Global awareness has recently risen about the street harassment experienced by women worldwide. Though there is little consistency in street climates towards women, gendered harassment exists in cities considered both developed and developing. And while there are more urgent threats to women daily—from sexual violence to human trafficking to honor killings—it’s also important to become aware of the daily, seemingly inconsequential language that normalizes gender inequality and violence.
Street harassment, defined as “any action or comment between strangers in public places that is disrespectful, unwelcome, threatening and or harassing, and is motivated by gender” may be hard to identify—people draw different lines as to when a compliment becomes a catcall, and when a catcall feels threatening. But it’s pervasive. As Ebony magazine reported last year, by age 19, nearly 90 percent of American women have experienced some form of street harassment. Given that so many women, in America and abroad, are victims of gender-based violence and sexual assault, street harassment, which induces anger, fear, and shame, can evoke significant trauma.
Gendered street harassment is a worldwide phenomenon. In fact, a quick Google search will list cities that are less safe for female travelers just due to harassment. In Beirut, women are advised to “always ignore catcalls and advances,” by Caroline Chalouhi, the Coordinator of International Students at the American University of Beirut. Egypt and India are also cited as cities with particularly dangerous street environments for women. In India, “street harassment is an everyday reality for women,” said Rubina Singh in The New York Times, the director of the Hollaback chapter in Chandigarh, an international organization that addresses street harassment. “Comments, staring, stalking, groping and much more are pretty much expected to be experienced by a woman traveling here,” she said. Other cities deemed dangerous for women are those along the Mediterranean Coast, in Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Eastern Europe.
To raise awareness about and energies against such harassment, author and activist Holly Kearl founded Anti-Street Harassment Week. This past spring marked the campaign’s second year, and over 100 advocacy groups from 18 countries joined to address this global issue. Efforts ranged from Twitter campaigns to public art to radio shows to street theater. There were dozens of events held in New York, a city that publicly exhibited portraits by the artist and founder of “Stop Telling Women to Smile” Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. In Yemen, the Safe Streets Campaign distributed a collection of individual’s experiences with street harassment, contacting human rights and women’s groups, as well as journalists and politicians. In Germany, the group Pro Change handed out soccer-style “red cards” against street harassment in subway stops, clubs, and pubs, sites where women were commonly made to feel unsafe.
These campaigns recognize that dangerous attitudes and actions towards women are normalized through public language. The Bureau of Justice Statistics state one in every six American women is sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Though men are also victims of sexual assault, according to the US Department of Justice, 91 percent of reported victims of rape and assault are female. The National Institute of Justice and the Bureau of Justice Statistics have also studied violence against collegiate women, and found that, “the percentage of completed or attempted rape victimization among women in higher educational institutions might climb to between one-fifth and one-quarter.” Such statistics highlight how gender politics manifest more subtly in public places, rendering compliments and catcalls assertions of power over women who are statistically more likely to be subject to violence. Language that can seem inconsequential in reality normalizes subjugation—words, like attacks, allow others to impose their will on women. Rape culture demands that women are sexually subservient to men, and by asserting one’s power to regard women as sexual objects publicly, cat-calling reinforces such a culture.
The study of street harassment has recently grown more nuanced. Researchers found that catcalling has reverberating psychological effects, and not only for its victims. A study at the University of Connecticut by Stephanie Chaudoirand and Diane Quinn found that the bystander effect for sexism is strong; when seeing another woman catcalled, women identify more with their gender as a group and displayed heightened negativity towards male bystanders in addition to the harasser himself. The researchers also write about psychological effects pertaining to fear and insecurities, stating, “the experience of street harassment is directly related to greater preoccupation with physical appearance and body shame, and is indirectly related to heightened fears of rape for US undergraduate women.”
Street harassment, a manifestation of global sexism only recently acknowledged and explored, is indicative of far greater gendered violence. Such language stems from and normalizes rape culture, and affects the psychological health within and safety of our cities. Though political and journalistic discourse increasingly addresses the public manifestations of gender inequality and violence, there is surely more to be done. Efforts like Anti-Street Harassment Week are effective in quickly and powerfully raising awareness, as well as creating environments that welcome candid discourse. Hopefully more comprehensive policy and social reform lay on the horizon.
Anna Meixler (’16) is an American Studies major in Ezra Stiles College, as well as a senior editor for the publication.