Imagine that every time you go for a walk around the block or run errands in your neighborhood, half the people you pass make an unwanted comment about the way you look, walk or dress. It doesn’t matter if it is meant to be a compliment or not, you feel on display. It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing, whether you ignore the person or tell them to leave you alone, the comments and obscene gestures never stop. More than likely you find yourself avoiding certain routes or preferring to drive rather than walk. Yet, even in your car you can’t seem to avoid harassment from passing vehicles. This is what it is like for many people, day in and day out.
In 2014 a video went viral of a woman’s experience walking around New York City for 10 hours. While the video was rightfully criticized for editing out white male catcallers, it is still powerful in showing an experience known well to vulnerable groups. In a national survey of 2,000 people, 65% of women and 25% of men reported experiencing street harassment. Of all women surveyed, 41% of them experienced physically aggressive harassment including sexual touching, being followed and flashing. In a separate national survey of over 4,800 people, 85% reported they had taken a different route home to avoid potential harassment and 72% said they chose a different mode of transportation.
Street harassment acts as a barrier to living an active lifestyle. It also affects mental health and wellbeing. People who are continually harassed and intimidated when they leave their home are not going to walk to the park or jog through the streets. Both men (6%) and women (5%) reported giving up an outdoor activity like going to the park or exercising because of harassment. A recent survey of 20,000 commuters in Los Angeles found one in five had experienced harassment on a bus or train, which authorities worry will hinder the number of people choosing public transportation over cars. In response, they launched the “off limits” campaign in hopes of decreasing harassment.
While public health and other leaders work to build an infrastructure that allows for better access to transportation and physical activity, street harassment statistics show these developments are only the first step in creating usable space. Interventions such as training transit employees to recognize and handle reports of harassment, adding security cameras, holding educational workshops, and developing public service campaigns are necessary components.
Street harassment is a public health problem because it restricts groups’ rights to equality and limits their movement in public spaces. If we as public health leaders focus solely on the built environment and forget to address the safety of public spaces, we are only addressing part of the problem.