Image by Michael licensed under Creative Commons.

Sexual harassment and assault have been in the news a lot lately, following the firing of a few prominent figures like film executive Harvey Weinstein. The #MeToo movement, a campaign started by activist Tarana Burke to show the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault, resulted in an impassioned debate about sexual harassment in every sphere, from the home to the workplace and everywhere in between.

Recently Washington Post transit journalist Martine Powers wrote about why sexual harassment, also known as street harassment when the behavior occurs in a public space, is a public transit issue as well.

Street harassment is “any action or comment between strangers in public places that is disrespectful, unwelcome, threatening and/or harassing and is motivated by gender, sexual orientation, or gender expression.” It includes insulting or explicit comments, leering, groping or other lewd behavior.

Powers noted that many of the incidents women shared with the #MeToo hashtag occurred on buses, subways, and streets–an observation that rang familiar for many who have experienced harassment.

A sign from Metro’s campaign to curb sexual violence.  Image by WMATA used with permission.


Experiences with street harassment changes how people interact with public spaces

This problem is an incredibly pervasive one. Sixty-five percent of women and 25 percent of men in the United States have experienced street harassment, and 77 percent of women reported being followed by a man or group of men.

While this is certainly a cultural issue, it's one that should be considered through an urbanist lens. Harassing behavior discourages people from using their public spaces–and ultimately creates harmful environments for us all.

“A major goal of urbanist development is to create cities where people interact in public spaces and are able to walk and take transit and generally not live in a hermetically sealed environment of cars and private spaces,” says contributor DW, a transgender woman who goes by they/them pronouns. “Unfortunately, the prevalence of harassment creates a vicious cycle where more and more people drive and otherwise avoid public space, so that there are less people on hand to make people feel (and hopefully be) safer.”

The data bears this out. Gallup’s 2014 Crime Survey showed that 37 percent of US adults say they would not feel safe walking alone near their home at night. However, broken out by gender, 45 percent of women said they do not feel safe–compared with 27 percent of men.

If we care about incentivizing people to drive less and walk more, creating an environment where everyone feels safe to do so is an important component.

"Take back the night" activists march against sexual violence in Montreal, saying: "We are reclaiming our right to be free of violence and to walk without fear, any time of day or night," Image by Howl Arts Collective licensed under Creative Commons.

A person's identity affects the harassment they experience

While harassment can happen to anyone, some people are targeted more because of their gender, their race, disabilities, or their perceived sexual orientation. For this reason, women (especially transgender women of color) and other people in the LGBTQ community experience the most harassment, according to Collective Action for Safe Spaces.

“When I am the victim of street harassment it's more likely to be homophobic or transphobic than misogynistic,” says DW.

Others shared similar experiences.

“One thing I've noticed over the years is that I deal with a LOT more harassment when I'm out and about with my girlfriend,” says GGWash’s Lead Editor Julie Strupp, who identifies as a white, cisgender (which means her gender identity matches the sex she was assigned at birth, unlike people who are transgender), bisexual woman. “I don't think we've ever taken the train without some guy making gross comments. For example, last week as we were going down the escalators I gave her a peck on the cheek, and a few men started taunting us to kiss.”

These behaviors are not “just” irritating and dehumanizing–they can be rightly terrifying. Collective Action for Safe Spaces reports that 68 percent of women and 49 percent of men who have been harassed were concerned that it would escalate to violence. Those fears are not unfounded. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, more than 600 women are raped each day in the United States and at least 23 percent of these attacks are perpetrated by a stranger. Hate crimes rose nationally in 2016, and the 2017 numbers so far are high as well.

One contributor, a white cisgender bisexual man, says that when he was in Athens, Greece, a man approached him and insisted he go home with him.

“I [had] never been so terrified in my life. I, like some of you, was far too nice and said “oh, no thank you.” He replied “don’t be scared, you come with me” and tried to grab my hand. I have NEVER run away from a situation because I was so scared, but I booked it out of there,” the contributor says.

I’ve had similar experiences, mine with a racial component. Once a man leered at me and called me “china doll” (I’m a Chinese-American, cisgender, heterosexual woman) while I was at a bookstore in my neighborhood. Racialized comments compound the stress of what was an already-offensive action, and their impact lingers. Now when I pass the spot where it happened, it’s no longer just a bookstore. I am reminded each time of that incident.

"Women-only" train cars in Japan. Image by Stefan Lins licensed under Creative Commons.

Of course, harassment is not just an American problem.

Contributor Sanjida Rangwala, who is a cisgender, heterosexual South Asian woman, says, “My family comes from India, where women have separate train cars because it's pretty much expected that men will molest them in close quarters in mixed cars,” she said. “My parents lived in Saudi Arabia for a while, where South Asian men trafficked to work in menial labor stare at foreign women, and you don't feel comfortable walking alone, and you also must cover up, preferably in a full abaya.”

