The first time I remember being followed I was 12 years old and a car full of men slowed down to drive next to me as I walked. While one shouted “compliments,” the others barked and howled.
The most recent time was last year, while walking with my teenage daughters in what would be considered a “safe” part of Washington. Three men on a sidewalk whistled as we passed them, then they started walking behind us. Aware of a possible problem, I positioned myself between the men and the girls, whom I then stopped, so that the men would have to pass us. After they’d gone by, I felt more comfortable walking to our destination, a stoop to a front door. But when I turned to let the girls in ahead of me, there on the stair behind them was one of the men who said, “I’ll come in with you.” I held up my phone, dialed 911 and told him to leave. He smirked and sauntered away, pausing at the gate to wave.
According to a newly released global study conducted by the anti-street harassment organization Hollaback and Cornell University, more than three-quarters of surveyed US women (77 percent) under 40 report being followed during the past year. That number is 71 percent globally. More than 50 percent of women report being groped, fondled or assaulted by passing men.
These are commonly employed practices in a larger arsenal of street harassment tactics that includes verbal and non-verbal harassment, exposure and also sexualized surveillance. For example, only months after the man followed us up the stairs, a truck full of men snapped pictures as we walked together, one of them yelling, “Now we have you forever.” Every time something like this happens, I talk to my children and their friends about harassment as a regulatory force in culture.
Depending on the country, between 80 to 98 percent of women report street harassment, most of them first experiencing it before they are 17. For girls of color, LGBTQ community and women with disabilities, harassment can be particularly acute.
Persistent and often aggressive street harassment substantively impacts the lives of girls, women and gender non-conforming people, and yet only rarely do we talk about the problem of street harassment in terms of public harm, health and gendered costs.
We change our commutes, alter our plans, create complicated exercise rituals, calibrate our clothing, speech and behavior in order to avoid being touched, interrupted, followed and approached, almost always by men whose possible malevolence is impossible to gauge. And yes, our daughters must do the same.
While stories of stranger-perpetrated violence against women are constant fodder, the role of street harassment as the initial component of violence is often ignored. Contrary to popular belief, episodes that tilt from hostile verbal interactions to violence occur regularly, and similar assaults reported in isolation from one another and rarely referencing street harassment, can be found in every U.S. city. Last year, for example, a 14-year old girl in Florida was pulled into a man’s car, assaulted and then thrown out and run over. Headlines describing the assault used words like, “Girl kidnapped,” but first, she refused the man’s harassing request for sex as he drove by. Multiple murders of transwomen of color have started this way. The common refrain is that those targeted with harassment should call police for help. Even that can be problematic for many women, myself included, when police officers have themselves been the harassers.
While many people, even women, describe street harassment as flattering, it is a negative and costly phenomenon and part of a broader tolerance for a spectrum of gender-based violence. In the U.S., one in five women are raped, almost one in three women live with intimate partner violence, and three are killed every day by male partners. In addition, the Department of Justice’s most recent crime report indicates that between 2004 and 2013 rates of violent crimes against men and women reached equal levels of prevalence as the result of violent crimes against men declining while those against women are increasing.
Consciously or not, girls and women fold this information into their lives in an infinite number of ways, two of which are anxiety and hyper vigilance, both of which also take a toll on women’s well being. Recently, researchers at the University of Mary Washington’s measured accrued effects on women of two key factors: “body surveillance” and “unwanted sexual advances,” such as those that come up daily in street harassment. They specifically looked at the relationship between harassment, objectification, depression, body evaluation and shame. Their conclusion was that a huge number of women experience “insidious trauma” over time, leading to negative health outcomes.
Despite the fact that men have higher rates of what are recognized traumas leading to post traumatic stress disorder, women are more than twice as likely to have anxiety disorders and to report fatigue than men. That women experience higher incidences of symptoms and rates of PTSD in general has puzzled doctors, but for decades now researchers have documented the link between concerns about physical safety and psychological harm.
Before puberty, boys and girls experience depression and anxiety at similar rates, but upon puberty, when double standards where we restrict girls due to safety concerns often kick in, girls’ rates triple. Teen girls are up to six times as likely to suffer from anxiety than teen boys.
If you have a teenage daughter, she is almost certainly experiencing street and other forms of sexual harassment, the impacts of which the American Psychological Association have outlined. She might even find street harassment, a veritable female rite of passage into adulthood, flattering. It’s important that girls learn what harassment is, and to understand they are not obliged to be nice to or feel flattered by harassers. Parents can talk to their children about safety without making reality scary. They can talk to boys about objectification and consent without making reality scary. Conversations about harassment mean that girls are less likely to blame themselves or develop acute shame or self-objectification and that boys can learn important lessons about empathy, self-regulation and entitlement.
To help talk to kids about it, the organization Stop Street Harassment has a great toolkits for boys and men as well as several for girls and women. In addition, Hollaback also lists resources, including their crowd-sourcing harassment app.
The heightened awareness demanded by harassment is one dimension of a well-documented safety gap in the United States. “Most Americans continue to feel safe in their immediate communities, with 63 percent saying they would not be afraid to walk alone there at night,” researchers at Gallup explained in a December survey released of their annual crime survey.
But that number tells two tales: almost half of women, 45 percent say they do not feel safe, while 73 percent of men reported that they do. This gap between men’s and women’s sense of safety in their own neighborhoods has remained in the double digits for decades.
Public space should serve everyone’s needs equally and it’s long past the time when girls and women should be on constant alert.
Let’s hope it can change with our children.
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