Leers and derogatory comments are familiar to many women, especially those who live or work in an urban environment. Blasé attitudes towards cat calls, with reactions such as, "it's no big deal" or "take it as a compliment" act to downplay what is in actuality a form of sexual harassment. Recently I was confronted with the story of a young teenager whose experience reminded me of the serious psychological implications of street harassment.
14 year-old Sarah* was brought to my counseling office by her concerned parents who were worried that she wasn't exhibiting enough independence for her age. Sarah, they said, was often hesitant to run errands on her own and wanted to be escorted when she walked to and from school. I met with Sarah one-on-one to get her reaction to her parents concerns, and after a few minutes she blurted out "I don't like old men saying things to me".
Sarah had been keeping a secret from her parents. On an almost daily basis, men were making sexual comments to her when she was on the street or taking public transportation. These comments ranged from "hey baby" to explicit remarks about her body. To cope with the harassment she had developed strategies such as wearing headphones or pretending to talk on the phone. Despite her resourcefulness, Sarah was forced to become aware of the sexual way in which some men viewed her, when she just wanted to go to her friend's house or walk to school.
Disturbed by Sarah's experience, I reached out to the Country's leading expert on Street Harassment, Holly Kearl. For Kearl, the story was not surprising. She noted "In a 2008 study that I conducted for my book Stop Street Harassment, almost 1 in 4 women had experienced street harassment by age 12 and nearly 90% by age 19. Many women have shared that street harassment began when they hit puberty and that harassment became equated with having a woman's body."
The frequency of this form of harassment is both shocking and serious in its implications. In Sarah's case, she was restricting her behavior and fearful of being alone. At a critical stage of development, this fear was hindering her ability to gain confidence by completing tasks independently. She even turned down a job offer to walk her neighbor's dog, something that could have increased her sense of responsibility and self-esteem.
Aside from its effects on her independence, this harassment could also have an effect on how she views her own body. A study in the Journal of Social Justice Research found that street harassment was related to self-objectification. Self-objectification is a process by which girls learn to think about their own bodies as objects of other people's desires. Instead of appreciating the body for its abilities, its strengths or its pleasures, a person sees it as something for other people's enjoyment. Multiple studies have linked self-objectification with an increase in rates of depression, anxiety and eating disorders as well as lower academic achievement.
Harassment and self-objectification are linked to lower academic achievement because they rob a person of valuable cognitive resources. For example, the time Sarah spent being vigilant and pretending to talk on her cell phone was time not spent processing the events of the day at school or mentally preparing for an exam.
Aside from all the negative effects of harassment noted above, most simply the harassment Sarah faced made her enjoy her time less, and that alone is a tragedy.
Holly Kearl is optimistic that the problem can be reduced, and she believes no action is too small to make a difference. For more information on ways teens, men and women can help combat street harassment, visit stopstreetharassment.org. There you will find valuable advice, resources and action plans to lessen the frequency of street harassment.
*Name has been changed.