Anti-street harassment mural in Bed-Stuy, led by Groundswell
Street harassment is a pervasive and public form of sexual harassment that most women face at some point in their lives. Overwhelmingly, it is experienced for the first time before the age of 17, can force those who experience such harassment to alter their behavior to avoid being harassed, and comes with serious psychological consequences.
“The majority of women have been catcalled while walking the streets of NYC,” said Eona John, a youth artist who contributed to a Groundswell mural calling attention to the issue. “Women are harassed to the point of fear being imprinted in their skin."
Many courses of action to reduce street harassment and to help victims of harassment exist, yet in New York City, options like enforcing existing laws against verbal harassment or providing educational programming in schools are largely underutilized, advocates say.
In 2010, New York City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, then chair of the Council’s Committee on Women’s Issues, held the first-ever hearing on street harassment, prompted by a visit to a high school in her Queens district during which she learned that a group of female students were being sexually harassed verbally on a daily basis by local mechanics on their way to and from school.
Street harassment, which can include catcalling, unwanted sexual comments, and gestures, “limits the rights and freedoms of women and girls to enjoy a simple walk around. It conditions their every move and forces them to adopt a veil of caution as they walk in public,” Ferreras-Copeland said at the time. “The environment that allows for this type of behavior has roots in the same attitudes that say it’s OK to treat women…as nothing more than sexual objects. It has roots in the same belief system that allows for women to be battered, abused, and even sometimes raped.”
That “belief system” in which women are perceived as “nothing more than sexual objects” that men are entitled to allows the sexual harassment of women in public spaces to be seen as an acceptable occurrence, even a “compliment.” Should a woman ignore or reject this “compliment,” the situation can quickly escalate.
Escalated harassment can become even more discomforting, damaging, and dangerous. Some incidents result in violence. For example, in May, a man spit on a woman who ignored his advances at the Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall subway stop in Manhattan. She laughed, and he responded by slashing her arm and running away, sending her to the hospital. Around this time last year, a New York City man hit at least four Asian women in the face with a heavy object over the course of a week after they rejected his advances while on the streets of Manhattan,sending them all to the hospital. In October 2014, a woman in Queens was slashed in the throat after she rebuffed a man who had followed her into her apartment building.
At the 2010 City Council hearing, leaders from organizations like Stop Street Harassment, Hollaback, the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, and the Center for Anti-Violence Education, among others, all recommended that the city take action to reduce street harassment. Recommendations included conducting a citywide survey to gather data on the effects and the scope of street harassment in New York City and investing in educational efforts like public awareness campaigns, curricula designed to teach students about street harassment (as well as consent, respect, gender issues, and healthy relationships), and bystander intervention training.
“Your suggestions are definitely going to be followed up on,” Ferreras-Copeland said at the end of the hearing, in a familiar City Council refrain. “We’re trying to identify which agency to do [PSAs and/or surveys] through, the Department of Health or the Department of Education, or maybe both.”
Five-and-a-half years later, no citywide survey has been conducted, and only the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has run PSAs, doing so on subways, reminding riders that sexual harassment on the train is a crime and encouraging victims to report unwanted sexual conduct to an MTA officer or to the police. The MTA is a state-run agency.
The city Department of Education has not been involved in any targeted anti-street harassment educational efforts, according to a spokesperson (the DOE has other, more general anti-bullying programs in place), and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene did not respond to multiple inquiries regarding the agency’s involvement or lack thereof in anti-street harassment efforts.
Instead of funding a study, Council members funded an app developed by Hollaback that allows victims of street harassment to make a record of their experience and report the location of the incident, adding it to a map. The app can also be used to report the incident to the City Council, if users wish to do so. Emily May, executive director of Hollaback, told Gotham Gazette, “we then took those stories, stripped of contact info, and did a content analysis in partnership with Cornell.”
Hollaback used the stories that were submitted for a qualitative study, which examined victims’ emotional reactions to street harassment and the effect a bystander's presence had on the experience, and found that street harassment is an "under-researched, but likely prevalent experience for many New Yorkers."
As Ferreras-Copeland said in a statement sent to Gotham Gazette, “there is much more that needs to be done to improve the attitude around women’s bodies and our behavior in public spaces.” Gotham Gazette spoke with advocates from all four previously mentioned organizations, some of whom were present themselves at the 2010 street harassment hearing, and two other organizations - SAFER NYC and Safe Horizon - all of whom said education is the key to “improv[ing] the attitude around women’s bodies” in a way that would change the culture that allows public sexual harassment to persist.
