Street harassment is not a joke or a nuisance, it’s a public health threat

Street harassment is often framed as a women’s issue rather than a public health concern. Even more rarely is it presented as a social practice that harms the health of children despite the fact that women report they were catcalled and sexually harassed the most in early adolescence, around the ages of 12-15.

This was certainly my own experience.

Teenage girls currently are reporting the highest rates of anxiety and depression ever recorded by the Centres for Disease Control (CDC), whose 2021 survey found that 30 per cent of teen girls say they have seriously considered suicide, numbers that are 60 per cent higher than a decade earlier. Only 11 per cent of high school girls say they feel happy and nearly 60 per cent of teenage girls (and 30 per cent of teenage boys) reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless, up from 36 per cent of girls in 2011.

While public harassment of girls aged 12-15 by adult men is certainly not new and cannot explain the jump in numbers, it should at least be acknowledged as one of the many causes of their poor mental health given the documented psychological consequences of sexual harassment.

“Girls are easier to prey on than women because they are usually more vulnerable in the world due to their age and inexperience,” says Holly Kearl, founder of the NGO Stop Street Harassment. Kearl reports that in her years of studying public sexual harassment, women have consistently told her that the greatest volume of catcalling they experienced was in their early teens, something that was true in her own life as well. In a nationally representative study of street harassment, Kearl’s organization found nearly 70 per cent of women reported being 13 or younger when they were first harassed, and that in most cases the man harassing them was in his 30s or older. Social workers report stories from girls who were harassed as young as 10 years old.

There is not much recourse to hold offenders accountable.

There is not much recourse to hold offenders accountable. In France, there are on-the-spot fines for catcalling, but it is not legally prohibited in Canada or the United States. Nor are there any extrajudicial restorative structures in place to hold perpetrators accountable to victims. Nonetheless, the negative mental health consequences for girls are significant.

“Street harassment can make girls feel less safe in public spaces and cause them to limit their time there,” Kearl explains. “They may feel they must be careful about where they go, when and with whom, which can limit their educational, hobby and work opportunities. The unwanted comments – and worse – can impact their self-esteem, their view of themselves and their worth, and it may affect their future romantic relationships if they’ve been sexualized and made to feel unsafe by strange men in public spaces from a young age.”

In Kearl’s 2019 study, 80 per cent of respondents said street harassment caused them to feel less safe and 54 per cent said it led them to change their behaviour in some way.

Street harassment as a category of behaviours includes anything from verbal sexual harassment to sexual touching or being followed. Girls describe men yelling at them while driving aggressively, trying to lure them into their cars or leering at them on public transportation. Verbal harassment also can be directed at girls’ physical appearances. Many girls report being humiliated by adult men in front of their friends while walking around, who single them out for objectification by commenting on their bodies or comparing them to their friends, both positively and negatively.

Catherine Bouris writes in The Vocal about the phenomenon of “fatcalling;” her experience of street harassment began right after she started puberty when adult men would yell at her about her weight. After she posted about it on X, others reached out to her to express similar experiences. Another girl describes men following her for several blocks saying that before having sex with her, they would have to put a bag over her head or give her plastic surgery. The underlying message is that if you’re attractive it’s the only thing you are and if you’re not attractive you’re nothing. Neither option leaves room for the presence of a subjective life: in other words, a soul.

Caitlin Roper, a writer, activist and the Campaigns Manager at the NGO Collective Shout, says that health-care providers should understand that the public harassment of teenage girls by adult men is a “form of abuse … on a spectrum of male violence against women,” and that the mainstream pornography industry’s hypersexualization of teenage girls is a contributing factor. (The most commonly searched term in pornography is “teen.”)

“Research has found exposure to sexually objectifying content leads to an increased acceptance of sexual harassment,” Roper says, as well as an increased likelihood to perpetuate it.

Kearl adds that health-care providers should be aware that teenage girls “are likely facing sexual harassment in public spaces, at school, online, in their workplaces and maybe among family and friends. The constant barrage of sexual harassment, along with the sexualization of girls in the media and on social media, negatively affects their health and self-esteem.” Teenage girls are also disproportionately likely to experience sexual harassment in the workplace.

“Everyone must take street harassment seriously,” Kearl says. “It is not a joke, a compliment or a harmless nuisance. When people share their stories, we need to listen and support them.”

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Miranda Schreiber


Miranda Schreiber is a Toronto-based writer and researcher. Her work has appeared in the Walrus, BBC, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and the CMAJ.

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