- Posted August 24, 2013 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Speaking up about sexual violence
Sexual Harassment in Public Spaces is a Global Problem
I was saddened to read the story of Michaela Cross, the American college student who faced harassment in India. However, I am not surprised at all. Sexual harassment in public spaces is a global problem but for far too long it has been a hidden problem. I applaud her – and everyone else – who is sharing a personal story to make this a visible problem.
This is my story. As a young American woman, I, like every other woman I know, have experienced countless instances of sexual harassment in public spaces, termed street harassment. In fact, it must number in the hundreds by now.
I am a long distance runner who ran my first marathon when I was 14 years old (16 years ago), and running is when I experience street harassment the most. Men in cars whizzing by, honking, whistling, and yelling inappropriate comments at me. “I like the way your tits bounce when you run,” is one example.
In some places where I’ve lived, the harassment has been so constant that I could count up to 10 instances during a one-hour run. It annoyed me, made me mad, and made me feel like a second-class citizen who could not simply go for a run without being bothered. Men have also followed and chased me during my runs – both in California and in Virginia - which terrified me and left me in tears once I had made it to safety.
That’s not the only time I face harassment though. Men have harassed me at gas stations, stores, parks and while walking to volunteer at a domestic violence shelter, walking my dogs, and riding the subway. They mostly harass me when I’m alone but I’ve even been harassed with my parents and my male partner nearby.
This week alone, I was harassed twice. Once while entering a gas station in Pennsylvania by two men in a truck at a nearby red light, and then by a man on a motorcycle while I was in my car in Washington, D.C. sitting at a red light.
My most alarming experience happened near the end of my first semester of college at a university in northern California. At the end of my team’s cross country season, I attended a party at a teammate’s house. At the end of the party, I planned to walk back to campus with another teammate and I was outside, waiting at the end of the driveway for her. As I stood there, a group of men walked by and one of them, who easily outweighed me by 200 pounds, reached out and grabbed my crotch, laughing. I was shocked, stunned, silenced, and fearful. Thankfully they kept walking. That is sexual assault but at the time, I didn’t even know to call it that.
I have traveled to 48 US states and been harassed in a lot of them. I’ve traveled to more than a dozen countries and likewise faced harassment in many of them, too, despite being there a short period of time. This includes India, Egypt, England, Belgium, and Canada.
Street harassment is more than just a personal experience to me. It is something I regularly write and speak about and also an issue I organize people to take action to stop.
I am the founder of the nonprofit organization Stop Street Harassment and the author of the book Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women (Praeger 2010). I began my work on this topic in 2007 when I wrote my master’s thesis on it at George Washington University.
Street harassment is truly a global problem. Studies show that more than 90% of women in countries like Egypt, India, Yemen, and the USA experience it. More than 80% do in Canada. A recent study in France found that 25% of women ages 18-29 feel scared when they walk down the streets. In London, 43% of women ages 18-34 had experienced street harassment just during the prior year.
If you add to that the thousands of stories women have shared on my blog Stop Street Harassment, on the Hollaback! sites, and through the The Everyday Sexism Project, as well as the stories they share on personal blogs, Tumblrs and other social media sites, you can see that this is a huge problem.
Michaela Cross shared the very real impact street harassment had on her life. She is not unusual in that respect, either.
Repeated street harassment and severe forms of it cause many women emotional distress and significantly impact their lives, including prompting them to avoid going places alone, to change routes and routines, and even to move neighborhoods or quit jobs.
I’ve seen this over and over through the stories shared on my blog Stop Street Harassment. There was the woman in Kansas who considered dropping out of her PhD program because she was routinely harassed by men near her campus; a woman in Mississippi who quit her job at a retail store because male customers began following her to her car after her shift; and a woman in California who was harassed so many times while she waited for a bus to campus that she finally went home, feeling upset and powerless, and missed the class.
Most telling is how unsafe street harassment makes women feel. Gallup data from surveys conducted in 143 countries in 2011 show that in every single county, women are considerably more likely than men to say they feel unsafe walking alone at night in their communities. Women in low-income countries and high-income countries reported the same rate: 41% felt unsafe. In the USA, 38 percent of women felt unsafe, compared with 11 percent of men.
I also want to bring up the young age street harassment begins. For my book, I surveyed 811 women from 23 countries and 45 US states and nearly 1 in 4 had been harassed in public by men by age 12. That’s seventh grade. Nearly 90% had been harassed by age 19.
Some women even say that the first time they heard sexual comments from men on the street was the moment when they felt they transitioned from girlhood to womanhood. This is a sad statement about womanhood in our society.
In the USA, Monday is Women’s Equality Day. I argue that the USA – and no other country – will achieve women’s equality until street harassment ends. Until we can travel and study abroad, walk to the corner store, wait for a bus, and go to a park without fearing or experiencing sexual harassment, we are not equal.
What can we do?
If you’ve faced street harassment, share your stories, especially with men in your life. Make visible this too-often invisible problem. If someone shares a story with you, don’t dismiss it, don’t tell them it’s a compliment, don’t tell them it’s their fault because of what they’re wearing or that they shouldn’t have been there or out alone. Instead, believe them, offer them support, and tell them you’re sorry that happened.
If you have children, nieces/nephews, teach or mentor youth, talk to them about sexual harassment, about respect, and about how to get help. Let’s ensure that the next generation can be in public spaces safely.
Most of all, don’t harass others, be respectful. Ask for consent before talking to someone. Never use sexual language on the street with someone you don’t know without permission to do so. Treat people how you would want someone you love to be treated.
Let’s make public places free from sexual harassment.