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Researching Street Harassment

Reactions to catcalls are divided.

Keep walking.

Or, respond.

Taking action usually has a positive influence on a target's emotional response to street harassment, according to research released this week by the Worker Institute at Cornell and Hollaback!.

A local campaign that inspired an international movement to end street harassment through mobile technology, Hollaback! offers free smart phone applications to give targets a voice on Hollaback! blogs.

Research findings from a sample of blog entries by New York City residents include:

  • Street harassment is an under-researched, but prevalent experience for many New York City residents.
  • Emotional reactions to street harassment vary. But, any type of harassment – verbal, groping or assault – can produce extreme feelings of fear, anger and shame.
  • Targets who take action while experiencing street harassment or by photographing the harasser or by reporting harassment to officials, appear to experience less negative emotional impact than those who did not.
  • Targets who respond assertively tended to describe outwardly targeted emotional responses such as anger and surprise. More passive responders described inwardly-focused emotions such as embarrassment, helplessness and fear.
  • Most harassment targets said bystander inaction was highly unacceptable.
  • When bystanders failed to act, their presence tended to compound targets' negative emotional responses.
  • Bystander interventions that had a positive influence on targets could be as simple as a knowing look or a supportive, empathetic statement.
  • When a bystander took action by confronting the harasser, harassment was more likely to stop.

To better understand how street harassment is experienced, the Worker Institute analyzed a random selection of 223 descriptions of street harassment experiences submitted to the Hollaback! website between 2005 and 2008.

In an interview this week, ILR Workplace Issues Director KC Wagner said, "I jumped at the chance to collaborate with Hollaback! as it exemplifies the spirit of the Worker Institute."

"Hollaback! named this phenomena and the institute mobilized faculty and students to study it. Our research contributes to this international social dialogue, emerging body of social science research, innovations in public policy and societal change," she said.

Wagner is a co-director of the Workplace Diversity and Equity group within the Worker Institute at Cornell, founded this year to advance worker rights and collective representation in the United States and across the world.

A forum for research and education on contemporary labor issues, the institute promotes innovative thinking and solutions for problems related to work, economy and society.

Work on the research report, entitled "Experience of Being Targets of Street Harassment in NYC: Preliminary Findings from a Qualitative Study of a Sample of 223 Voices Who Hollaback!" began in 2010.

That's when Emily May, executive director of Hollaback! sought out Wagner, who has been working on sexual harassment and related issues since 1980.

May, in an interview from her Brooklyn office, said, "Street harassment is the most pervasive form of sexual violence, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and the least legislated against."

"Harassment is a daily, global reality" for women and for people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer, May said. "But, it is rarely reported, and it's culturally accepted as 'the price you pay' for being a woman or for being gay. At Hollaback!, we don't buy it."

"Our research partnership with the Worker Institute at Cornell helps us quantify the impact of street harassment – and identify solutions. As a result of this research, we recently launched a bystander campaign called 'I've Got Your Back' that shows bystanders how to intervene and celebrates when they do."

"We believe that everyone has a right to feel safe and confident without being objectified and the Worker Institute research will help us show the real impact that street harassment has on women and LGBTQ folks. It matters, it hurts, and it's high time we put an end to it."

Wagner's research team for the project includes team leader ILR Assistant Professor Beth A. Livingston, Angela Liu '13 and Sarah T. Diaz, a graduate student at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College.

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