Hollaback has developed a curriculum, in part thanks to funding from the city, which it has distributed to schools. However, there is no mandate to provide students with education to better equip those who are or may become victims of street harassment, or to deter those who may harass. Some schools have contacted Hollaback requesting workshops in response to the curriculum, Debjani Roy, deputy director of Hollaback, told Gotham Gazette.
Workshops are not something Hollaback is “funded to do,” Roy said, and it would be ideal if the city were to “continue that stream of funding that allows for the whole picture, not just the curriculum - we need the curriculum and workshops and ongoing conversations.” Preventative education must be at the forefront of efforts to curb street harassment, experts like Roy say.
California, meanwhile, became the first state in the nation to mandate lessons on sexual violence prevention and affirmative consent in high schools last October.
Several City Council members appeared in a video made by Hollaback in May to speak out against street harassment. Hearing stories of street harassment, Council Member Brad Lander said, makes him feel “horrified that there’s a set of folks that don’t have the freedom to walk around the streets of the city without getting harassed.”
“What we’ve got to do together is stand up to it and work to get people to not just be bystanders, but to stand up and say we’re not going to tolerate street harassment, everybody’s got to have the right to walk around our city in their own skin,” Lander added. Lander declined to comment for this story when asked for specifics on what he and the Council are doing to “stand up and say we’re not going to tolerate street harassment.” Lander has consistently allocated discretionary funds to Hollaback during his time in office.
A Council member in Washington, D.C., Brianne Nadeau, has introduced legislation to establish a task force to end street harassment. The D.C. City Council held a hearing on street harassment in May, and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities is funding a $40,000 grant for a public art installation to help deter street harassment.
At the 2010 hearing in New York City, a high school student from Ferreras-Copeland’s district, Natalia Aristizabal, testified. She had first brought the issue to the Council member during a visit to Aristizabal’s high school. There was a street with several mechanic shops on the way to school, which 13- to 18-year-old students walked. “It seems like when girls go into the school and outside of the school, it’s a fun time for [the men working there],” Aristizabal said at the hearing.
“Every time that I pass by,” Aristizabal continued, “I’ve gotten a comment.” She began searching for solutions to stop the harassment, and at the hearing, one of Aristizabal’s suggestions was to create a mural in the area - to put art saying that harassment is unacceptable in a place where the harassment is happening in an effort to deter it.
No mural was put up in the area where underage girls faced sexual harassment every day, multiple times a day, from older men on their way to and from school.
A public art organization, Groundswell, has taken it upon itself, though, to install murals to deter harassment around the city, including one titled “Respect is the Strongest Compliment” in Bedford-Stuyvesant that Eona John helped create.
Putting art in places where public sexual harassment is prevalent is one solution, though it is only one part of what experts say is needed to “bring about an end to street harassment,” in the words of Julia Nethero, founder of SAFER NYC. “We can end street harassment through education, through raising awareness, through media campaigns, and things like that. It requires a cultural shift. I think education is really the answer, and starting in school would be the best way to do it.”
Educating young people about street harassment, its effects, and how to prevent it is the number one policy recommendation from all experts who spoke with Gotham Gazette for this story. Getting a “mandatory curriculum around street harassment” in all schools “is number one,” said Roy. “That’s where girls and LGBT folks experience it first, between the ages of 13 and 14. Curriculum that’s engaging, that’s interesting - mandating that I think would be a key piece of it.”
“One of the things that would be most beneficial for our entire city is if we implemented more education around this in our schools,” said Tracy Hobson, executive director of the Center for Anti-Violence Education. “Girls are dealing with this all the time, on their way to school, in the school.”
The City Council members who spoke with Gotham Gazette for this story were all open to doing more to prevent and reduce street harassment. “I would love to see there be some anti-street harassment curriculum in our schools, maybe incorporated into ‘Respect for All,’ which is already in our schools,” said Council Member Steve Levin, who is chair of the General Welfare Committee and, like Lander, has consistently allocated discretionary funding to Hollaback during his time in office.
“I think that that’s a fabulous idea because we need to make sure that our young people are learning these issues early and understanding what’s wrong with this type of behavior, what the consequences of it are, and get a good understanding of why it’s not to be tolerated,” Levin added.
