80-100% of women are street harassed

November 30, 2009

Various studies show that 80 to 100 percent of women have experienced street harassment. A significant percentage of women say this regularly happens to them on public transportation.

Summaries of three of 11 recent studies include:

A 2002 survey of Beijing, China, citizens showed that 70 percent had been subjected to a form of sexual harassment. Most people said it occurred on public transportation, including 58 percent who said it occurred on the bus.[i]

During the summer of 2003, members of the Rogers Park Young Women’s Action Team in Chicago surveyed 168 neighborhood girls ages 13 to 19 about street harassment and interviewed 134 more in focus groups. They published their findings in a report titled “Hey Cutie, Can I Get Your Digits?” Of their respondents, 86 percent had been catcalled on the street, 36 percent said men harassed them daily, and 60 percent said they felt unsafe walking in their neighborhoods.[ii]

In Yemen, the Yemen Times conducted a survey on teasing and sexual harassment in Sana’a in 2009. Ninety percent of the 70 interviewees from Sana’a said they had been sexually harassed in public. Seventy-two percent of the women said they were called sexually-charged names while walking on the streets and 20 percent of this group said it happens on a regular basis. About 37 percent of the sample said they had experienced physical harassment. Being veiled did not seem to lessen the harassment.[iii]

We need many more studies to better track the extent of the problem of street harassment. The more we know, the more informed strategies we can use to address the root causes and work on prevention strategies.


[i] “Harassment rampant on public transportation,” Shanghi Star, 11 April 2002, http://app1.chinadaily.com.cn/star/2002/0411/cn8-4.html (15 March 2009).

[ii] Amaya N. Roberson, “Anti-Street Harassment,” Off Our Backs, May-June 2005, page 48.

[iii] “Sexual harassment deters women from outdoor activities,” Yemen Times, 21 January 2009, http://www.yementimes.com/article.shtml?i=1226&p=report&a=2 (15 March 2009).



An underlying fear of rape

November 25, 2009

“A world without rapists would be a world in which women moved freely without fear of men. That some men rape provides a sufficient threat to keep all women in a constant state of intimidation, forever conscious of the knowledge that the biological tool must be held in awe, for it may turn to weapon with sudden swiftness born of harmful intent.” – Susan  Brownmiller in Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape

Today is day one of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence. In commemoration, I want to briefly touch on the direct connection between gender violence and street harassment (I explore it in depth in my forthcoming book on street harassment).

Most women worry about rape, particularly when they are alone.  For example, in their book The Female Fear: The Social Cost of Rape, Margaret T. Gordon and Stephanie Riger found that one-third of the women they studied reported worrying at least once a month about being raped. A third of the women said that their fear of rape is ‘part of the background’ of their lives and ‘one of those things that’s always there.’ Another third claimed they never worried about rape but still reported taking precautions, unconsciously or consciously, to try to avoid being raped.

Women fear stranger rape the most. While women are more likely to be sexually assaulted by people they know than by strangers, 27 percent of reported rapes are perpetrated by strangers (see RAINN stats). Add to this reality the fact that male stranger-perpetrated rapes are the type we hear about the most in the news and see on tv shows or movies (see The Female Fear) and they are the type that tend to be random, and it is no wonder women fear them more.

The fear of strange rape impacts how women feel in public. A study by Canadian sociologists Ross MacMillan, Annette Nierobisz, and Sandy Welsh of over 12,000 Canadian women showed that stranger harassment and assault has a more consistent and significant impact on women’s fears in public than non-stranger harassment and assault. This fear significantly reduces women’s perceptions of safety while walking alone at night, using public transportation, walking alone in a parking garage, and while home alone at night (p 315, 319).

Women’s fear of stranger harassment and assault came up many times in  stories written by women who took my 2008 informal online survey, which I conducted for my book on street harassment. For example, one woman wrote:

“I always feel uncomfortable when I am out alone at night in my neighborhood. As every man walks past me, I silently evaluate how likely he is to rape me and what I would do if that happened. I always notice how many people are around, what their gender is, etc.”

Also contributing to women’s fears of stranger assault is the fact that rapists don’t wear signs. Marilyn French wrote in The War Against Women, “Women are afraid in a world in which almost half the population bears the guise of the predator, in which no factor – age, dress, or color – distinguishes a man who will harm a woman for one who will not” (197).

Consequently, women do not know which man who approaches her in public is a threat. Cynthia Grant Bowman, author of “Street Harassment and the Informal Ghettoization of Women,” found that when women discussed their feelings about street harassment, they usually cited their fear of rape. In her book Back Off! how to confront and stop sexual harassment and harassers, Martha Langelan wrote that for women, an underlying tension is always wondering how far the harasser will go, will he become violent? (p 41) In the conclusion to Gardner’s book Passing By: Gender and Public Harassment she wrote that “it is impossible to state too strongly how constant the theme of fear was” among the nearly 300 women she interviewed in Indianapolis regarding male harassment (p 240).

