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Street Harassment: A Real Problem that Requires Legal Regulation

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Do you remember when it was legal for a man to make sexually explicit or sexist remarks to a woman at work? I don't. While sexual harassment in the workplace still happens, it became illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 19 years before I was born.

Do you remember when it was legal for a man to make sexually explicit or sexist remarks to a woman on the street or at a bus stop? I do. Sexual harassment in public is legal. But it shouldn't be.

Sexual harassment in public, often called street harassment, is a real problem that requires legal regulation. It ranges from legal acts like leering, whistling, honking, sexual comments, sexist comments, and following, to illegal acts like groping, public masturbation, and assault. While some might argue that street harassment isn't a common occurrence, in actuality, most American women have experienced it in some form. In an Indiana University , Indianapolis , study conducted in the early 1990s, 100 percent of the 293 women interviewed could cite multiple incidents of street harassment. Similarly, 100 percent of the 54 women interviewed in the California Bay Area in the early 2000s for a Northwestern University study had been the target of offensive or sexually suggestive remarks on multiple occasions. In 2007, the Manhattan Borough President's Office surveyed 1,790 transit riders in New York City and found that 63 percent had been sexually harassed on the subway.

Adding to the limited research on the topic are hundreds of street harassment stories women share on blogs like HollaBack NYC and Stop Street Harassment. And I bet if you ask, most women you know will be able to cite at least a few times they have been harassed.

The threat or experience of street harassment, often combined with a socialization to be fearful of male-perpetrated sexual assault in public, means women tend to be more wary of public places than men. The resulting impact on their lives is stunning, as I found when I informally surveyed more than 800 women from 23 countries in 2008 for a forthcoming book. Sixty percent of women said they "always" constantly assess their surroundings. Eighty percent said that at least some times they avoid being in public alone. Eighteen percent said actual or feared interactions with strangers impacted their decision to move from their neighborhood. The more often a woman reported being harassed -- or if a man had assaulted her -- the more likely it was that she practiced several strategies that restricted her freedom.

Women will never achieve equality with men until they have equal access to public places and the resources and opportunities they hold. And it seems women never will have equal access to public places until men stop harassing and assaulting them there.

What can we do?

I suggest we look to Egypt for guidance. In January, groundbreaking legislation banning sexual harassment at work, in public, online, and through mobile devices was introduced in the Egyptian Parliament. Last month the legislation moved to Parliament's legislative affairs committee. The pending legislation is indicative of an important cultural shift occurring in Egypt that I'd like to see happen in the United States .

The shift started in earnest in 2008, when the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights (ECWR) surveyed over 2,000 women and men throughout Egypt about public sexual harassment. Their findings were not dissimilar from studies conducted in the United States . More than 83 percent of women said men had harassed them in public and more than 60 percent of men readily admitted to harassing women.

The report and related efforts of the ECWR has propelled change across Egypt since 2008. Women's enrollment in self-defense classes shot up. Women began using an audio blogging station, Banat wa Bas, to share their harassment stories and vent their frustrations. Kelmetna, a magazine for youth, launched a campaign called "Respect yourself: Egypt still has real men" with weekly seminars, self defense classes, and street concerts. There are more than 53,000 members of their Facebook group.

And now, under pressure from activists, it is likely the Egyptian government will pass legislation making sexual harassment in public illegal.

The United States needs a similar cultural shift regarding street harassment. Street harassment is not a joke about construction workers; it is a problem that touches every woman's life at some level and prevents women on a whole from achieving equality. More research needs to be conducted to better track its prevalence and to uncover the root causes, and in the meantime, let's make it illegal. While laws do not solve problems, they can help change social attitudes, deter the undesired behavior, and provide affected persons with options for recourse.

You and I remember when sexual harassment in public was legal, but I hope the next generation will not.

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