Problems without names tend to stay hidden and inadequately addressed. Stop Street Harassment uses “street harassment” to describe gender-based harassment in public spaces because it is the term most commonly used by academics and activists, but there is no universally used name or term for it like there is for “sexual assault” or “sexual harassment” at work or school.
There is no standardized definition for street harassment (yet). Our working definition (updated March 2015) is:
Gender-based street harassment is unwanted comments, gestures, and actions forced on a stranger in a public place without their consent and is directed at them because of their actual or perceived sex, gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation.
Street harassment includes unwanted whistling, leering, sexist, homophobic or transphobic slurs, persistent requests for someone’s name, number or destination after they’ve said no, sexual names, comments and demands, following, flashing, public masturbation, groping, sexual assault, and rape.
Of course, people are also harassed because of factors like their race, nationality, religion, disability, or class. Some people are harassed for multiple reasons within a single harassment incident. Harassment is about power and control and it is often a manifestation of societal discrimination like sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, classism, ableism and racism. No form of harassment is ever okay; everyone should be treated with respect, dignity, and empathy.
The following are street harassment definitions from: leading authors on the topic, organizations that address the problem, and ordinary people who took an informal survey on the topic in 2008.
Micaela di Leonardo, author of “Political Economy of Street Harassment” (1981)
“Street harassment occurs when one or more strange men accost one or more women… in a public place which is not the women’s worksite. Through looks, words, or gestures, the man asserts his right to intrude on the women’s attention, defining her as a sexual object, and forcing her to interact with him.”
Cynthia Grant Bowman, author of “Street Harassment and the Informal Ghettoization of Women” (1993)
“Street harassment occurs when one or more unfamiliar men accost one or more women in a public place, on one or more occasion, and intrude or attempt to intrude upon the woman’s attention in a manner that is unwelcome to the woman, with language or action that is explicitly or implicitly sexual. Such language includes, but is not limited to, references to male or female genitalia or to female body parts or to sexual activities, solicitation of sex, or reference by word or action to the target of the harassment as the object of sexual desire, or similar words that by their very utterance inflict injury or naturally tend to provoke violent resentment, even if the woman did not herself react with violence.”
Tiffanie Heben, author of “A Radical Reshaping of the Law: Interpreting and Remedying Street Harassment” (1994)
Three categories of street harassment:
1. “Severe: a) sexually explicit reference to a woman’s body or to sexual activities, b) profanities that are directed at a woman because of her gender, c) any comment that fits into these categories combined with racial or ethnic slurs, d) any comment that fits any of these three categories combined with references to a woman’s possible homosexuality, e) physical acts such as following a woman, throwing things at her, or pinching or poking her.
2. Moderately severe: a) sexual innuendoes, b) references to a woman’s gender or body that are not sexually explicit.
3. Least severe: a) staring, b) whistling, c) all other comments men make to women that are unnecessary or are not political in nature.”
Carol Brooks Gardner, author of Passing By: Gender and Public Harassment (1995)
“Public harassment is that group of abuses, harryings, and annoyances characteristic of public places and uniquely facilitated by communication in public. Public harassment includes pinching, slapping, hitting, shouted remarks, vulgarity, insults, sly innuendo, ogling, and stalking. Public harassment is on a continuum of possible events, beginning when customary civility among strangers is abrogated and ending with the transition to violent crime: assault, rape, or murder.”
Hawley Fogg-Davis, author of “A Black Feminist Critique of Same-Race Street Harassment” (2005)
“Sexual terrorism is an apt description of street harassment. As a young woman you know it will happen, but you never know for certain when or how it will happen. This makes street harassment hard to define, and difficult to combat. Its insidiousness derives in large measure from its venue: the semi-private, semi-public everyday occurrence of walking, sitting, or standing along city streets, or other public spaces such as parks and shopping malls.”
Jessica Valenti, author of He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut…and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know (2008) and executive editor of Feministing.com
“While I’ve heard the argument that street harassment is actually a compliment – you know, because we’re supposed to be flattered that strange men are screaming at us about our asses – it’s really a super-insidious form of sexism. Because not only do perfect strangers think that it’s appropriate to be sexual toward any woman they want, but street harassment is also predicated on the idea that you’re allowed to say anything to women that you want – anytime, anywhere.”
“In general, street harassment refers to a range of harassing behaviors that occur on the street or in other public places including catcalling, sexually explicit comments, unwanted touching, and other unwanted attention and behavior. Street harassment is as an under-recognized problem with potentially harmful psychological and physical consequences for black young women and girls in Atlanta (and around the world).”
“Street harassment is a form of sexual harassment that takes place in public spaces. At its core is a power dynamic that constantly reminds historically subordinated groups (women and LGBTQ folks, for example) of their vulnerability to assault in public spaces. Further, it reinforces the ubiquitous sexual objectification of these groups in everyday life. At HollaBackNYC, we believe that what specifically counts as street harassment is determined by those who experience it. While there is always the classic, “Hey baby, nice tits” there are many other forms that go unnoted. If you feel like you have been harassed, HOLLA BACK!”
“An interaction in a public space that makes you feel sexualized, intimidated, embarrassed, objectified, violated, attacked, or unsafe. An interaction in a public space that restricts your movement or makes you modify your behavior in an attempt to avoid the possibility of being verbally and/or physically harassed.”
“We feel that street harassment in its varying forms is an expression of male supremacy and sexism and a form of terrorization of women, with the ultimate effect of threatening any public activity. We believe that all women are subjected to street harassment; and that some groups of women, including young women, women of color, and women perceived as lesbians are subjected to forms of street harassment which reflect those prejudices as well. And we reject the idea that this situation is inevitable and unchangeable, and that this behavior represents innate male nature.”
Maggie Hadleigh-West, director of “War Zone”
1. To hurt, in a public space, by treating badly. 2. Unintentional degradation through ignorance. 3. To imply a physical, sexual and /or emotional threat through gestures, verbalizations, postures or grasping of body parts. 4. Coarse, deceptive, or insulting language. 5. Manipulative language that is seemingly “complimentary” and / or judgmental. 6. Unsolicited physical contact. 7. Following another for purposes of either psychological or physical harm. 8. Unequal access to a public space because of hierarchical cultural imbalances and physical disparities between predator and prey.
In 2008, over 900 people took an informal online survey about street harassment. Over 400 people answered a question about how they define street harassment. Here are their responses.