This underlying fear of rape is particularly acute in several circumstances:

  • if the woman is alone
  • if the man approaches the woman in an isolated area
  • if it is dark out
  • if the man is larger than the woman is or is otherwise in a position of power (for example in a car while she is on foot)
  • if there are several men versus one woman
  • if the woman has been assaulted or seriously harassed in the past
  • if the woman knows that another woman has been raped or assaulted in the area

Even if the man has innocent intentions, a woman does not know that and may be wary, particularly in the circumstances outlined above. (Incidentally, most men harass women when women are alone and may do so in packs, so already they are creating a circumstance where women are more fearful.)

Men, this is the reality that many women live in. As it relates to how you interact with women in public, try not to approach or talk to a woman who is alone (or in the other circumstances listed above). Also, be respectful of her as a person. She may be occupied or in a hurry and have no desire to talk to strangers so make sure approaching her is absolutely necessary before you do so (such as to ask directions). If you are trying to “pick her up,” note that not all women are interested in men, many women are already in a relationship, and many of the remaining women are wary about giving out information to complete strangers they see on the street. So please consider not doing so (and I’m not talking about bars or clubs but places like streets, bus stops, subway cars, grocery stores, and malls). And if you do try to pick her up and she ignores you or does not agree to go out with you etc, do not call her a bitch or a ho or stuck up.

Please see “How to Talk to Women in Public” (which includes a link to the most excellent blog post on Shapely Prose, “Schrodinger’s Rapist: or a guy’s guide to approaching strange women without being maced”) for more.

On other days during the 16 Days, I will write on this year’s theme, Commit, Act, Demand: We CAN End Violence Against Women!, about the ways we can work to end male harassment and assault of women strangers in public spaces.


“I am not your sista”

November 25, 2009

I’m a Black woman, and I hate the familiarity some Black men who are strangers use toward me.

I had just gotten off the bus to go to work this morning, feeling drowsy and out of it. I see this delivery guy wheeling cartons of liquor into one of the restaurants, and he leans in close to me and says “Ay, girl!” as if we were long-time buddies or something. I am tired and am not in the mood to entertain men I don’t know, so I don’t respond. I stare straight ahead and continue on my destination.

“You can’t speak?” he says. “You too good to speak?” I still don’t bother to respond, and I don’t bother to look back his way either when he continues to attempt to elicit my attention.

He hadn’t bothered to talk to any of the other women of different races who walked by—he only targeted me. I hate how harassers think that being the same race gives them an automatic “in” to bother me. I am not your “sista”—you are a STRANGER to me. I’m just a woman who wants to be left alone.

– “Anonymous Black Woman”

Location: M Street between Wisconsin and 31st, Washington, DC

Share your street harassment story today and help raise awareness about the problem. Include your location and it will be added to the Street Harassment Map.


“Never Wanted to Be A Princess”

November 24, 2009

Saturday, Nov. 21st around 4 p.m. near City Hall in NYC, I got out of the subway and was running late to meet my boyfriend. A couple of men passed me and one said, “You have a nice holiday now!” (which while weird, isn’t so bad) as I passed him he followed up with, “I think you look like a princess.”

Around the corner and a completely different man pushing a hand truck of produce goes, “Heeeeey sweetie!”

Made me feel like I must have been wearing something inappropriate/overly revealing to receive so much attention. I hate that I internalize it like that.

– ML

Location: New York City

Share your street harassment story today and help raise awareness about the problem. Include your location and it will be added to the Street Harassment Map.


Harassment Hotline

November 23, 2009

Should employers be responsible if their employees harass women in public, while the employee is on the job?

Recently I read Deborah Thompson’s article “‘The Woman in the Street:’ Reclaiming the Public Space from Sexual Harassment” (a 1994 article in the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism) and I like her ideas on this topic.

“While Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits workplace discrimination] was never intended to apply outside the workplace, its hostile environment principles provide a useful framework from which to develop a liability regime to protect all women who are street harassed by ‘men at work.’

This regime would hold employers vicariously liable for public sexual harassment by their employees if the employer failed to warn workers that street harassment is intolerable, failed to implement as system by which members of the public could formally file a complaint, or failed to take remedial action when members of the public complained about harassment by their employees.

It would be relatively easy to develop a complaint procedure for street harassment. For example, instead of signs on the back of company trucks that read, ‘How’s my driving, call 1-800-555-1212,’ trucks and taxis could display signs that read, ‘If the driver of this vehicle harasses you, call 1-800-555-1212.’

Similarly at construction sites, there should be a number for women to call to complain about harassment by workers. Such a ‘Harassment Hotline’ would be a first step in ending the hostile environment of outdoor workplaces.

It would send a valuable message that a particular company cares about its image and does not tolerate workers who invade and bombard communities with sexual harassment…

In sum, the societal interest of promoting the privacy, safety, mobility, and equality of women should outweigh the desire of employees to engage in recreational sexual harassment while on the job.”

What do you think?

Here are two stories submitted by contributors who were able to report a harassing man or men to the employer and meet with success. And it would be even easier to make these kinds of reports if the number to call regarding harassment was prominently posted.