THE BLOG
06/30/2014 06:52 pm ET Updated Aug 30, 2014

The US Will Never Be the 'Land of the Free' Until We Address Street Harassment

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Recently, a Cairo court sentenced an Egyptian man to one year in jail for sexually harassing a woman in a public place. He was charged using a brand new anti-sexual harassment law that is inclusive of public spaces.

The law is not enough, of course, as the most recent mob sexual assaults indicate. Egyptian activist group HarassMap cautions that laws are "only effective when they are systematically enforced, both on the official and social levels," but that this new law "represents a renewed opportunity for all of society to take an active role in standing up to this crime."

Meanwhile, earlier this month in Peru, when actress Magaly Solier encountered a street harasser who masturbated at her from behind a bus station, it sparked a national conversation about the social problem. It also led Carmen Omonte, Peru's Minister of Women and Vulnerable Populations, to announce her intention to include street sexual harassment in the penal code as a crime.

While there are pros and cons to having a law against verbal sexual harassment in public spaces in the United States, our nation should follow the Egyptian and Peruvian governments' lead and at least acknowledging that street harassment is a real problem, because it is one.

Last weekend thousands of people shared their street harassment stories over Twitter using the hashtag #notjusthello. In the wake of the Isla Vista shooting last month, a similar occurrence happened with #yesallwomen. To back up the stories, a new national study conducted by survey firm GfK and commissioned by my nonprofit organization Stop Street Harassment, found that two in three women in the United States have experienced some form of gender-based harassment in a public space by a stranger. The most common form was verbal: whistling, "pssst" sounds and comments like "Hey baby, "Mami," and "Give me a smile." One in four women had heard inappropriate sexual comments about her body from a stranger. As happened to actress Solier, men had exposed themselves to 14 percent of women.

Most harassed women experienced it more than once, half had experienced it by age 17, and the majority of harassed women said they were somewhat or very concerned their harasser would escalate into physical violence. Their concerns are not unfounded, as 23 percent of all women reported being sexually touched by a stranger in a public place. An alarming 9 percent of women said they had been forced to do something sexual. Physical assault is a real concern, too.

During one of the 10 focus groups Stop Street Harassment held to supplement the survey, a woman in Brooklyn said, "I've seen a guy knock a girl's head into a brick wall that she was leaning on behind them because she did not want to talk to him. She was gushing blood. It's unacceptable." Another woman in the group shared, "My cousin's friend got shot in the back as she walked away because she didn't want to talk to the guy."

While overall there are more male victims of violent crimes than female, the regular occurrence of street harassment and the threat of violence make many women feel less safe than men in public spaces. A 2011 Gallup survey found that in the USA, 38 percent of women felt unsafe walking alone at night in their own communities compared with 11 percent of men.

When women feel unsafe in public spaces, they often take precautions to be there. In the street harassment survey, most harassed women reported changing their life in some way, including actions such as avoiding locations where they had been harassed, no longer going places alone, and even moving neighborhoods or quitting jobs.

This isn't just an issue impacting women, however. The national survey found that 25 percent of men had also experienced street harassment -- their most common experience was homophobic or transphobic slurs -- and they, too, experienced it starting at a young age and most changed their life in some way because of it. In a focus group with gay, bisexual and queer men in Washington, D.C., one man said he received a rape threat from a man at his bus stop because he was carrying a pink umbrella. The focus group participant said he changed his route as a result.

Street harassment isn't merely a quality of life issue; this is a human rights issue and the United States needs to treat it that way.

At the national level, this could mean the Obama administration and national advocacy groups include it as a form of discrimination and gender violence in the work they do.

At the state level, governments could become more uniform in outlawing up-skirt photos, following, and hate crimes, each types of serious harassment that are perfectly legal in some states.

Locally, mayors, city council members, and transit agencies should work with citizens on efforts to make their communities safer. Boston, Philadelphia, New York City, and Washington, DC, are leaders in this, each having held a city council hearing on street harassment and/or launched an anti-harassment campaign on their transit system. A few months ago in New York, Mayor de Blasio promised to address street harassment during his term in office. Hopefully he will keep that promise.

We also need more education about what street harassment is and to teach the next generation how to interact with each other in public spaces with respect and consent.

In the United States, we like to see ourselves as a leader in the world, a nation of freedom and equality, but to me and to millions of people who feel unsafe in public spaces, that will never ring completely true until we address and end the widespread problem of sexual harassment and assault in public spaces.