Over the past two years, I’ve lived in six cities in two states — Arizona, New York — and the District of Columbia. And one of the first things I always notice about each new place is the street harassment.
Manhattan and Brooklyn were rough. During my first week of work in Manhattan, a tall man in a coat said “good morning, baby” to me as he masturbated. Calls of “hey baby” were almost as common as “good morning.” In Phoenix, I got harassed in my car during rush hour gridlock with honks, “heys” and sexually explicit gestures. And during my first month interning with NPR in Washington, D.C., I was honked at, leered at, “hey baby’ed” and, once, even followed to work.
I’m not alone. A 2014 survey commissioned by Stop Street Harassment, a nonprofit that works to document and end street harassment, showed that 65 percent of all women in the U.S. said they had experienced street harassment. In the 2,000-person nationally representative poll, 23 percent of U.S. women said they’d been touched and 20 percent had been followed. Among men, about a quarter surveyed said they had been harassed on the street.
It seemed to me that in a country where a carbonated drink is known as soda, coke or pop, depending on where you are, there might be some regional differences in the language of sexual harassment as well. After all, people say “howdy” a whole lot more in my hometown of Hereford, Ariz., than they do in New York City.
Through a social media callout on NPR, we asked people to share their experiences of street harassment, and received more than 200 responses.
In Cincinnati, Ohio, a man yelped “Damn girl,” at Rebecca Vachon. In Chicago, Ill., Stephanie Pelzer was walking by when a man yelled, “Oh damn baby, damn you sexy thing.” Meredith Young was on her way to work in Washington, D.C., when a man stopped to say, “Damn, look at the a** on that thing.”
Turns out that just as with the phenomenon of street harassment, the language of street harassment is pretty consistent across the country.
Holly Kearl, the founder and executive director of Stop Street Harassment, says that common words and actions from street harassers are virtually the same across the entire U.S. — and even around the globe.
“I was shocked to find women have similar experiences with harassment in different places of the world, not just regions in the U.S.,” she said, noting that the language – and actions – is pretty consistent among all harassers. “I’m like, ‘Is there some school [harassers] are all going to? What is going on?'”
Words such as “damn” and “baby” are among the most common kinds of street harassment, as are sexual gestures, honks and whistles.
Benjamin Bailey, an associate professor of communication at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst who researches street remarks, says one reason for this consistency is because harassers use vague language so they can easily deny they meant any harm.
“My most striking finding is mostly it’s ‘hi,’ ‘hi beautiful,’ ‘hi sweetie,'” Bailey says. “Very boring, surely sexist, but the vast majority of [street harassment] are these subtle things that are appropriate in other contexts and give an out to that person.”
The harasser can say, “I was just saying hi!” — which makes it harder for the victim to speak out against them, Bailey says.
Bailey says he thinks these men want attention, and there are limited ways of doing that. “And if you do it in a way that, on the surface, is culturally appropriate, such as ‘greeting,’ you don’t seem to be trespassing so much.”
“You have this subtle way of reproducing the patriarchy,” Bailey says. “It’s hard to fight back against. The threats of violence and extremely offensive ones exist, but 95 percent are these other things.”Unless you’re like Erin Petersen in Baltimore, who experienced both in the same incident: A man tried to get her attention with “Hey!”s until finally he gave up when she didn’t respond — and called her a “stupid b****” and a “dumb c***.”
In cities, people are often harassed by strangers on the street or during gridlock in their cars. That leads many people to believe that street harassment is mostly an urban problem, says Kearl of Stop Street Harassment.
A survey of 612 women from 2000 found that women in all areas experience street harassment: 90 percent in rural areas, 88 percent in suburban areas, and 87 percent in urban areas.
Kearl describes one woman’s experience in Alaska. This woman lived in a very small town — there was one general store in the entire area. Men would linger outside the store and harass women as they entered and exited.
“The difference is that in Alaska that’s the only store they can go to,” Kearl said. “So there’s some regional differences like that, but the actual harassment is pretty much the same.”
So whether it’s walking alone to the corner store in a small town in Alaska or returning home after a night out in New York City, women are likely to hear the same catcalls and experience the same harassment.