Public Harassment on the Rise

Published on
June 5, 2012

A recent study shows that public sexual harassment in the UK is on the rise among women between the ages of 18 to 34 as well as some females as young as 12 years of age.

Four in 10 young women sexually harassed in public spaces, survey finds

The survey of 1,047 Londoners, conducted by YouGov ". . . found that 43% of women aged between 18 and 34 had experienced sexual harassment in public spaces in the last year." It appears social standards have come to the point that public harassment is essentially ingrained. It's defined as "unwanted comments on the street about appearance to groping – as 'harmless fun' or a form of flattery."

Says Holly Dustin, Director of End Violence Against Women Coalition, "It feeds into a fear of rape and sexual violence and has a harmful effect on broader issues of equality" * * * it has an impact on their self-esteem and body image" as well as a sense of safety and autonomy over self.

One method of both combating this unwanted attention to raise awareness of its offensiveness and gain support for their efforts is a website called Hollaback. Women who have experienced offensive contact can post their stories of harassment or the photo of their harasser. Co-director, Byrony Beynon observes, ". . . there is definitely a groundswell of people saying this is not on, it is not acceptable. Women are taking back the power they felt was taken away from them in that moment of harassment."

This is what's happening in the UK. We have to wonder how dramatic these same dynamics are in the United States and whether there are any efforts to contain and discourage them, even to prosecute for the acts.

It seems there's not only awareness of the problem here in the United States but also some action programs that have existed for more than ten years. Take, for example, Young Women's Leadership Council which established a Street Harassment Campaign in 2001. They see harassment as a problem that has deeper roots than merely the annoying to disgusting acts encountered in public venues. According to the campaign's statement, it "is an important issue to address because it is part of the larger problem of violence against women and girls in Atlanta and around the world."

Hollaback puts itself in view in New York and it's then that the name is seen not as spawning from the name of a person. Instead, it's a colloquial expression meaning in formal terms, 'yell back.'

New York Anti-Street Harassment Group Asks Women to Hollaback!

The story of Thao Nguyen's experience with harassment and lack of support and responsiveness from the New York police department is typical of what many abuse and violence survivors can tell. Highlighting the problem, the article relates, "Unless there's a discernable pattern, says NYPD spokesman Paul Browne, the information will be entered into a database and the case effectively closed."

In New York, the incidence of street harassment is 8 out of 10 women compared with the UK's 4 out of 10.

In January, I created a beta sexual harassment class wherein the assailant was a 7 year old girl. Her target was a woman neighbor in her apartment complex. Then I changed the scenario to somewhere at a school and the target an employee of the school. Quite interestingly, only two men out of 12 or so respondents to the settings correctly and soundly identified the child as the harasser. Both of them concluded that harassment is harassment; age of one or the other has absolutely nothing to do with what the problem is.

The other respondents? They were reluctant to find fault with the child and wanted to do nothing. Unfortunately, that path only empowers the perpetrator and endorses their sense that the behavior is acceptable. To the extent the other neighbors or faculty and staff at the school do nothing to curb the behavior or deny its existence or boomerage fault back to the adult is to make the environment uncomfortable for the adult and essentially alienate them as a wrongdoer. In fact, the New York anti harassment story cites "Whether on city streets, public transport or in their own neighborhoods, [women] are subject to abuse ranging from harassment to sexual assault and rape," U.N. Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet said recently, introducing a new, international action.

"This daily reality limits their freedom to participate in education, work, recreation, and in political and economic life, or to simply enjoy their neighborhoods."

The compelling question is whether any such initiative exists in Los Angeles, let alone California. Yes, there is. California Coalition Against Sexual Assault was among the numerous organizations that participated in Anti-Street Harassment Week during March 18-24 this year. This year marked the first of bringing this cause to this level of attention.

The next question is whether this growing ground swell will be effective in gaining true support and enforcement of victim rights by law enforcement. Will the business as usual pattern change? Let us hope that change comes and comes very soon. It would be wonderful to realize the need for these organizations no longer exists and they can turn their attention to another related matter.


About the Author:

Yvonne LaRose is certified as a Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault Advocate (California Pacific Asian Families) as well as a Domestic Violence Legal Advocate (Los Angeles Commission on Abuse Against Women).