First article for Secular Woman's Sexual Assault Awareness Month series

by Shanna Wells

“Hey baby, shake that thing.” “Mmmm, I like ‘em that size.” “Ugh, you’re a dog!” “Nice ass!”

For women, the simple act of walking down the street can become an exercise in navigating a minefield of unwanted comments. According to Author Deborah Tuerkheimer, “street harassment occurs when a woman in a public place is intruded on by a man's words, noises, or gestures. In so doing, he asserts his right to comment on her body or other feature of her person, defining her as object and himself as subject with power over her” (1).

According to one study, 87 percent of American women between the ages of 18-64 had been harassed by a male stranger, and over one half of them experienced “extreme” harassment, including being touched, grabbed, rubbed, brushed or followed by a strange man on the street or other public place (2).

The right of men to control the female body is a cornerstone of patriarchy. Street harassment “frightens women and reinforces fears of rape and other acts of sexual terrorism” (3). It is a human rights violation in that it restricts the free movement of women in public spaces.

For years, women have tolerated street harassment as a fact of life. But recently, a number of organizations have developed to address the issue. www.stopstreetharassment.org is a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending gender-based street harassment worldwide. The website provides strategies for women to address street harassment directly and to train bystanders, men, and boys as advocates against this form of sexual terrorism.

According to ihollaback.org, Street harassment is one of the most pervasive forms of gender-based violence and one of the least legislated against. It is rarely reported, and it’s culturally accepted as “the price you pay” for being a woman or for being gay or gender non-conforming. With the now common prevalence of cell phones, Hollaback encourages women to use the cameras on their phones to document cases of street harassment and share their stories on the Hollaback website. According to a study Hollaback completed in conjunction with the Workers Institute at Cornell, “Taking action generally has a positive influence on a target’s emotional response to the experience of street harassment. Targets who chose to take action, whether while experiencing street harassment or afterwards (e.g., taking a photo of the harasser, reporting harassment to officials), appeared to experience less negative emotional impact than those who did not” (4). Of course, the decision to take action against street harassment must be left to each individual woman, as safety should be her first priority.

Street harassment is a clear a violation of women’s human rights. Fortunately, there are now organizations working toward its eradication. To see what you can do to help wipe out street harassment, visit www.stopstreetharassment.org or www.ihollaback.org.


1. Street Harassment as Sexual Subordination: The Phenomenology of Gender-Specific Harm, Fall, 1997, 12 Wisconsin Women's Law .Journal 167.

2. Oxygen/Markle Pulse Poll, “Harassment of Women on the Street Is Rampant; 87% of American Women Report Being Harassed on the Street By a Male Stranger,” June 22, 2000.

3. Thompson, Deborah. “‘The Woman in the Street:’ Reclaiming the Public Space from Sexual Harassment.” Yale Journal of Law and Feminism 6 (1994): 313 – 348.

4. “The Experience of Being Targets of Street Harassment in NYC: Preliminary Findings from a Qualitative Study of a Sample of 223 Voices who Hollaback!”,http://www.ihollaback.org/fact-sheet-the-experience-of-being-targets-of-street-harassment-in-nyc/

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