“To me, we have to tackle it through education, through outreach, through programs and services,” said Council Member Vanessa Gibson, chair of the Committee on Public Safety, “because we have to show young people something different than what we see.”
Levin also appeared in Hollaback’s video speaking out against street harassment, and told Gotham Gazette, “I’ll be reconnecting with my colleagues to see if we could get the ball rolling again on this…I would be very interested in participating in another hearing,” Levin added. “There’s still a lot more to be done, honestly.”
Like Levin, Gibson expressed an interest in furthering the work of Council members to do more to prevent and reduce street harassment. “I think it would be great for us to have a discussion on an outreach campaign, on a PSA, that’s something that I’m happy to consider and work with my colleagues on,” Gibson said.
Advocates like Holly Kearl, founder of Stop Street Harassment and author of two books on street harassment, would also like the see city and state governments have more of a hand in producing surveys, as most of the existing data on the prevalence and effects of street harassment has been gathered by organizations that work to end street harassment in partnership with universities or research institutes.
What that data reveals is alarming, but unsurprising to advocates like Hobson, who works with victims of all forms of sexual violence and has seen the impact street harassment has on women and girls firsthand.
“We had one woman in our [self defense] program who was harassed on her way to school, and somebody grabbed her - grabbed her butt,” Hobson told Gotham Gazette. “She was so traumatized and upset by it that she actually ended up changing schools. She moved to Brooklyn with her grandmother so she could go to a different school, and she came into our program,” Hobson added, referring to the Center for Anti-Violence Education’s self-defense program. “She uprooted her entire life.”
[See a collection of research on street harassment here]
Providing educational programming in schools; larger public awareness campaigns; and bystander intervention training, which encourages people who witness harassment to find ways to safely intervene (and which organizations like Safe Horizon offer), are three of the top policy solutions available to reduce street harassment.
Other recommendations from experts include sensitivity training to better equip police officers to respond to reports of harassment and community safety audits, which involve community members auditing a location to see how the safety of that area can be improved (by adding more lights or clear visible paths, for example).
“One thing that we’re working on right now is having all police officers go through mandatory sensitivity training when it comes to harassment,” Roy of Hollaback says, “because then when people report they’ll know what to do instead of just dismissing it or brushing people off, which happens a little too often. It’s not all about the report itself, it’s about the experience when reporting, the options made available to people when they experience harassment.”
A few bills have been introduced in the City Council that Council Member Laurie Cumbo, chair of the Committee on Women’s Issues, believes could help address street harassment.
Cumbo has introduced one bill to create an emergency mobile text system that would allow the public to send texts to 911, including videos and photographs, which could be used to capture more evidence of harassers. Another bill introduced by Cumbo would require the NYPD to add sex offenses to its crime status reports, including the total number of crime complaints and listing the types of sex offenses out separately. And in March, Cumbo introduced a bill to require sexual assault awareness and prevention trainings for drivers of vehicles licensed by the Taxi and Limousine Commission.
Cumbo believes the sexual assault reporting bill could help to reduce street harassment by making it more clear exactly what sort of sex offenses are occurring, and where they are happening. “If we can understand where this harassment is happening, where there are areas and spaces where women feel unsafe, then we can make sure that resources are deployed there so that women will feel safer going into those areas,” Cumbo said. “Because if you’re in an unsafe environment, if you’re being catcalled, if you’re being spoken to in a lewd manner, if the harassment is constantly happening, it can also be a gateway for other forms of sexual assault to be prevalent.”
While there isn’t much hard data to support this claim (in part because the city has not funded such a study and in part because the way that sex crimes are reported doesn’t often make it clear how the crime may have progressed or escalated), advocates like Hobson and Amy Edelstein, director of Staten Island community programs for Safe Horizon, have heard their fair share of anecdotal evidence to support the notion that a society that allows the sexual harassment of women and girls in public spaces to persist without consequences contributes to a culture in which sexual violence against women and girls is accepted.
“It’s all on a continuum,” Hobson said of street harassment and physical forms of sexual violence. “I think that one sort of creates a way of thinking that allows another. If you’re able to objectify someone on the street and not really think of them as human beings, that translates into you can also maybe touch them in a way and it doesn’t matter whether they want it or not.”
