, and that can impact the way they navigate public spaces, but it can also impact the way they treat women in order to prove their masculinity to other men,” said McNeil, who became involved with SSH after hearing Kearl speak to his graduate class at George Washington University, where he also studied public policy. He first began writing about street harassment on SSH’s blog, and joined the board this year and wrote his thesis on how gay and bisexual people experience street harassment.

“Ninety percent of the men in my research said they sometimes, often, or always feel unwelcome in public spaces because of their sexual orientation. And whether that translates to actual acts of harassment is, in my mind, immaterial. One reason street harassment is so paralyzing is because it affects us even when it’s not actually happening to us,” McNeil said.

“I think the biggest takeaway from my research in particular was that — as this report suggests — street harassment has lasting effects long after individual incidents. About 71 percent of the men who took my survey said they constantly assess their surroundings when navigating public spaces, and that should concern us,” he said.

That is one of the reasons why SSH identifies street harassment as a human rights issue: It limits the way harassees are able to move about their communities by making them feel uncomfortable or unsafe.

One of the other issues was getting study participants to accurately identify harassment. Public, sexual harassment is so normal that harassees do not always mentally flag their experiences as something serious, unless physically aggressive harassment is involved.

“Some people would say, ‘I was only harassed once,’ and would recount a physical experience, but as the conversation continued, there were verbal experiences that came up,” Kearl said.

Kearl was surprised that out of the 91 percent of the survey participants who believed there are ways to end street harassment, 55 percent of them felt that the best way was to install more security cameras and increase the police presence in their communities, while 53 percent of respondents suggested educational workshops about respectful interactions with strangers.

“I wonder if that’s why street harassment is such a big problem, in part, because parents and adults aren’t talking to kids about it. They’re just kind of living the example of what they see out there, and they don’t necessarily understand why this is a problem, so we just have the cycle perpetuate,” said Kearl, who co-authored a national study on sexual harassment among children in grades 7 through 12 in 2011.

She believes that talking to children about respect, consent and what is appropriate and inappropriate humor (in another harassment survey, many boys reported harassing other people as a joke) can help to end the cycle.

“A national study like this one is so important because it confirms what street harassment writers and researchers — and those affected by street harassment — already knew: that it’s not just a compliment or the price you pay for being a woman or for being gay,” McNeil said.

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