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Nowadays, it became a commonplace practice among social scientists to suggest that, as time goes on, the issue of street harassment becomes increasingly acute, in the societal sense of this word. The reason for this is that, as of today, there is plenty of empirical evidence as to the fact that women’s exposure to this kind of harassment has a number of clearly negative effects on their existential well-being. Moreover, as the relevant statistical studies indicate, the number of annually reported incidents of street (most commonly sexual) harassment in the U.S. continues to increase rather steadily (Cates & Machin, 2012).
According to the 2013 report Prevalence of street harassment and its consequences, “87 percent of American women between the ages of 18-64 had been harassed by a male stranger; and over one half of them experienced ‘extreme’ harassment, including being touched, grabbed, rubbed, brushed or followed by a strange man on the street or another public place” (par. 5).
What appears to be rather peculiar about the tendency in question is that it implies the lessened effectiveness of the governmentally endorsed harassment-prevention strategies, which continue to affect the realities of modern living in the West. One of the most likely explanations to this is that these strategies do not fully acknowledge the discursive preconditions of street harassment and do not take into account the whole spectrum of the would-be effects on the harassed.
In its turn, this implies that the issue of street harassment does deserve to be subjected to an analytical inquiry on a continual basis – something that should help to find a truly effective approach to addressing the problem at stake. My paper is expected to provide a modest contribution in this respect.
In it, I will aim to outline the main physical and emotional effects of street harassment on women, including the commonly overlooked ones, and to identify the societal/psychological prerequisites that allow the concerned practice to remain an integral part of Western living, as we know it. While elaborating on the subject matter in question, I will also strive to expose what can be considered the conceptually fallacious assumptions about street harassment and its causes.
The research methodology of this paper is concerned with conducting the review of the discursively relevant articles/books/websites, as such that will allow us to acquire some potentially enlightening qualitative insights into the phenomenon. This specific methodological approach is fully consistent with the qualitative essence of the would-be applied analytical inquiry. After all, there is indeed much rationale in expecting people’s harassment-related experiences to be perceptually subjective to an extent. As Fairchild (2010) noted, “Harassment is in the eye of the beholder; in other words, it is up to the victim to label the behavior harassment. Sexual harassment, and by extension, stranger (street) harassment, is a matter of individual perception” (p. 193).
Therefore, when it comes to assessing the discursive implications of the issue in question, one should remain thoroughly observant of what accounts for the fluctuating (and therefore hardly quantifiable) dynamics within the harassment-related public discourse – something that is best achieved with the mean of conducting a literature review.
Some of the main questions that I expect to be able to answer in the aftermath of having conducted this review are as follows: What are the most notable effects of street harassment/catcalling on women? Why do women continue being harassed on account of their physical appearance? What can be considered the best (societal and individual) strategies for addressing the issue? While researching the issue, I expect to find indirect evidence as to the existence of a certain link between one’s likelihood to think of street harassment in terms of a troublesome social issue, on one hand, and the qualitative particulars of how the concerned individual tends to perceive the surrounding social reality and its place in it, on the other.
Even though the term ‘street harassment’ does not hold any provisions, as to how one’s gender may affect his or her chances to end up harassed, most of this term’s available definitions do refer to women, as the ‘natural’ subjects of victimization, in this respect. For example, according to Bowman (1993), “Street harassment is… [sexual] harassment of women in public places by men who are strangers… It includes both verbal and nonverbal behavior, such as wolf-whistles, leers, winks, grabs, pinches, catcalls, and street remarks; the remarks are frequently sexual in nature (p. 519).
Partially, this can be explained by the fact that, in the biological sense of this word, the representatives of the Homo Sapiens are nothing but ‘hairless apes.’ Apparently, such harassing actions as catcalling, are reflective of the sheer strength of atavistic (concerned with sexual mating and domination) anxieties in those who perpetrate them. Consequently, this causes many people to adopt the ‘whatever is natural cannot be ugly’ attitude towards street/sexual harassment, which in turn helps it to remain a widespread practice.
Another obstacle, which prevents street harassment/catcalling from being referred to as a socially inappropriate practice and subsequently outlawed, has to do with the fact that Western societies continue to remain innately patriarchal – something that encourages men to believe that by subjecting women to this form of sexual harassment they, in fact, exercise their constitutional rights.
As Chhun (2011) pointed out, “Presently, in the United States, the First Amendment generally protects most public speech, including catcalling and most street harassment” (p. 275). This, of course, contributes even further towards making it possible for street harassment to be referred to as yet another socialization-tactic, and consequently – towards legitimizing the concerned practice to an extent.
However, the described situation is hardly appropriate, because it implies that there is nothing too severe about the negative effects of street harassment on women. This, however, is not quite the case. After all, during the recent decades, psychologists and sociologists were able to expand their understanding of these effects rather substantially, which in turn has led many of these individuals to believe that street harassment results in nothing short of undermining the society’s structural integrity.
There are two undeniably negative effects of street harassment on women. The first of them has to do with the fact that, while subjected to street harassment, women experience the sensation of ‘objectification’ (commoditization). In their article, Fairchild and Rudman (2008) provide valuable insight into what this sensation is all about, “Sexual objectiﬁcation is a clear component of both sexual harassment and stranger harassment. In both cases, women are treated as objects to be looked at and touched, and not as intelligent human beings” (p. 342).
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In its turn, this prompts the harassed to doubt whether they should be trying to attain a social prominence in the patriarchal society in the first place. Being ‘catcalled’ out on the street sends the person a message that her personality is so much more about ‘body’ than about ‘mind’ – something that proves especially damaging to intellectually advanced/socially upstanding women. In this respect, it will prove quite impossible to disagree with Willis (2015), who suggested that by catcalling female-strangers, men “continually remind women, in obvious and subtle ways, ‘This is still a man’s world, and you are still the sexual Other,’ or ‘As I see it, your main function is to enhance the erotic environment’” (p. 155).
Therefore, there is nothing surprising about the fact that, as of recent, street harassment has been commonly referred to as such that is capable of triggering depression in women. After all, being ‘catcalled’ (out on the street), while simultaneously assured (by Media) that American society had ceased being sexist, does prompt just about any woman to face a certain cognitive dissonance – something that can hardly contribute to her emotional well-being.
There is even more to it – as some studies indicate, a woman’s exposure to street harassment increases her chances to develop a life-impending psychosis. The reason for this is quite apparent – women naturally predisposed to regard street harassment as something that may potentially lead to rape. As Fisher and Sloan (2003) noted, “Since, for women, rape is a potential outcome of any face-to-face victimization, it may be a primary source of anxiety, concerned with the prospect of being catcalled” (p. 640). This implies that it is specifically single/divorced women (known for their tendency to indulge in self-reflecting), who are the most likely to end becoming mentally disturbed in one way or another, as a result of having been harassed by strangers out of the street.
The above-mentioned directly relates to what many authors/researchers refer to as the physically damaging (second) effect of street harassment – the fact that the concerned practice often causes women to choose in favor of a socially alienated lifestyle, as the ultimate mean of reducing their chances to end up being harassed in public places. As a logical consequence, these women adopt a passive stance on the issues of socio-political importance – the development that in many cases is being followed by the concerned individuals beginning to gain some excessive weight (due to physical inactivity).
The rationale behind this suggestion draws from the findings of Harris and Miller’s (2000) study, which shows that the percentile ratio of those women who tend to grow increasingly preoccupied with trying to avoid street harassment, as one of their main priorities in life, is indeed rather substantial. Apparently, the very fact that street harassment is of common occurrence establishes the objective preconditions for this practice to have a much heavier impact on the victimized women’s lives than it should have been the case.
As Leong (2014) pointed out, “Dealing with street harassment a few times a year would still be worthy of discussion. But dealing with street harassment nearly every day is a distraction from women’s lives that affects success at school and at work, relationships, and personal well-being” (par. 2). Thus, there can be only a few doubts that the practice of street harassment/catcalling is indeed capable of victimizing women, in the tangible sense of this word.
Among the main reasons why women continue being exposed to street harassment, is commonly acknowledged the legacy of euro-centrism, as a discourse that up until recently used to dominate the public sphere in the West. After all, this discourse never ceased to be innately patriarchal/male-chauvinistic.
Thus, street harassment can be discussed as the social extrapolation of “men’s reluctance to accept women’s presence in the public world as workers, citizens, even mere pedestrians, rather than as objects of their sexual assessment or desire” (Waldo, Berdahl, & Fitzegerald, 1998, p. 63). Because such men’s reluctance is assumed to be socially (rather than biologically) predetermined, many social scientists come to conclude that the best strategy for addressing the issue of street harassment is educating people about what accounts for the practice’s menaces.
Nevertheless, there are a number of the commonly unacknowledged peculiarities to the issue, as well – something that implies that addressing street harassment within the methodological framework of political correctness (e.g., classifying it as a public offense) may not be the best option. One of these peculiarities has to do with the earlier mentioned fact that the extent of a person’s emotional discomfort with being harassed appears to be predetermined circumstantially.
That is, the physical appearance of the harasser does have a strong effect on how the victimized person reacts to being ‘catcalled.’ According to Golden, Johnson, and Lopez (2001), “The research on attractiveness and perceptions of sexual harassment suggest that the ambiguous behavior of attractive perpetrators is likely to be viewed as less sexual harassing than the same behaviors performed by unattractive perpetrators (p. 771). It is understood, of course, that this implies that there is the element of perceptual biases to just about every woman’s complaint about having been exposed to street harassment.
Therefore, such complaints cannot be regarded as representing an undisputed truth-value. What makes the discussed issue even more controversial is that it is not utterly uncommon among the victims of street harassment to report that they, in fact, enjoy being ‘catcalled.’ According to Elkins and Velez-Castrillon (2008), this can be interpreted as the indication that it is thoroughly natural for women to believe (even if unconsciously) that their true calling in life is concerned with childbirth – the main motivation behind some women’s commitment to wearing sexually suggestive clothes, which provoke ‘catcalling.’
The authors came up with an interesting observation – a woman’s tendency to wear skimpy clothing positively relates to the measure of her sensitivity towards the instances of street harassment. In its turn, this can be seen reflective of the fact that by adopting a strongly negative attitude towards street harassment, many women aim for the same with the harassers – to trigger sexual tensions. The other predictor of a woman’s heightened sensitivity towards street harassment is her urban (as opposed to rural) status.
What also undermines even further the validity of the constructivist claim that street harassment should be considered intentionally malicious is that the practice’s instances presuppose the societal context of male-bonding. As argued by Wesselmann and Kelly (2010), “Sexist jokes and taunts, a form of sexual harassment, serves an important group bonding function” (p. 453).
The discursive implication of this observation is clear – while harassing women out on the street, most men do not aim to humiliate the former as something that has the value of its own. Rather, they do it to prove themselves qualified to aspire for dominance within the group of their male-friends.
The primeval line of logic, behind one’s willingness to harass ‘sexual others,’ is as follows – flirt (harassment) leads to sex, sex leads to children, children lead to power (children can be turned into agricultural helpers). It is understood, of course, that this hardly justifies street harassment. Nevertheless, it does imply that, when it comes to assessing the practice’s discursive significance, one must be mindful of the basic principles of biological evolution.
Discussion and Summary
The main implications of the conducted literature review are as follows:
1. There is indeed much rationale in regarding the issue of street harassment socially relevant, because of the sheer number of the potentially affected stakeholders, who clearly do not enjoy being ‘catcalled’ – to say the least.
2. The assumption that all women are equally appalled by the idea of being ‘catcalled’ does not stand much ground. This, in turn, implies that there can be no universally applicable criteria for measuring the severity of the practice’s negative effects – especially if the latter are perceived ‘positive’ by the affected party.
3. In order for policy-makers to adopt a proper strategy for addressing the issue, they must know how to assess the significance of this type of harassment through the methodological lenses of the Evolutionary theory. The logic behind this suggestion has to do with the earlier mentioned fact that just about anyone’s experiences of street harassment are highly subjective.
In light of these summative points, it will be thoroughly logical to suggest that the effective key to addressing the issue of street harassment can hardly be sought for in the legislative domain. Given the fact that the main objective of street-harassers is to elicit a responsive reaction in the harassed, the latter should refrain from dignifying ‘catcalls’ – pure and simple. What will come rather handy, in this respect, is not wearing sexually suggestive clothing. It is understood that theoretically speaking, “Provocative dress should not be a justification for catcalling when women are catcalled, regardless of the type of clothing they wear” (Chhun, 2011, p. 283).
The practice, however, points out to something entirely opposite. In fact, this suggestion helps to formulate yet another insight, in regards to the issue in question, acquired while conducting the review – there are just too many different theorizations, as to what should be considered the fundamental causes of street harassment. This, in turn, makes it much harder for those who strive to limit the concerned practice’s negative effects; to choose in favor of the circumstantially sound strategy for tackling the issue of unwanted ‘catcalling.’
I believe that the review’s findings do correlate with the initially provided thesis and that the posed questions have been answered either explicitly or implicitly. Apparently, the situation when street harassment continues to be perceived in terms of a solely ethical issue can be no longer deemed thoroughly appropriate.
This once again confirms the legitimacy of the earlier expressed idea that there are many deterministic subtleties to the discussed practice, and consequentially calls for the application of the positivist scientific inquiry, when addressing the harassment-related issues is at stake. In light of this conclusion, it will be fully applicable to suggest that in the future, researchers should focus on identifying the relationship between one’s cognitive predispositions and the qualitative specifics of his or her attitude towards the sexuality-related discourses.
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