If you’ve ever been whistled at or called “baby” by a stranger, Kate Ziegler knows how you feel.
Ziegler was used to being the victim of street harassment before she started training for a marathon in 2011. She would compartmentalize “compliments” random men yelled at her, especially when she was dressed up to go out. But once strangers started catcalling her while she was running, she realized street harassment in Boston needed to be addressed.
“The more I started running and the more I experienced catcalling, the more I got frustrated with it,” Ziegler says. “I just ran 15 miles and I’m sweaty and disgusting. I don’t want to talk to anyone.”Instead of running away from her problems she joined forces with Britni de la Cretaz to start Hollaback! Boston, one site of the international organization Hollaback! that is dedicated to ending street harassment.
“Street harassment is a form of gender-based violence,” de la Cretaz says. “It impacts people everyday. It impacts their mobility and where they’re going. People will change routes [because of street harassment].”
Hollaback! Boston defines street harassment as “unwelcome words and actions by unknown persons in public places which are motivated by gender and invade a person’s physical and emotional space in a disrespectful, creepy, startling, scary, or insulting way.” This October, Hollaback! Boston released its first State of the Streets report on street harassment in Boston, modeled off a similar undertaking by Hollaback! Ottawa.
So what did they find? Four hundred seventy-six of the 543 survey respondents, or 88 percent, reported experiencing street harassment. Ninety-seven percent of that 88 percent have been harassed on the streets, 63 percent on the MBTA and 37 percent in bars or clubs. Thirty-two percent have been harassed in public parks, like Ziegler. Only 21 percent of victims said they had reported their harassment to police or MBTA officers.
Of the survey’s respondents who reported experiencing street harassment, 87 percent were females, 90 percent were LGBTQIA-identified, 94 percent were people of color and 90 percent were people with disabilities. People who identified as both LGBTQIA and people of color reported the highest rate of harassment: 96 percent.
“It really made clear why we’re doing the work and [that] it’s not just a thing that only affects women. Other communities are experiencing it differently,” de la Cretaz says. “The more identities you have, the more likely it is for you to be harassed.”
Ziegler says more aggressive incidents tend to take place on the T because it is a closed space, which allows people to get away with more. She adds that places with high pedestrian traffic, like Downtown Crossing and the Boston Common, usually have the highest rates of harassment.
“Boston is very pedestrian friendly,” Ziegler says. “People are out in the streets all year … That said, we don’t experience some of the more egregious or aggressive [forms] as often as New York or abroad. It’s much more minor, less physical forms in Boston.”
De la Cretaz points out that in L.A., a city dependent on cars, there is much more car-to-car harassment than in Boston. In places like Egypt and India, there are more instances of physical violence. Still, Ziegler adds that there is “always that fear of physical escalation” after an incident of verbal heckling or other minor forms of harassment that are common in Boston.Ziegler was surprised by the bystander intervention results of the survey.
“We had 74 percent of respondents say they had been harassed when there were bystanders present and only 14 percent said they had stepped in to stop [an incident of street harassment],” Ziegler says. She now feels a sense of urgency to educate all Bostonians on how to safely respond to or intervene in incidents of street harassment.
De la Cretaz and Ziegler made sure people who did not think of street harassment as a problem could participate in the survey. For example, people could define street harassment on their own terms by selecting what situations. such as honking or flashing, they saw as street harassment.
Respondents differed on what Hollaback! considers to be street harassment on both the lower and higher end of the spectrum. On the lower end, leering, staring and even following were not always seen as harassment, while on the higher end sexual assault and public masturbation were also excluded. Ziegler believes survey respondents consider the higher forms to be crimes in and of themselves.
De la Cretaz says the point of the survey, which was available online for the month of August and dispersed through social media, was to start a dialogue about street harassment. She hopes it will draw attention to the need for more scientific research to be done on street harassment.
Until then, Hollaback! Boston has plenty of plans to work towards a catcall-free city. Victims can share stories of street harassment on its website and realize they are not alone and that street harassment is not their fault. It collects data from its street harassment reports and maps the incidents.
“Getting these individual stories humanizes [the issue],” Ziegler says.
The group also holds offline events. This Fourth of July, Hollaback! volunteers wrote anti-street harassment messages in public spaces on a chalk walk along the Freedom Trail.
“It’s not hostile. It’s not confrontational,” Ziegler says of chalking. “It gets conversations started.”
Hollaback! Boston has done neighborhood walkabouts where participants discuss street harassment in their communities. So far, Hollaback! Boston has had meet-ups in Jamaica Plain, Davis Square, downtown and Dorchester. Another Hollaback! event staple is “Take Back the Bar” nights on the third Friday of every month, when Hollaback! members go to bars community members have not always felt welcome—or safe—in.
“We’re an anti-street harassment organization but what that means is we believe all public space should be safe for all people,” Ziegler says. “[Take Back the Bar] is an empowering way to reclaim space that otherwise they might not feel safe going to.”