Content Warning: This article contains graphic language, most of it heard firsthand on the streets of Austin.
I was first harassed while walking on the street with a female neighbor in St. Louis at the age of 12, by a man in a Jeep commenting on our developing figures. At the time, I felt largely agnostic towards this sort of behavior — I knew deep down it wasn’t ideal, but I was also conditioned to think male attention was a good thing. Growing into womanhood in the late 2000s, women and girls were sold the idea that desirability to men should be their end goal, and attention from fast-moving vehicles was part of this narrative. Magazines and TV shows told women their highest purpose was molding themselves into this patriarchal vision of womanhood, no matter the cost.
By contrast, today is an exciting time to be a woman. We can wear what we want, love who we want, and weigh what we want — and compared to a decade ago, popular media and advertising now more often tells us that anyone who thinks differently is not worthy of our time. It’s a powerful feeling to shed the unintentional effects of growing up under this male-centered perspective, and even more powerfully, this new vision of womanhood is shared by my peers and by women I look up to.
This realization, alongside my ever-growing list of personal harassment experiences, led me to follow the example set by women in other cities and begin documenting the narratives of Austin street harassment victims on Instagram at ATXStreetHarassment. When I first created the account, I uploaded all the pictures describing interactions from my past few weeks right away. A male coworker laughed at me for releasing the material all at once instead of spacing it out, but my fellow females and I just shook our heads — the content on this topic is unfortunately endless.
(Please follow the account if you’ve experienced this issue, and consider submitting your own stories — let’s make sure these incidents get attention.)
The concept of street harassment — also sometimes known as “catcalling” — has several slightly different definitions, but a commonly accepted version includes “unwanted comments, gestures, and actions forced on a stranger in a public place without their consent . . . directed at them because of their actual or perceived sex, gender, gender expression or sexual orientation.”
This definition accurately describes my experiences, and those of many other Austin women — according to a 2014 report by the nonprofit organization Stop Street Harassment, 65 percent of women have experienced street harassment, 86 percent of them more than once, with 68 percent of women saying they’ve worried verbal harassment would escalate into something worse.
I’m a planner by trade, as well as a recently-appointed downtown commissioner, and though locals discuss many of the urban problems facing our city at length, the one we don’t talk about nearly enough is street harassment. I’m not saying it takes precedence over housing and transit (please fix those first), but harassment still holds Austin back. Despite its name, street harassment often happens in other places like public transportation and parks — and from an urbanist perspective, it should be considered an issue that harms the equity of the city experience.
This harassment is largely directed towards transit users, pedestrians, women, minorities, and other underrepresented and vulnerable populations — and when these citizens are made to feel unsafe in urban spaces, they’re less inclined to engage with the public realm, more likely to prefer the privacy of a car over public transportation, and even sometimes reluctant to travel down certain streets. That’s not even mentioning the potential impact of such experiences on female tourists, who might think twice about spending their money here after the fact.
Per one of the most comprehensive harassment surveys available, 48 percent of black respondents and 45 percent of hispanic respondents have experienced verbal harassment, compared to 36 percent of white respondents. 57 percent of LGBTQ respondents have experienced verbal harassment, compared to 37 percent of heterosexual respondents. 70 percent of harassers are single males.
Street harassment happens multiple times to most people, with 86 percent of harassed women and 79 percent of harassed men reporting multiple incidents. Most women I know would guess their lifetime incident count is in the hundreds. Studies have found that harassment or the fear of harassment can influence victims to change their clothing, transportation choices, or even their jobs — and to lose trust in their communities, leading to social isolation and poor mental health outcomes.
The most common change reported by harassed people is a constant assessment of their surroundings. Personally, there are certain streets I avoid and places I won’t go at certain times of day, even if they’re on the most direct route. Women report that harassment ruins their ability to relax in the public realm, such as while exercising or taking a lunch break. The ability of citizens to move about the city freely and utilize urban areas is a huge goal for Austin — we spend millions of dollars designing quality public spaces and functioning transit systems, and it’s clear that large portions of our population are uncomfortable using them.
Others have taken the time to wade into the dark world of male ego and explain why harassment happens, but it’s clear this isn’t an Austin-only problem — or even a United States problem. Women worldwide are subject to so much harassment that the United Nations is increasingly bringing the topic into discussions of women’s health, and U.S. cities barely crack the top 16 worst cities for female transit riders.
It’s easy to dismiss such a prevalent issue as unsolvable, but what’s unique about confronting harassment is that it doesn’t take big changes to have a major effect locally. It’s a problem that (hopefully) most of us can agree should be addressed in some way, and it doesn’t require updating the land development code or convincing the state legislature to give us a break. Compared to more divisive conversations about Austin’s many urban challenges, stopping harassment is politically popular and potentially something almost everyone in the city could get behind, with the City of Austin itself positioned to start the conversation if its leaders choose to do so.
There are a wide variety of international precedents available for Austin’s leaders to review while crafting potential local policy on this issue. A low-cost, tactical approach from Mexico City in 2016 provided subway-riding women with whistles to embarrass harassers — though this approach is not without its critics. Last year, Washington D.C. passed an unprecedented anti-harassment law, which creates an advisory committee and works to define the issue by surveying citizens to understand harassment’s local breadth. College campuses have recently worked to solve the problem by providing support to harassees and strengthening pedestrian safety programs.
Since I started working on street harassment, Capital Metro has been incredibly responsive — and I’m glad they’re taking it seriously. Representatives tell me the transit provider is currently planning an anti-harassment campaign for city buses, and also encourages riders to report specific incidents to its community outreach team, which determines security measures specific to each route based on these reports.
I often get questions from men about what they can do if they witness harassment — and I always tell them they should speak up if they can! Tell the harasser their behavior is not okay, and ask the harassee if he or she is okay. You’ll find some other specific recommendations in this article, and they’re all great approaches to better support one another as we work on making Austin’s streets safer for everyone.