Right To Be began with a group of friends sharing their experiences in the streets of New York. Through storytelling came an understanding that people experience public spaces differently. The more stories are told, the more we understand that we all walk different streets.
Public street harassment can be sexist, racist, transphobic, homophobic, ableist, sizeist, and/or classist. Our experiences of street harassment are an expression of the interlocking and overlapping oppressions we face. Harassment functions as a means to silence our voices, intimidate us, and even harm us.
With the help of stories shared with Right To Be, this guide explores how street harassment is a way of exerting power over individuals that has lots to do with our identities or the identities assigned to us. Experiences of public harassment are shaped by social inequality, historical context, cultural prejudices, and power dynamics. What is street harassment like for a young Latina girl who has recently immigrated to the US? For a Black trans man? For a fat person? For a nonbinary person who uses a wheelchair? There is never one answer. Looking to personal stories can help us understand street harassment through points of view we cannot always access on our own. It can guide us to empathize with the experiences of others, and can motivate us to step in to support those who are harmed by harassment.
So let’s start with you, the reader…
How do you self-identify?
What identities do you hold that are visible, and what identities do you hold that are invisible? For example, do you identify as a woman, queer, bisexual, two-spirit, or gender-nonconforming? Are you of European descent? Do you identify with a particular religion? Are you a person of color? Are you from an immigrant family? Is English your first, second, or third language? Did you grow up in an urban or rural area?
One step towards understanding intersectionality is recognizing that, like you, all people have multiple identities. Take some time to think about how your identities inform how you move through public space, and how you experience public harassment.
Then, go a little further as you read this guide, and try to imagine how other people’s overlapping identities inform the way they move through public space and experience harassment. What might it feel like for them? How might it have a greater impact on their sense of self? How do threat levels differ from person to person? What barriers might someone face when accessing help or support?
This guide is by no means a full account of everyone’s experience – that would be impossible. It is just the beginning of the conversation.
Gender is a socially constructed category, such as “woman” and “man.” Some people identify as women, as men, as neither, or as many and more fluidly. Gender categories hold certain expectations and stereotypes for behavior, such as “feminine” or “masculine.” Women, for example, can be seen as “weak” or “submissive” and men as “unemotional” or “aggressive.” While stereotypes are harmful because they try to box us in to narratives that may not apply to us, they unfortunately impact us.
Studies show that 70-99% of women experience street harassment at some point in their lives. For many, it’s a daily reality.
In situations of street harassment, gender discrimination plays out through intimidation, assumed female sexual availability, assumed female inferiority or sexism, and gender-based violence. Responses to gender discrimination include fear, shame, and anger, with lasting and longer term impacts of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and feelings of inferiority.
In this story, we can see how an experience of sexual objectification on the street leads to feeling unsafe and a fear of escalation.
The rest of the stories in this guide exemplify how people are harassed based on their gender identity intersecting with other identities, including race/ethnicity, religion, size, and ability. As you make your way through this guide, take some time to recognize how multiple identities intersect in the following stories.
People experience street harassment differently based on their racial and ethnic identities. Race has been culturally defined as a person’s physical attributes, including skin color, hair color, or eye color. But racial identity is a socially constructed phenomenon, created according to the views of the dominant culture of the white, male racial norm. Ethnicity can include a person’s cultural, linguistic, or ancestral identity. These basic definitions of race and ethnicity might leave us wanting, but the point is that how we are perceived racially and ethnically shapes most of our experiences, including the way we move through and are treated in public space.
In the United States there is a long and often violent history of discrimination and prejudice against people of color. The fight for equal access to public space and against harassment has been a long battle for individuals who sit outside of the dominant culture. Throughout history, race and ethnicity have determined how a person is treated, where/if they can work, where they can live, whom they can love, and more generally, what spaces they are allowed to inhabit. Stories of street harassment reflect these realities.
Women of color in the United States, coming from many different backgrounds, have faced varying levels of discrimination along racial and gender lines. Also, women of color have been historically objectified, exoticized, deemed sexually available, and commodified – making those who harass feel entitled to access these women’s physical bodies, such as in these two examples:
Others point out blatant racial and gender discrimination, noticing how they are treated differently from others around them.
Or how they are targeted with cultural stereotypes or racial slurs:
It’s not uncommon that if someone being harassed does not respond in a way that the person harassing wants, the situation escalates into further extremes:
Racial slurs and harassment can be very threatening and isolating, especially if witnesses do not intervene:
Someone who identifies as a woman or nonbinary, and is primarily attracted to others who identify and/or present similarly, may identify as a lesbian.
While when a heterosexual couple is together in public space, chances decrease that the female partner will be harassed, the opposite is true when a lesbian couple is together in public space. In that case, there is an increased likelihood that one or both of the partners will be harassed. This is both because of homophobia and because of gendered stereotypes of female passivity and sexual availability.
Street harassment can include objectification, or being looked at or treated as less than human. This leads to feelings of “being watched,” sexualized, judged, or considered “less than” because of your gender and/or sexuality. One storyteller shares with us, “the exact words never matter. It’s the idea that you are constantly being watched with eyes of lust and hatred…that is what hurts.” Another shares, “as a woman and as a lesbian, I spend every day of my life confined by the consequences of men’s belief that it is perfectly acceptable to verbally, physically, and sexually assault, harass, and intimidate me.”
