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Street Harassment: An Unwanted Behavior

Street Harassment by definition is the unwanted verbal physical and/or visual behavior perpetrated by strangers in the context of urban areas: and it is a wide context mostly related to the concept of public spaces than strictly "the street". It also happens in stores, restaurants, movie theaters, malls even public transportation, in all of those contexts the unwanted behavior can take place

“Street harassment” describes unwanted interactions in public spaces between strangers that are motivated by a person’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, or gender expression and make the harassee feel annoyed, angry, humiliated, or scared.”
Stop Street Harassment Organization's report (2014)

The strangers that perpetrate the harassment are, according to most studies, men (in more than 80% of the cases). Another main characteristic of street harassment is the fact that it happens more in very transited streets than in less noisy and less foot trafficked areas.

There is no proven correlation between culture and frequency or intensity of street harassment: there are societies with very long geographical distances and very different values between them that experiment with the same level of street harassment; it happens in developed or undeveloped countries.

Illustration by Karolyn Schnoor for The New York Times

Street harassment involves a wide variety of unwanted behaviors: such as whistling, catcalling, the request of name, number (unwanted by the victim), sexist comments, telling someone to smile, evaluative comments (positive or negative) about the victim’s physical appearance, ogling (staring in a lecherous manner), sexually explicit demands, vulgar gestures, homophobic or transphobic sentences, following, flashing or public masturbation, grabbing, rubbing and sexual assault. In some cases, the victims of street harassment remain silent because it attempts against their own reputation: there are contexts in which the tendency is to blame it on the victim.

But definitely, the worst part of it is the broken window theory, which says that this behavior is just an antecedent for an individual that is going to develop more and more important anti-social behaviors. Over 60% of harassed men and women got concerned that street harassment could escalate into something worse.

“Broken window theory, academic theory proposed by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982 that used broken windows as a metaphor for disorder within neighbourhoods. Their theory links disorder and incivility within a community to subsequent occurrences of serious crime.”
Illustration by Keely Reyes

Studies (Arancibia et al. 2015, Chafai, 2017, Fileborn 2013 and Logan 2015) say that in some countries the street harassment experience is experienced by over 85% of women, and most than half of them have experienced it from an early age (between 13 and 17 years and decreasing). Because of it, is important to be aware of the transmitted behaviors among children, not only to avoid girls thinking they should live with it but also to avoid boys from becoming harassers.

According to Arancibia et al. (2015), the average age to start to experiment street harassment is 14 years old, so if we consider that 9 and 10 years old children are already being harassed or at least are witnesses of it, added to the fact that those are crucial ages for the identity formation, the problem only gets worse, especially for the early exposition to this unwanted behavior.

The consequences of the experience or possibility of sexual harassment make the victims change their routs and have spots to avoid in the city and that can lead to other problems as having to use a longer route (more time consuming), restricted schedules (some streets get worse/less safe at a certain hour); using of loose-fitting clothes to avoid attention, the need of the company of more women or male (friends or family) and basically losing the possibility of feeling safe in their own city.

Another set of consequences are related to long-term psychological effects such as the victim objectifying itself, depression, anxiety, sleep problems, eating disorders, lower academic achievements in the case of some students. In more extreme cases, the victims have made decisions related to quitting a job or moving to another place because of the harassers.

Finally, being women and girls the most street harassed, prevents equality from being achieved by society. Also, because of the same, it is considered a gender-based way of violence that goes against human rights. It is a social problem whose consequences affect mostly girls and women.

“Despite the progress achieved through the involvement of girls in education, women’s participation in the workforce and the promotion of policies supporting women’s rights, it is still the case that the position, experience and representation of women in the family, school, the workplace and the media continue to be marked by prejudice, inequality, violence and injustice.”
Chafai (2017)
Illustration by Benedetto Cristofani

To solve street harassment people, suggest in some cases, the presence of more police agents around the trouble areas, workshops about the matter, more lights and cameras on certain areas. But in the end, not much can be done, because the main way to decrease street harassment is education, rising children with awareness so the possibility of becoming harassers, being aware of the meaning and consequences of it. For many years there have even been comic representations of harassment on comedies along with the world, which makes the stereotype of the harasser not be questioned. So far most campaigns are directed to call it out as a way to fight it and also the typification of street harassment on the penal code as another strategy that would make the harassers think twice before behaving the way they usually do.

Finally, one important thing to do to not make the consequences of street harassment increase is to validate the victim’s experience and never justify the harasser blaming on the victim for the clothes they wear, the place they were walking, the time of the day, or anything that is not the harasser’s behavior.


  • Arancibia, J., Billi, M., Bustamante, C., Guerrero, M. J., Meniconi, L., & Molina, M. (2015). Acoso Sexual Callejero: Contexto y dimensiones. 27.

  • Chafai, H. (2017). Contextualising street sexual harassment in Morocco: A discriminatory sociocultural representation of women. The Journal of North African Studies, 22(5), 821–840.

  • Fileborn, B. (2013). Conceptual understandings and prevalence of sexual harassment and street harassment. 12.

  • Logan, L. S. (2015). Street Harassment: Current and Promising Avenues for Researchers and Activists: Street Harassment. Sociology Compass, 9(3), 196–211.

  • Mohamed, A. A., & Stanek, D. (2020). The influence of street network configuration on sexual harassment patterns in Cairo. Cities, 98, 102583.

  • (2014). 2014 National SSH Street Harassment Report

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Melisa Silva

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