What is Street Harassment?

Elizabeth West

Street harassment is often mined for comedy in films and commercials, but it is not humorous to the person to whom it is directed. Most females have experienced it at least once, others many times. Harassers might make sexually suggestive remarks, whistle, or leer at a person who in a street or public place such as a shopping mall or subway. Some harassers will follow their victims for a short way or even expose themselves, causing great alarm and fear for personal safety. Grabbing or touching victims can result in criminal charges.

Businessman with a briefcase
Businessman with a briefcase

Men who engage in street harassment may think they are being complimentary. Some do it to elicit a reaction from the victim, and may increase their remarks or gestures when they don’t receive one. Cultural disrespect of the female gender can contribute to this behavior. Regardless of the motivation, it can cause great stress and anxiety for the victim, since the intentions of the harasser are unknown. Victims often blame themselves for being present and will change their route or even quit jobs to avoid the commute.

Most women ignore public harassment, but it still makes them uncomfortable. Organizations that help raise awareness of street harassment recommend a confrontational approach, in which the victim calmly and firmly tells the harasser to stop the offensive behavior. The problem is that victims often don’t know if that approach could set a harasser off, triggering an aggressive or violent response, and they are often reluctant to confront them. If victims feel unsafe in a situation, they should leave as quickly as possible.

Laws against street harassment run up against free speech rights in the United States. When the behavior crosses into physical contact or exhibitionism, such as indecent exposure or public masturbation, it becomes subject to criminal charges. While certain cities where the problem is prevalent are considering some form of legislation, critics say the laws would be difficult to enforce. Bystanders are often afraid to intervene in case the situation escalates, or if they don’t wish to become witnesses in a court case.

Education is the best way of stopping street harassment. Many men who engage in this behavior don’t understand how frightening it is for the victim. Women who face street harassment should know they are not at fault. Reporting the incidents to police, transit workers, or the harasser’s employer will provide opportunities to stop criminal behavior. Employers can educate their workers on respectful behavior and implement disciplinary measures. Reducing tolerance of street harassment will help to end it.

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