While I have been told repeatedly that harassment is the “price” of living in an urban environment, this is both inaccurate and defeatist. Harassment happens in a variety of places, urban and rural and worldwide. However, it can be reduced and essentially eliminated–if we have the will to address the problem.

Those who experience harassment have come up with tactics

Anyone who has experienced frequent harassment knows the classic tactics of avoidance: headphones, sunglasses, even a deliberately sullen expression–armor for a the day ahead.

“I've learned living in Dupont Circle that I DO NOT leave my apartment without headphones. If I forget them, I've been known to backtrack home to grab them, or to buy a cheap pair,” Editorial Board member Aimee Custis, a white cisgender heterosexual woman, says. “I plan my running route specifically to take me down around the White House, where even at 11 pm the area is well-patrolled and under law enforcement surveillance should I need help.”

There are ways to intervene or preempt the harassment of others too. Growing up in Lake Barcroft, contributor Maxime Devilliers, a white cisgender bisexual man, says he would frequently run with his sister there because she would be harassed less when he was with her.

Another important element is to stop blaming and shaming people who have been harassed, or expecting them to be “perfect victims.” If those who have been harassed or assaulted worry they'll be blamed or be accused of exaggerating or lying, they are often less likely to come forward–and the problem continues.

Sanjida described being harassed in Paris by a man who followed her all over a subway station, until an American woman helped her.

“She pretended she was my friend and stayed with me until the man gave up and wandered off. Then, she proceeded to lecture me on how I shouldn't talk to strangers, a young woman out alone in the world,” Sanjida says.

She occasionally hikes alone in the region and in more remote places.

“I worry, that if something were to happen, I wouldn't have many people I could go to for sympathy,” Sanjida says. “I worry that I'll be made to feel that it's my own fault for having the hubris to not realize that I should be afraid.”

Changes to the built environment must be coupled with education and enforcement

Planning and design are factors in making the built environment safer, but cannot replace the need for cultural change. For example, cities can add more lighting which may increase the perception of safety. However, there is no definitive evidence that more lighting reduced crime.

Those who experience frequent harassment may feel the impulse to take ride-hailing services everywhere, but this is expensive and not feasible for everyone. (And not something most urbanists would like to incentivize over walking, biking, and transit.) It’s also not a surefire way to be safe, since ride-hailing drivers have also come under fire for sexual assault and harassment.

“Eyes on the street aren't going to be enough; there also needs to be a campaign to convince more people (well, more men) that harassment and catcalling are wrong, and they shouldn't just ignore it. If you don't feel like anyone will care if something happens to you, having more eyes on the street doesn't do much good,” DW says.

A sign from Metro’s campaign to curb sexual violence.  Image by WMATA used with permission.

Ultimately, the solution must be to reduce and eventually eliminate street harassment itself. That means taking a critical look at bad behavior, most often perpetrated by men, and insisting that as complicated as this problem is, it can be solved. This may come in the form of bystander training or workshops for men to learn more about calling out their peers who harass. It might also involve better trainings for authority figures who might come into contact with victims.

Consent classes in Kenya offer us an important model, as well as some heartening statistics. In this program, boys talk about how to “be a man” in a way that doesn’t depend on women and girls being less. The boys learn intervention tactics while the girls learn self-defense, but the focus is on boys being better.

The program has now reached about 180,000 boys and girls, and there has been a 51 percent decrease in the incidents of rape in the area since the classes first started in 2009. The percentage of boys who intervened in a harassment incident rocketed from 26 percent to 74 percent. Instead of being part of the problem, the boys feel they are part of the solution.

Closer to home, there’s a similar Rethink Masculinity class, a partnership between DC’s Rape Crisis Center, CASS, and ReThink, which works to prevent sexual assault. According to their website, “The curriculum is intended to improve men’s understanding and practices of consent, emotional labor, workplace discrimination, intervention against gender-based violence, and more.”

The Walkway is an art project meant to combat street harassment. Image by Joe Flood licensed under Creative Commons.

Street art can be another important way to send supportive anti-harassment messages and to change the norms of a place. One example seen on the streets of DC (and now around the world) is the work of Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. The New York-based artist interviews her subjects about what message they’d have for their harassers if they weren’t afraid of retaliation. She then pastes her massive drawings of her subjects on city surfaces, along with their messages like “stop telling women to smile,” “I am not here for you,” and “harassing women does not prove your masculinity.”

More recently, art installment collaboration between the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, the District Department of Transportation, and Age-Friendly DC on U Street NW called The Walkway simulated what it's like to experience street harassment.

Anti-harassment organizations like New York-based Hollaback and DC-based Stop Street Harassment (SSH) are trying a variety of strategies to reduce the problem. SSH partnered with CASS and WMATA to put on anti-harassment campaigns around Metro, which included ads, flyers, implementing easier reporting mechanisms, and employee trainings.

Spending life indoors or being constantly on guard should not be the price for existing as a woman or other marginalized person.

Since street harassment decreases safety and reduces a large percentage of the population’s right and ability to move freely in public, it is arguably one of the most pressing urbanist issues today.