02/10/2014 02:41 pm ET Updated Apr 12, 2014

When Was the First Time You Were Harassed?

Stories of street harassment, or sexual harassment in public space, are shared on the anti-street harassment organization, Hollaback!'s website by girls as young as 7-years-old.

Whether you're talking about the comments like "hey baby" or "can I get a piece of that?"; the leering and lip smacking; the overtly physical acts of touching and groping; the non-physical but threatening acts like public masturbation, being the target of street harassment can start early. Very early.

Thousands of stories have been shared on the Hollaback! website of young women and men being followed to school, brushed up against on the subway, being honked at by passing cars while waiting for the school bus, or being hollered and hissed at while walking home from school.

For Tanya, a contributor to Hollaback!'s NYC blog, the harassment started at 8, when she was across the street from her elementary school. "When everything was clear, I started to cross, when a middle-aged man pulled up in the crosswalk in front of me, cutting me off. From what I remember, he asked me some sort of question, but as I looked, I realized that not only was he masturbating, he was ejaculating right on the seat."

This story is only the first of a series of stories Tanya shares of her experiences of being harassed on the streets of New York City. She shares a story from when she was 15, also on her way to school, "a man in his 30s, saw me walking by his house. He got in his car and followed me... I just kept walking, terrified. He followed me in his car all the way to school, but he never got out." It continued throughout her 20s and at age 36 she decided she had enough and left New York.

Street harassment is often first experienced as a pre-teen or teen at a time of monumental physical and psychological changes -- and it can be very confusing. On the one hand, for people like Tanya, it is clear that the attention is unwanted and it is taken for what it is -- uncomfortable, threatening and a violation. On the other hand, young women are inundated with negative media messages trying (and often succeeding) to tell them what they are supposed to look like and who they are supposed to be. These messages can leave young women buying into the idea that comments made about their appearance are a compliment and the attention a positive affirmation.

This sentiment has been reaffirmed when working with high school and college-aged students who have said, "I personally hate it, but I have this friend who doesn't see anything wrong with someone whistling at her. She thinks it means that she looks good." I too can identify with that feeling. When I was in middle and high school, like many teens, I was uncertain about myself. When I did get that type of attention, it made me uncomfortable and self-conscious about my body, but when I didn't get that attention and certain friends did, a small part of me wondered why. These experiences made me ambivalent to the value placed on what I now consider harassing behavior. Since then, I've also trained women older than me who say, with an eyeroll, "Okay, I kind of get the whole street harassment thing... well not that I get much of that anymore... but is it really that serious?"

My response to both the friend who thinks that a whistle is an affirmation of looking good and the women who question the seriousness of that type of attention, is a resounding, "No, it is not a compliment and yes, it is very serious." What some people dismiss as innocent comments and gestures, is actually about an exertion of power. Street harassment is asking us to live by the harasser's rules: the harasser's idea of what they want, the harasser's idea of what is or isn't attractive, the harasser's sense of ownership of that street or that subway car, or the harasser's choice to react to you any which way they want and in a way that we cannot predict. It is the very unpredictable nature of street harassment experienced at a young age that leads to a sense of hypervigilance and awareness as an adult, not knowing what to expect when walking down the street. It creates a rupture in your day.

Street harassment reduces an individual's feeling of safety, impacting their mobility through public space. This leads to feelings of isolation and alienation, which in turn causes a sense of self-doubt, low self-esteem and/or self worth. This could leave a young person wondering, 'why am I always the one targeted?' or 'does this happen to anyone else?' Street harassment may make young people question what they wear; where they walk; at what time of the day they go out; and if they should go out alone or if they should go out at all.

Street harassment impacts a student's performance in school, affecting their ability to concentrate in class. If they are being harassed walking home from school, the thought of getting back home can cause stress and anxiety over the course of the day. Similarly, if a student is harassed on the way to school, it can hugely impact how they face the school day. If it happens with regularity, it can prevent them from wanting to go to school at all.

Tanya's testimony summarizes the true impacts of street harassment: "For several years as a young adult in New York City, I felt constantly under siege by men and spent most of my young adult life experiencing mostly sexual terrorism on the street... I suffered, and continue to suffer from severe anxiety and depression, and started going to support groups about it, but it didn't really help, because there was no name for what I was experiencing... I went through life feeling terrified, paranoid, and ashamed of my body.'

So, what are we doing about this? This week, Hollaback! launches HOLLA 101: An Educator's Guide to Street Harassment so that we can start the conversation at the middle school and high school levels to effectively address the epidemic of street harassment experienced by young people. It is when they need it the most.

Schools can take action by making literature about street harassment readily available to students in guidance counselor's offices and around the school. Community members can get involved by conducting a community safety audit or organizing a chalk walk to raise awareness about this problem.

The more we say, "this is not okay," the less acceptable it will become. Harassers should not have the final say on how young people feel about themselves and they certainly should not have the power to obstruct a student's route to and from school.