Washington is hosting the first annual International Anti-Street Harassment Week this week. The city is taking part in the global movement with events including movie screenings, forums, performing arts presentations, speak outs, and self-defense classes. Stop Street Harassment, an organization founded by Holly Kearl in 2011, spearheaded the week-long event, which ends Saturday.
As part of her own research for her 2010 book, “Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women,” Kearl surveyed over 900 people from 23 countries and 45 states. Her research found that over 80 percent of women had been the target of sexually explicit comments and gestures, 75 percent had been followed, more than 50 percent had been groped, over one-third had faced public masturbation, and one-fourth had been assaulted by a male stranger.
Kearl spoke with The RootDC on Wednesday about her cause.
Can you touch on your initial involvement with street harassment research?
During the fall of 2006, I had to decide on a master’s thesis topic for my public policy and women’s studies program at George Washington University. I had recently learned about Web sites like Hollaback NYC and the Street Harassment Project.
Reading people’s street harassment stories on those sites was the first time I had a term for what I had experienced hundreds of times, especially during my college years in Northern California. I decided to do my thesis on street harassment, particularly how people were using the Web sites as a form of social consciousness-raising and idea sharing in lieu of social recognition of the problem.
What sparked your interest on the topic? Why is the issue so important to you?
Initially my interest was sparked because I finally had a name for what I’d experienced and hated. Then, as I learned more and more about the issue — its prevalence, scope, the negative impact it has on harassed persons’ lives and the limitations it places on their access to public spaces — I became really passionate about speaking out on the issue and learning as much as I could about it.
I’ve come to see street harassment as a human rights issue and a gender equality issue. No country has achieved gender equality and no country ever will until women have the same access to public spaces and the same level of acceptance and safety in public spaces as men.
What research have you found (apart from your own surveys) about women and street harassment? Why do you think there is so little information out there about it?
There is very little research on the topic available. In the USA, there haven’t been any national or statewide studies conducted. Many years ago, academic studies were conducted on its prevalence in the California Bay Area and in Indianapolis.
Both studies showed it was the experience of 100 percent of women. There have been two studies conducted about harassment on the transit systems in Chicago and NYC in more recent years, and more than 60 percent of respondents (mostly women) had experienced sexual harassment there.
Various studies conducted internationally, for example in Canada, Egypt, and Yemen, show it’s the experience of at least 80 percent of women. In Yemen, it was 99 percent. Street harassment is normalized and seen as the price you pay for being female or a member of the LGBQT community.
What would you say was your worst, or most memorable, personal encounter with street harassment?
One of my worst encounters was in the U.K. when I was studying abroad as a 20-year-old. I was going for a run through a neighborhood near campus one afternoon and I passed a group of young men, maybe a year or two younger than me, who were gathered on the driveway of a house. They talked about me amongst themselves, loudly so I could hear.
One of them said something about how I ran funny. Another one said, “That’s because I’m going into her from behind,” I was horrified. They all laughed and leered at me when I turned around to glare at them. I quickly assessed that no one else was on the streets and ran away as fast as I could. I have never been so angry about a street harassment incident as I was that day. It felt like a verbal rape.”
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