Ask SAFER: What is considered “street harassment?”

Julia Nethero

Co-Founder of SAFER: NYC

SAFER: NYC is working to mobilize men in the movement to end street harassment--so what is street harassment? Is it the same thing as cat calling? wolf whistling? sexual harassment? groping?

Let’s begin with the definition by prominent researcher and activist Holly Kearl of Stop Street Harassment:

“‘Street harassment’ describes unwanted interactions in public spaces between strangers that are motivated by a person’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, or gender expression and make the harassee feel annoyed, angry, humiliated, or scared.”

Let’s break that down piece by piece. The first key word in this definition is “unwanted.” Street harassment is, by definition, an interaction that is not desired by the recipient. So in the extremely unlikely case that the person holla-ed at gives the holla-er their number, then this is not street harassment. Now you’re probably wondering, how do I know you know if the interaction is wanted or not? You don’t! That’s the problem. If you act under the assumption that any individual who is walking down the street or quietly reading a book on the subway is interested in hearing a stranger’s thoughts on their body or a proposal for some sexual act, that is probably street harassment.

On to the next key phrase- “in public spaces between strangers”. While we definitely condemn sexual harassment in the workplace and domestic violence, these are not street harassment because they are not occurring, you guessed it, on the street. What makes many street harassment interactions inappropriate and uncomfortable for the harassee is that it is coming from a stranger whose intentions are unclear. And what makes it sometimes threatening is that the harasee is in public, which is not a safe protected space like our homes or other places we frequent.

Another important phrase is “motivated by a person’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, or gender expression”. Of course harassment can be targeting people based on their ability, race, ethnicity, religion, country of origin, and more--all of which we condemn. But SAFER: NYC’s mission is to eliminate gender, sexual orientation, or gender expression-based street harassment.

So now that we have the definition down, let’s look at some common examples of street harassment. The first is classic cat call--an individual, often a woman, is walking down the street minding their own business when another person, often a man, yells something sexually charged at the other individual (think “Hey mami!”, “Damnnnn girl”, “Look at that ass”) or does the classic wolf whistle. This is street harassment because the harasser has no way of knowing whether their comments are wanted by the individual, and they have no reason to believe that they are wanted. The offending statement is made under the assumption that the recipient wants to be objectified, and let’s be real, who wants to be sexually objectified while they’re going about their daily routine (or, you know, ever)?

How about on the subway? A common incidence of street harassment on the subway is when a stranger gets way too close to you and is either groping you or rubbing their body on yours. As the signs say, “a crowded car is no excuse for unwanted sexual conduct.” This physical harassment can be even more traumatic for the victim, and can be reported to the train conductor or the NYPD.

Street harassment happens at bars and clubs too, even though it’s not on the street. Check out “Bros” for what this looks like!

We hope this gives you a better idea of what street harassment is now! If you still have questions, check out our other resources about street harassment!