“I work with a lot of people who have experienced sexual violence,” Edelstein told Gotham Gazette, “and the people that if affects absolutely have the same reactions as a lot of our trauma survivors.” There have been “situations that have started out as street harassment or unwanted comments or groping,” Edelstein added, “that have absolutely escalated into a full blown sexual assault. We find that street harassment is certainly incredibly pervasive and happens to many many men and women. It shouldn’t be minimized.”
The emotional impacts of street harassment alone should raise concern for city lawmakers. “In a qualitative analysis of self-submitted stories to ihollaback.org, we found that emotions such as fear, anxiety, anger, shame, and helplessness were incredibly common,” said Beth Livingston, assistant professor at Cornell University’s ILR School, in a 2014 interview with Stop Street Harassment founder Holly Kearl. “These sorts of emotions - particularly when experienced day after day - can become paralyzing...It is incredibly likely that, as with many other negative emotional experiences, the impact can accumulate over time, leading to behavioral and health outcomes that we all should be concerned about.”
Street harassment can be especially harmful for those who have already experienced escalated forms of gendered violence, like domestic violence or sexual assault, says Edelstein. “I personally know survivors who I have worked with have said that the man who sexually harassed them on the subway or made unwanted comments to them on the street kind of re-traumatized them and made them continue to feel victimized again, continued to perpetuate their lack of trust in the world, the lack of their sense of safety that they have,” said Edelstein.
With one out of every six American women surviving an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (according to the National Institute of Justice and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), helping to make sure that women in New York City do not continue to suffer from a lack “of their sense of safety” ought to be a priority for lawmakers, who advocates say can and should do more to minimize street harassment.
“There are already laws in existence against harassment that would include pretty much all forms of street harassment,” explains Nethero. Yet they are largely unenforced. “New York penal law actually already has a clause about harassment that covers any kind of physical harassment or threat of physical harassment, following in a public space, and then they have a really broad phrase, like engaging in any course of conduct that places others in reasonable fear and also serves no legitimate purpose, that’s considered harassment.”
“I think that the existing laws are probably being underutilized for the more serious crimes [like groping and flashing],” says Kearl. “So helping to publicize those, let people know what their rights are.”
All advocates and lawmakers interviewed for this article expressed a preference for prevention over punishment when it comes to deterring street harassment, citing concerns over the potential uneven application of fines or jail time for harassing. “I don’t think that sticking all these harassers in jail is the answer either,” Kearl said. “I’m more in favor of education. If a street harasser had to go to an education class or something, though, that would be fine, I wouldn’t mind that!”
Many of the organizations mentioned here provide programs aimed at reducing street harassment, like bystander intervention training (SAFER NYC and Safe Horizon), anti-harassment curriculum (Hollaback), self-defense training (Center for Anti-Violence Education). These organizations do work centered on changing the culture that permits street harassment to persist, legitimizing the problem, and giving victims the tools to deal with harassment.
“Legitimizing the problem is the first step,” says Alexis Grenell, Democratic political consultant and City & State columnist (Grenell is also a board member of Hollaback). “Then educating people - I would like to see there be an education curriculum, frankly, and Hollaback has developed one. I’d like to see that mainstreamed, teaching respect for women, but also teaching bystanders the skills to create a safer and more supportive public space.”
In early May, construction workers at the Pacific Park (formerly Atlantic Yards) complex in Prospect Heights were harassing passersby so frequently that they became required to wear different color-coded hard hats in order to make complaints easier to file (New York Magazine reports that four different companies were stationed at the site, and a sign posted at the entrance explained which color helmet belonged to which company).
While making it easier for women to report their harassers is a step in the right direction, an even better response, organizations like Stop Street Harassment suggest, would be to target those who are committing the harassment themselves: to tell the construction workers not to harass, and that there will be consequences for doing so.
Council Member Cumbo echoed this sentiment while speaking about the city’s lack of PSAs against street harassment. Vision Zero, the city’s campaign against traffic fatalities, include PSAs that tell drivers they could end up dead or in jail if they choose to drive drunk. “All these imaginary characters pop up and say things like, ‘if you hit someone, you’re going to see me,’ and ‘I’m going to be your lawyer and cost this amount of money,’” Cumbo said.
“I think the same thing should happen with sexual assault and sexual harassment,” Cumbo continued, adding that to her, the “messaging” around rape is all wrong. The way Cumbo sees it, there are two ways of talking about sexual assault and street harassment that dominate the messaging: if it’s happening to you, here is where you can go for help; or here is how not to get sexually assaulted or sexually harassed.
