Why Street Harassment Terrifies Women

When a Pittsburgh man shot and killed 29-year-old mother of three Janese Talton-Jackson earlier this month for rejecting his advances, his violence was far from isolated.

In 2014, a Detroit man murdered another mother in her 20s named Mary Spears for not giving him her phone number. A man from Queens, N.Y., slashed an unnamed woman‘s throat for refusing to go on a date with him. In 2013, a man in Eustis, Fla., choked and ran over a 14-year-old girl after she said no to having sex with him for money. A man in Othello, Wash., ran over a runner in California after she declined a ride from him. Three Georgia men tackled and sexually assaulted a woman who had ignored them when walking alone at night.

Street harassment, when taken to the extreme, is terrifying. And with two-thirds of American women reporting getting sexually harassed in public spaces, it’s a horror that some, generally men, force upon most of that population. The problems only compound for those who are poor, LGBT and/or of color.

And it’s not just feeling annoyance at catcalls when walking by construction sites—nearly half of U.S. women say they’ve been physically threatened by tactics like getting flashed, followed and touched sexually.

“While people may think it is a stretch to connect catcalls with assault and attempted murder, sometimes catcalls escalate into something worse and women never know when that might happen,” explains Holly Kearl, founder of nonprofit Stop Street Harassment.

She continues to say on Ms. Magazine’s blog that both catcalls and assault are types of entitlement:

“The (primarily) male street harassers believe they have the right to access girls’ and women’s bodies. They feel they can say and do whatever they want, and if women don’t comply, well, then they’re a bitch or ugly, and the men may feel justified in grabbing them, throwing trash at them, assaulting them or running them over.”

Prompted by the 2014 mass shooting at Santa Barbara, where a man murdered six people to punish women who rejected him, activist Deanna Zandt started a Tumblr page called “When Women Refuse.” Scrolling through the site only solidifies the seriousness of the problem.

Some may argue that only a few men perpetrate the atrocious violence described, and that they shouldn’t characterize the rest of the male population. Others may call attention to the smaller number—25 percent—of men who are harassed, or tell women they need to relax at the “compliments” strangers offer.

Yet, as feminist writer and satirist Soraya Chemaly adds:

Why focus on extreme cases? Because they are end-result manifestations of everyday misogyny. Because the danger of street harassment isn’t in a lunatic lashing out violently but the risk of a “regular guy” lashing out violently. This is not an indictment of all men, the vast majority of whom don’t engage in these behaviors. However, most aren’t considering others’ tolerance and behavior enables the men who do and way too many are too comfortable dismissing this reality.

In short, women don’t know if men’s advances will stop at an unsolicited, “Hey, baby.” They don’t know if that guy in the bar will leave them alone after they tell him, “No, thanks.” Critics claiming #NotAllMen need to cut women more slack for taking harassment seriously.

Kearl gives some useful tips to confront street harassment on Ms. Magazine’s blog.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock


Jerome S
Jerome S2 years ago


Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for sharing.

Richard Anonymous

I just wanted to add support to what Nellie K Adaba wrote by pointing out that most serious sex offenders such as rapists often start with low level offences such as peeping or groping, and rapists sometimes escalate to killing their victims. This is why even minor crimes that indicate a propensity to violate women sexually must be taken seriously for the sake of women and for the sake of the man or juvenile offender involved so that he does not escalate and ruin his own life too. In Singapore, males sixteen and up are given a minor caning involving just a very few strokes of the cane (instead of the much greater number of strokes given to men who rape) for crimes such as groping a woman. This helps to prevent or nip problems in the bud. This also promotes respect for women because the seriousness of the punishment helps men to appreciate how serious and taboo such crimes are. Personally, I live my life as if such laws are in place where I live, and that thought experiment has massively increased my respect for women. I am sorry that women do not have the sense of security, justice, and being valued that would come from having such laws in place.

Nellie K Adaba
Nellie K Adaba3 years ago

That's why most women don't trust any man who does cat calling, because they could be rapists, killers, and other things.

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Karen C.
Karen C3 years ago

From a young age, my parents have always said "do not walk alone in the streets". This is important, because so many women are assaulted or harassed. People should also teach boys and girls to respect others as children and adults, because this is equally as important.

Joemar Karvelis
Joemar Karvelis3 years ago


Mari 's
Mari 's3 years ago

This is something very scary and real I'm happy to see awareness being raised

Deborah W.
Deborah W3 years ago

Street harassment, when taken to the extreme IS terrifying. More than just the annoyance of catcalls when walking by construction sites, nearly half say they’ve been physically threatened by tactics like getting flashed, followed and touched sexually.
People who think it's a stretch to connect catcalls with assault and attempted murder should follow the patterns, screw their heads on tighter, and recalculate how and where the problems began -- as well as how and why they are allowed to continue unaddressed.
For example, the 2014 mass shooting at Santa Barbara as punishment for women who rejected him -- 6 unknown innocents. Yet mental health, and even the red flags that announce disfunction every day are ignored or hidden. WHY?
Teach your children well (INCLUDING RESPECT), invest in their growth with appropriate guidance (and additional help if called for -- who knows better than the source of that life). Of course this assumes the parents and/or mentors are qualified themselves ... often difficult to imagine with the length of time gone by unaddressed.
Focus should NOT be solely on EXTREME cases. They are, after all, only the end-result of root causes gone untreated.

Richard Anonymous

I have read what women have written about always having to be careful, feeling like prey, and feeling afraid. We can never have harmony and respect between the genders until the testosterone-fueled impulses of men are more effectively brought under control, and this can only be done through consequences with real and swift impact such as heavy fines for street harassment and a return to flogging (administered as humanely as possible in addition to a prison term and counselling) for physical violations against women by men if they are sane (or custodial psychiatric treatment if they are not). Flogging might sound extreme, but it was found to be effective in the past -- and consider the civilizing impact it has had on male conduct according to crime stats and the accounts of people who live in nations such as Singapore and Malaysia in the present. The punishment also needs to be stiff to allow women to fee safer and feel that there is justice.