Street harassment can also include physical threats. A storyteller shares that someone harassed them by yelling, “lesbian…I’ll fucking kill you.”
Many lesbian-identifying folks report threats, assumed sexual availability, uninvited sexual solicitation, and objectification. One storyteller shares, “there’s always someone who feels like they have the right to do or say whatever they want to you when you’re a woman out with your partner.” Street harassment is not “flattering” or “a compliment” – on the contrary, it is threatening, upsetting, and instills fear that verbal harassment will escalate into further harm.
Someone who identifies as a man and is primarily attracted to others who identify and/or present as men may identify as gay.
Gay men and couples repeatedly share with us their experiences of homophobic verbal street harassment and physical threats. One storyteller shares that someone harassing them “yelled ‘faggot’ again and threatened to beat me over the head with a bottle he had in his hand.”
Harassment can focus on and police gender presentation, such as in one story where the storyteller was harassed and threatened for appearing feminine. The people harassing him threatened to “break her,” until they recognized him as a man and began to yell, “Shit, it’s a guy. Suck my dick, faggot.”
The following storyteller speaks to the greater underlying threats that can accompany verbal street harassment:
Transgender people may feel that their sex or gender is not equivalent to the sex or gender that was assigned to them at birth. Trans identities, like most identities, exist on a wide spectrum. Many people exist outside of the binary of “man or woman,” and may come to their identity in different ways. Many people who identify as trans and/or gender-nonconforming face violence. harassment, sexualization, fetishization, and discrimination. Sometimes this violence can be physical, and sometimes it can be psychological. Imagine what it feels like not to be seen for who you are:
This next story highlights some of the anger, sadness, and frustration that result from others directing verbal harassment at you in which they deny your identity:
And the following story sheds light on the very real threat of violence and escalation of street harassment against trans folks:
Identifying as queer means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. People who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, polyamorous, polysexual, pansexual, and/or gender-nonconforming may identify as queer. Some people who identify with kink culture or BDSM culture also identify as queer.
Like any identities that challenge gender and/or sexuality norms, many people who identify as queer face public harassment. This includes verbal harassment and the threat of physical escalation. Also, because some queer identities are “invisible” in many public spaces, public harassment based on one’s assumed gender and/or sexuality can be experiences as having one’s actual identity invalidated. This can be frustrating and painful.
For example, one storyteller shares:
Another shares that someone harassed them by yelling “if you’re a woman you should be a woman; don’t pretend to be a man.” A third shares, “I was scared that I was going to get assaulted for appearing differently than I should. It happens occasionally, especially to people who appear at all queer.”
The following storyteller shares how they faced homophobic bullying that focused on and sexualized their queer identity. They note that their harassment wasn’t taken seriously and was even ignored:
Another storyteller shows how harassment that many genderqueer or gender-expansive people face can take the form of “gender policing”:
A person can be harassed in public space based on their socioeconomic class. In schools, bullying often fixates on class differences – and similarly on the streets, people who come from lower income backgrounds are likelier to experience harassment. People from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have historically been perceived and treated as “less than,” as sexually available, or as being at the mercy of those from a higher socioeconomic background. As a result, people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are often harassed and exploited by those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds.
In this story, the witness notes how someone’s higher socioeconomic status made him feel entitled to harass women in public:
There is a longstanding, harmful myth that people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are likelier to harass. This idea is misleading and distracting from the fact that economic privilege creates a power imbalance that leaves those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds more vulnerable to harassment and harm.
Many people face discrimination and public harassment because of their religious identity. Those who are not or do not appear to be part of the dominate religion in the United States, Christianity, encounter different levels of harassment. Such harassment can also be tied to other identities including gender, race, and ethnicity.
This storyteller shares their experience of harassment based on religion, race, and gender:
In our culture, age differences often create a power imbalance. This can enable situations of public harassment. Adults who harass younger people may equate those young people’s age with inexperience or naivety, and may perceive them as weak, vulnerable, or easy to harass. Conversely, there is a common phenomenon in which young boys feel entitled to harass adult women – this reflects a cultural norm that conditions youth to see harassment as an acceptable way for men to interact with women.
The following stories are examples of how street harassment both affects younger generations and is a behavior taught from a young age.
The next three stories were all shared by teenagers who were violated by adult men:
It is also common for adult women to be harassed by young men and boys, as this next storyteller shares:
Many people find that others interact with them differently in public spaces based on their size. Sizeism is discrimination based on the size of someone’s body. It can take multiple forms, including fat shaming and body snarking (criticizing someone’s body or body parts). Sizeist harassment can include uninvited comments, verbal abuse, and threats. And it can give those who experience it feelings of “being invisible” or being denied sexual agency.
The following storyteller shares how they were harassed in public based on their size, and how it made them feel “mortified”:
And this next storyteller speaks to how pervasive body policing, or fat shaming, can be:
Part of everyone’s work to dismantle the sizeism deeply rooted in our society is to ask ourselves: how often do we feel we have the “right” to comment on someone’s body and size?
Ableism is discrimination against those living with disabilities. Disabilities can be physical, mental, cognitive; they can be visible or invisible. In situations of public harassment, individuals with visible disabilities face a different set of risks and threats, especially when it comes to mobility and physical space. The following story is told from a bystander’s perspective:
The next story is shared by a person whose neighbor harassed both him and his caregiver:
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