By Holly Kearl
This April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Primary prevention for sexual violence involves education and the creation of safe environments, including on the streets of our cities, towns, and neighborhoods. One important issue that seldom receives attention from researchers or the media is the street harassment that happens to women walking down sidewalks, taking public transportation, and in other public places. Guest blogger Holly Kearl, author and Program Manager with the American Association of University Women (AAUW), outlines the impact of street harassment on women, and calls for additional measures to effectively address and prevent this type of activity.
When it comes to creating policies that address the sexual harassment that happens in public places between strangers, termed street harassment, the phrase that comes to mind is catch-22. Let me explain.
Four years ago, I wrote my master’s thesis at George Washington University on street harassment. I examined how women were using websites to address and deal with street harassment in lieu of legal regulations or useful policies. While conducting a literature review, I was shocked to learn that few street harassment studies exist, few academic articles had been written on the topic, and almost no books had been published.
These discoveries led me to write my own book about street harassment, published last year by Praeger. As part of the book research, I informally surveyed more than 900 people from 23 countries and 45 U.S. states. Ninety-nine percent of the women had experienced street harassment, and not just whistling or honking. More than 80 percent had been the target of sexually explicit comments and vulgar gestures, 75 percent had been followed, over half had been groped, more than one-third had faced public masturbation, and one-fourth had been assaulted by a male stranger.
In the United States, there have only been two non-campus-based studies about street harassment, both of which showed it was the experience of 100 percent of the women and the types of harassment women experienced were similar to my findings. Both studies were conducted in the 1990s, one in Indianapolis and the other in the California Bay Area.
The statistics from my study, even though they are informal, were shocking. What shocked me even more was realizing how many women had changed their lives because of actual or feared street harassment. Most of my survey respondents reported “on guard” behaviors while in public on at least a monthly basis, including constantly assessing their surroundings, avoiding making eye contact, and pretending to talk on a cell phone.
The next most common type of behavior was that which restricted their access to public spaces, such as taking alternate routes because of harassers, avoiding being in public alone, and paying for a gym membership rather than exercising outside.
Most alarming, a percentage of women had made significant life decisions because of harassment. Around 20 percent had moved to a new neighborhood because of harassers in the area and almost 10 percent had changed jobs because of harassers along the commute.
When I discovered these results, it became clear to me that street harassment has a negative economic impact on women and it impedes women’s equality.
The economic impact is even clearer when you read women’s stories on sites like my blog Stop Street Harassment and the 25 Hollaback websites. On these sites, women share how they pay for taxis instead of taking public transportation after dark, drive three blocks instead of walking, skip evening networking events, and avoid or drop out of night classes.
After four years of learning, writing, and speaking about this issue, I know there will never be gender equality until street harassment ends. I also understand that policymakers are hard-pressed to make significant changes without data that illustrates a problem and without research suggesting policies that could improve the problem.
This is where we reach the catch-22.
To truly address street harassment, we need citywide, statewide, and/or nationwide studies to give us concrete data about its prevalence, the impact it has on women’s lives, and why it happens (and thus what we can do to prevent it). Then policies can follow.
These important studies require funding to be conducted well (I did my informal survey online, with a shoestring budget). Funders often hesitate to put money behind an initiative that has not been proven to be a problem. Street harassment hasn’t been proven to be a problem because there are so few studies. There are so few studies because there is no funding…and back and forth and back and forth.
This is unacceptable. In the United States, we take pride in our country being the land of the free, but that’s not true for women. Girls routinely face harassment on their way to school and when they are out with friends, and women routinely face harassment on their way to work or while running errands – particularly if they walk or take public transportation. They should not be penalized because of this catch-22.
It’s time to break the cycle. It’s time for a smart funder to realize that the stories, informal data, and studies from the 1990s support the need for new, comprehensive studies that can inform new policies—and help make our streets safe and free for girls and women, as well as for boys and men.
Holly Kearl is the American Association of University Women Program Manager and the author of Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women (Praeger Publishers, 2010). Holly has written articles about street harassment for publications including the Guardian, Forbes.com, Huffington Post, and Ms. Magazine Blog.