“But I’ve never seen a campaign that says, ‘do not sexually assault, do not sexually harass, and if you make that decision, here’s what’s going to happen to you, we have zero tolerance for this behavior in our city,’” she said.
When asked if she would be open to making a campaign like that happen, Cumbo said yes, but cautioned that male lawmakers should also be involved in the process.
SAFER NYC actually has already created such a campaign, but lacks the funding to implement it. “Our first project idea was to have subway ads that were targeting men - ‘would you say that to your daughter,’ that kind of thing,” Nethero said. “So we made these ads and we still are hoping to run them. We haven’t gotten enough funds to do that.”
At the end of the day, advocates want to see more support from the city’s lawmakers, both in terms of funding and policy solutions, to help address the city’s street harassment problem. We want “legislators and policymakers to pay attention to the issue,” Roy said, and “put more money forth into education and workshops and trainings and hosting collaborative events with policymakers.”
“I think that an opportunity to bring back a public education campaign and start the conversations again are essential,” Ferreras-Copeland told NY1’s Errol Louis in a November 2015 interview. “We still see groping on our trains, we still see young girls complaining about harassment. It would be great to see if we have an opportunity” to return to that conversation.
It’s unclear what’s stopping city lawmakers like Ferreras-Copeland, Cumbo, Gibson, Levin, Lander and others from creating such opportunity or, in Lander’s words, “stand[ing] up and say[ing] we’re not going to tolerate street harassment, everybody’s got to have the right to walk around our city in their own skin.”
by Meg O'Connor, @GothamGazette. More:
RESEARCH shows that:
- A majority of women experience street harassment at some point in their lives: 65 percent of women reported experiencing at least one type of street harassment in their lifetimes, according to a national 2014 study of about 1,000 men and 1,000 women over 18 conducted by the research institute GfK and commissioned by Stop Street Harassment.
- An overwhelming majority of women begin to experience street harassment before they turn 17: 84 percent of women are harassed on the street before they turn 17, according to an international study on street harassment conducted by Hollaback in partnership with Cornell University which surveyed over 16,000 women from 21 countries.
- Many women alter their behavior in order to avoid street harassment: 85.6 percent of women said that they have chosen to take a different route home or to their destination because of street harassment, according to a survey of 4,872 women under forty in the United States conducted by Beth Livingston, assistant professor at Cornell Industrial Labor Relations School, in conjunction with Hollaback.
- As a result of street harassment, 47 percent of women surveyed report constantly assessing their surroundings, according to a national 2014 study of about 1,000 men and 1,000 women over 18 conducted by the research institute GfK and commissioned by Stop Street Harassment.
- Street harassment isn’t a one time thing, but a repeated occurrence that often becomes a constant and expected part of women’s lives: 86 percent of women and 79 percent of men who reported being harassed in the GfK study said they had been harassed more than once. Women were more likely than men to say it happened sometimes, often, or daily.
- Harassment on the street occurs on a continuum, with 41 percent of all women in the GfK study reporting that they had experienced physically aggressive forms of harassment in public places, including sexual touching (23 percent), following (20 percent), flashing (14 percent), and being forced to do something sexual (9 percent).
- Street harassment instills fear in victims, who are concerned the situation will escalate: According to GfK, two-thirds of the harassed women (68 percent) and half of the harassed men (49 percent) said they were very or somewhat concerned that the incident would escalate into something worse.
- Even after people are harassed, few report it to the authorities: 63 percent of 1,790 New York City subway riders surveyed by the Manhattan Borough President's office in 2007 said they had been sexually harassed on the subway. Only 4 percent of those people contacted the NYPD or the MTA to inform either authority of the incident.
- Recently, however, the MTA has redoubled efforts encouraging victims of subway sex crimes to come forward. As a result, there’s been a nearly 57 percent increase in reported sex crimes in the subway this year. The MTA launched a website in 2014 which allows victims to report offenses online, and the NYPD has shifted tactics in recent times, placing more officers on the trains and catching more perpetrators in the act.
- Men also experience street harassment, to a lesser extent, though more men who identify as LGBT are victims of harassment: 25 percent of men surveyed by GfK experienced street harassment, with more men who identified as LGBT experiencing harassment than men who identified as heterosexual.
- Street harassment doesn’t just affect women. Members of the LGBT community, especially transgender individuals, also experience a significant amount of street harassment.
by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette