I remember what I was wearing: A blue tank top with a picture of a peacock, jean short-shorts, and flip-flops. I remember the weather: High summer, sweet grass scenting the air and the sun just beginning its slow descent to the horizon. I was walking down a country road, lost in my thirteen-year-old daydreams, when suddenly —
A car horn split the air with its grating clamor. A group of men in the car waved their hands and heads out the windows, hollering at me.
It felt like I jumped a mile. My body flooded with shock. Fear. Self-consciousness. The moment before, I was at ease in my space, my body, my summer daydreams. Now, my sense of peace was ripped away like a wax strip torn from the heart.
That was the first time I was street harassed.
Do you remember the first time you were street harassed? Were you a little girl? A young woman setting off for college? Or has it happened so often you can’t even remember the start?
If you’re a woman, chances are you’ve experienced street harassment — and not just one time. In fact, some surveys show that as many as 85% of women report experiencing incidences of harassment in public space — including behaviors like staring, sexual comments, whistling, and even groping — before the age of 17. That means almost all of us have been street harassed before we’re even licensed to drive.
Street harassment affects women from all backgrounds, races, classes, and sexualities, though it can have a particularly difficult impact on women of color and members of the LGBTQ community. And while men can experience street harassment too, they are often harassed for being perceived as LGBTQ or “feminine.”
For many of us, the very pervasiveness of street harassment normalizes it, making us feel that it is inevitable or that we must simply “grin and bear it.” For too long, popular culture and even people close to us have reiterated these negative messages by dismissing street harassment as a “compliment,” as “no big deal,” or even as something that we invite through the clothes we wear, how we look, or where we choose to walk.
But let’s make one thing clear: Street harassment is never our fault and is much more than a “minor inconvenience.” Street harassment is a global public health epidemic.
As women, many of us deal with the negative mental health impacts of street harassment on a daily basis. Yet because street harassment is normalized, we often often lack acknowledgment and support to recover from this very real trauma.
A new spate of social science research seeks to change this. By studying and recognizing how street harassment harms women’s mental health, this research can give us the tools to understand and heal from experiences of harassment, as well as inspire social change.
When we’re street harassed, we may experience negative mental health effects like:
Anxiety, Shame, and Depression
Street harassment is a form of objectification, an experience where our sexualities, bodies, and gender identities are treated by others as objects separate from our whole selves. By making us self-conscious of our bodies and fearful for our safety, objectification can give us a constant sense of anxiety; can distract us from our work; and can even contribute to depression.
A Sense of Decreased Connectedness and Trust in Our Community
When men in our neighborhoods, communities, and cities fail to respect our safety and bodily integrity, and when even our friends and family dismiss our experiences of harassment, it becomes difficult to trust those around us. This can make us feel isolated and exacerbate any negative mental health effects we might be experiencing.
A Restriction of Our Mobility and Safety
To avoid or escape from street harassment, we may change our walking routes, alter our daily habits, constrict our behavior and self-expression (like the way we dress), or even change jobs or move. This, in turn, can increase our stress levels and have a negative overall effect on our mental and physical health and our ability to do the things we love.
These effects are real, they are never our fault, and we deserve to live in a society free of street harassment. So how can we stay healthy as we face this daily injustice?
While initiatives like Hollaback! and Stop Street Harassment work to change the culture that enables street harassment, we can also give ourselves and each other the love and support we deserve to flourish despite the daily stress and trauma of sexism.
Self-care starts when we take street harassment seriously, when we acknowledge the validity of our own emotional responses, and when we give ourselves the time, space, and love to heal. Self-care after an incident of street harassment may look like turning up the music and dancing to our favorite song, writing an angry Facebook post or journal entry, talking to a friend we trust, or taking a bubble bath. In the long run, self care can include encouraging mental health with the help of a therapist. It can take the form of joining a woman’s group or being part of movements to end street harassment.
I think about myself walking down that road at 13 — body confident, head full of dreams, wanting nothing more than the sunshine on my skin. After that first incident of street harassment, I never walked down a road so freely again. Like many of us, I learned to fear public spaces, learned to feel anxiety about my body and safety, and learned to close myself off in order to protect myself.
More than a decade later, I think of that confident young girl and — taking a cue from feminist Jessica Valenti — I wonder: If she didn’t live in a world of constant harassment, if she could walk down any street with that childlike boldness, who would that girl have been?
Who would any of us have been?
It’s not fair that we should have to deal with ongoing trauma simply for being women or LGBTQ people. But by caring for ourselves and each other, we can flourish even in the face of daily harassment. By acknowledging the negative mental health impacts of street harassment, caring for ourselves and each other, and even joining movements to challenge street harassment, we can thrive today in order to build a better tomorrow.
Because we all, every single one of us, deserve to feel the sun on our skin without fear.