Part I will discuss the concept of stranger/street harassment and how it affects women. Part II will discuss anecdotal stories of real stranger harassment and how some countries have decided to deal with it.
Stranger sexual harassment, or "street harassment" is no new phenomenon. When women go out in public, they frequently experience men ogling, cat-calling, yelling sexual propositions, commenting on their bodies, groping them, and raping them. I have personally experienced nearly all of these, and many of my female friends have as well. While other forms of sexual harassment have been considered a problem large enough to garner the attention of the academic, legislative, and judicial communities (see the Civil Rights Act of 1964, landmark Supreme Court cases dealing with sex discrimination and sexual harassment), street harassment has been largely ignored.
Cynthia Grant Bowman's 1993 article in the Harvard Law Review describes stranger harassment as including
Both verbal and nonverbal behavior, such as wolf-whistles, leers, winks, grabs, pinches, catcalls, and stranger remarks; the remarks are frequently sexual in nature and comment evaluatively on a woman's physical appearance or on her presence in public.She suggests that the ignorance of street harassment results from the fact that there is no legal recourse; a woman can't sue a stranger who gropes her and then disappears. She refers to Robin West's depiction of street harassment as a disempowering injury:
Women suffer unpunished and uncompensated sexual assaults continually...Although we have a trivializing phrase for these encounters - "street hassling" - these assaults are not at all trivial. They are frightening and threatening whispered messages of power and subjection...Yet, men who harass women on the street are not apprehended, they are not punished, the victims are not compensated, and no damages are paid. The entire transaction is entirely invisible to the state.
Furthermore, Deirdre Davis suggests in her article that street harassment is essentially sexual terrorism that intensifies the fear of rape and that the trivialization of it causes women not to talk about it, reinforcing its invisibility and effects. Street harassment has become so globally pervasive that women accept it as part of every-day life, even becoming complicit in it.
Kimberly Fairchild and Laurie Rudman's article states that, until 2008, the only attempt to document the differences between unwanted sexual attention from strangers and people known to the victim was done in 2000, using data collected from a national sample of Canadian women through the Violence Against Women Survey. It revealed that "stranger harassment is more prevalent than non-stranger harassment and that stranger harassment more strongly influences fear of victimization:" 85% of women reported experiencing stranger harassment while 51% reported experiencing non-stranger sexual harassment, and, "Stranger harassment reduces feelings of safety while walking alone at night, using public transportation, walking alone in a parking garage, and while home alone at night."
How do women respond to stranger harassment? Interestingly, and not surprising to me, Fairchild and Rudman explain that research suggests that most women are likely to respond passively and non-assertively to stranger harassment. Less than 20% of women use assertive or active coping strategies. Most commonly, women simply ignore harassment or attempt to avoid the harasser.
Fairchild and Rudman sought to expand the research on stranger harassment, and collected data from American female college students. They found relatively high prevalence rates of stranger harassment: 41% experienced stranger harassment at least once a month, 31% experienced it every few days or more. This included non-physical harassment such as catcalls, whistles, stares, sexist comments and "come-ons." More than a quarter experienced forceful grabbing at least once a month. They concluded that "stranger harassment turns public spaces into an everyday hostile environment for women."
The data also suggests that experiencing stranger harassment increases women's self-objectification. That is, they emphasize their body's appearance rather than its function and feel ashamed of a less than ideal body, which can lead to depression and eating disorders. Regarding how women reported coping with stranger harassment, it was revealed that women who responded actively by acknowledging that the behavior was inappropriate and either confronting or reporting the harasser were able to resist feeling sexually objectified. On the other hand, women who responded passively by ignoring or avoiding the harasser reported feeling self-objectified. Passive response was much more prevalent than active response.
It's a vicious cycle. A stranger sexually harasses a woman, increasing her fear of rape. Because of this fear, most women choose to avoid or ignore the harasser. Because there is no legal recourse in most situations, the woman knows she can't do anything about it because it is just part of every-day life. Because there are no consequences for the men that harass, and because most women don't confront them, men think it is acceptable behavior and continue to do it. What's a girl to do?