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Street Harassment: When It’s Not ‘Just a Joke’

A nationally representative online survey commissioned by nonprofit Stop Street Harassment (SSH) found that at least 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men have experienced some form of sexual harassment during their lifetime.

Sparked by the #MeToo movement, the survey sampled 2,000 people from across the nation. The study included reports on various forms of harassment such as honking, whistling, leering, vulgar gestures, following, explicit comments, groping, and assault.

The study found that 57 percent of the women sampled and 42 percent of the men first encountered sexual harassment or assault by the age of 17.

30 percent of the women and 22 percent of the men were reported to have had their first encounter with harassment by the age of 13.

Catcalling, just one of the many forms of street harassment, is often about establishing some version of dominance.

“It’s about power,” SSH board member Manuel Abril said. “It’s a way of controlling the environment and context. When something makes you turn a corner and not walk in a certain direction, it’s a form of control.”

In work environments, the stigma surrounding women reporting uncomfortable encounters is often why harassment is difficult to be vocal about. The “it was just a joke” vindication is also a silencing factor.

Women in retail face this dilemma, often unable to confront harassers about their behavior without potentially impacting work performance. They are left teeter-tottering on the line of “the customer is always right” and an instinctual fight-or-flight mode when receiving unsolicited comments or attention.

“Sexual harassment until more recently has been viewed as part and parcel of what people experienced,” said Michele Decker, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health director. “It’s often been dismissed, because it’s considered not as egregious as sexual assault or rape.”

Legislation to combat street harassment is difficult because it’s a hard act to monitor. Still, select cities have made efforts with education campaigns and criminalization threats aimed at offenders.

Jessica Raven, executive director of Collective Action for Safe Spaces, stated that the bystander intervention approach could work to minimize street harassment because it targets the issue at its core rather than prioritizing punishment after the incidents happen.

“Bystander intervention works really well because it makes people more likely to intervene and de-escalate a situation,” she said. “But [it] also makes them more likely to empathize and intervene.”

A Washington DC bill that utilizes the bystander method is making the rounds through officials.

Hollaback! deputy director Debjani Roy is also an advocate for bystander training, specifically in schools.

“We know it’s happening young,” Roy said, “I know from my own experience that this is where the behavior starts. It’s learned behavior and peer pressure: proving masculinity.”

Street and workplace harassment have weaved themselves into the lives of thousands of men and women. They are an equal opportunity offender and not the easiest to control, but perhaps knowing the prevalence of these issues will aid in the fight against them.

Featured Image by Richard on Flickr

Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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