What Can Be Done About Street Harassment?

Photo via @stopstharassmnt Instagram

Temple University Kayla Watkins calls street harassment a “daily terror.”

“I’ve been being street-harassed since I was 12 and it’s been a constant struggle,” Watkins said at a roundtable convened to explore the problem of street harassment in Philadelphia. “I have missed school to avoid harassment … I have been late to avoid certain routes so I am not harassed. I pick out my outfits every single day in an attempt to avoid harassment, knowing that it really doesn’t matter because I’ve been harassed in pajama pants and a winter coat.”

Watkins shared her experiences and perspectives at Philadelphia City Hall yesterday at a roundtable discussion focused on the prevention and deterrence of street harassment.

WLP Managing Attorney Terry Fromson (right) joins advocates in exploring the problem of street harassment.

Women’s Law Project Managing Attorney Terry L. Fromson participated in the roundtable.

“While street harassment has not been a specific focus of our work it is on the continuum,” said Fromson. “It is yet one more arena where people are treated in controlling, degrading, inappropriate, and sometimes criminal ways on the basis of sex and gender by people who believe they are entitled to do so.”

Street harassment is a broad term that begins with whistling or words, but has no clear end. What starts out as “just words” can escalate to aggressive attempts to coerce a response, following a victim, or assault. One thing people who consider catcalling harmless fun may not realize is that to victims, even just a wolf whistle can function as an announcement that escalated harassment or even violence is about to happen. Catcalling is threatening even when it does not escalate beyond words because it relies on and exploits the fear created by worse offenders and worse experiences.

Billy Penn’s Anna Orso skillfully dissected this dynamic in a recent series of articles exploring street harassment in Philadelphia, and noted that despite being a common experience, street harassment is still largely an invisible problem when it comes to data.

From Billy Penn: Philadelphia Police have no way of discerning how many reports they have fielded because there’s no specific crime for “street harassment.” The Department keeps statistics using Uniform Crime Reporting codes, a federal standard, and there’s no UCR code for street harassment.

A 2014 study commissioned by Stop Street Harassment found that 65 percent of women and 25 percent of men reported experiencing public harassment in their lifetimes. From an analysis published in Slate: “More than half of women in the survey reported experiencing verbal harassment, while 41 percent had experienced physical aggression in public: 23 percent of women reported nonconsensual sexual touching, 20 percent had been followed down the street, 14 percent had been flashed, and 9 percent had been ‘forced to do something sexual’ while out and about. Meanwhile, 18 percent of men had experienced verbal harassment and 16 percent had experienced physical aggression in public.”

The Committee that convened yesterday to explore street harassment and possible solutions is chaired by Pennsylvania Senator Lisa Boscola and co-chaired by Senator Farnese and Senator Judy Schwank, who serves as co-chair for the Women’s Health Caucus of the Pennsylvania Legislature.

The Women’s Law Project is a public interest law center in Pennsylvania devoted to advancing the rights of women and girls.

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About womenslawproject

The Women's Law Project creates a more just and equitable society by advancing the rights and status of all women throughout their lives. To this end, we engage in high-impact litigation, advocacy, and education.
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