In School or in the Street, Sexual Harassment Is a Daily Problem
“I was walking by, and they were yelling stuff like ‘hey you, hey sexy’ and stuff. And I’m like, what the heck? I was 14 at the time. These guys were in their 20s.”
Cheyenne, a 16-year-old girl from Rapid City, South Dakota, shared this with me during a focus group I facilitated. The topic? Sexual harassment in public spaces between strangers, or street harassment.
I recently held 10 focus groups and commissioned the reputable survey firm GfK to conduct a national, 2,000-person survey as research for my nonprofit, Stop Street Harassment. The findings have been released in Unsafe and Harassed in Public Spaces: A National Street Harassment Report.
When I considered the two reports together, I saw six alarming findings in common:
1. Sexual harassment is a pervasive problem in our country, especially for girls and women.
In our research, 56 percent of girls reported being harassed at school or by a school-related person during the previous year, and 65 percent of women had been harassed in public spaces at some point in their lives.
2. Boys and men experience sexual harassment, too, but at lower rates than girls and women do.
Forty percent of boys surveyed had been sexually harassed at school or by a school-related person during the previous year, and 25 percent of men said they had been harassed in a public space at least once in their lives. In the street harassment study, many more male respondents who identified as gay, bisexual, or transgender had faced harassment than had heterosexual men.
3. Sadly, sexual harassment is a normal part of many young people’s daily lives, whether it’s on the streets or in the classroom.
Among respondents who had been street harassed, half had been harassed before age 17.
4. In both studies, for both female and male respondents, most harassers were boys or men.
5. People experienced similar types of harassment in schools and on the street.
For girls and women, verbal sexual harassment was the most commonly experienced form. Across the board, all forms of sexual harassment were more commonly reported among women and girls than among men and boys — with one exception: Boys and men were more likely to have been targeted by homophobic or transphobic slurs.
6. Both sexual harassment at school and street harassment negatively impact all victims, and disproportionately girls and women.
Talk about these issues with young people. Hear their stories and concerns. Discuss consent, respect, the difference between harassment and flirting, and their rights. Both Crossing the Line and Unsafe and Harassed in Public Spaces offer recommendations and resources you can use, and the latter also offers strategies that communities can use to make public places safer for everyone.
Finally, model good behavior: Don’t harass, and please speak up when you witness harassment.
How can you talk to someone — or meet someone — in a public place like the street, a park, or a bus stop without being a harasser?
For middle school students, sexual harassment is part of everyday life — and with the increasing prevalence of social media, the abuse is following kids home.
According to an AAUW analysis, more of the nation’s largest public school districts are now complying with federal requirements to report incidents of sex-based bullying and harassment.