New Report Details Street Harassment Faced By Native Women, Women and Men Across America

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by Britnae Purdy

Washington DC-based non-profit Stop Street Harassment has released the first-ever national report on street harassment in America.

The report, released on June 3, 2014, details and analyzes the results of the 2,000 person, nationally representative survey of approximately 1,000 men and 1,000 women over the age of 18 across the United states. The report also includes findings from ten focus groups conducted over two years. This study represents a major advancement in fighting street harassment because, while 65 percent of women in the United States and a majority of women worldwide report experiencing it throughout their lifetimes, a comprehensive study on the topic has never before been conducted.

Street harassment is defined as “unwanted interactions in public spaces between strangers that are motivated by a person’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, or gender expression.” This can range from verbal harassment (sometimes colloquially known as “cat-calling” or “eve-teasing”), stalking, flashing, public masturbation, sexual assault, groping, homophobic, sexist, transphobic, or racist slurs, or threats. Though often not taken seriously and rarely pursued with legal action, street harassment is a form of gender-based violence and a human rights violation, as it affects a person’s ability to spend time in public spaces and threatens their sense of security.

The report includes findings from two focus groups with Native American women and men.

The first group took place at Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and included four Native women and one Native man in their 20s and thirties.

“People see harassment as a joke, but it’s not a joke. It affects our lives,” says one participant, Sunny. “If we want to go for a walk, there’s always somebody yelling things, honking from their car, and it makes you uncomfortable. We don’t want to walk anywhere.”

Participants in this group agreed that they sense a higher tolerance of sexual harassment on reservations.

“It was a matriarchal society and respect for women was engrained until colonialism and assimilation, and it seems like we just fell apart. Sexual harassment is one manifestation of that,” says Sunny.

This group also reported frequently experiencing harassment from men at pow-wows. Dawn, a participant, explained that it’s common and socially acceptable for groups of young men to make a noise like, “Chee chee chee,” when young women walk by, “like you’re some kind of animal.”

The second group consisted of three Native women and one white woman, ages 16-50, living in Rapid City, South Dakota.

“We don’t talk about it,” says one participant who wished to remain anonymous. “It’s an everyday thing for Native women, it’s just normal. You just learn to put up with it, I guess, but we shouldn’t have to.”

One participant, a rape survivor, said that street harassment is triggering for her.

“It brings back memories…it causes me to drink. I get mad when I think about it.” One in three Native women are survivors of rape and sexual assault.

One participant, a Native woman in her late 20s, mentioned a recent event where, as she walked along the city’s bike path — a common way to traverse through the city — a group of Native men surrounded her. One grabbed her. “I had to fight him off me, I didn’t have a cell phone or anything and I just ran off and they kept hollering. ‘Hey get over here, do you want to f***?’” she said. “It is scary in Rapid on the streets, especially at night.”

Both groups repeated that racism plays a big part in the harassment they experience, and that racial harassment often overshadows or goes hand-in-hand with sexual harassment.

“We deal with racism more than sexual harassment here…And for men, the racism isn’t as hidden, it’s not as subtle as it is for women, but we [women] sense it more and are more hurt by it. We can read the body language,” says Dawn.

“It’s so normal to us we don’t know it as harassment,” she added.

Both groups also complained that they are often the target of racial and sexual harassment from police officers. Older women in the Rapid City group reported that they were often unnecessarily checked by police officers for alcohol, while the male participant in the Pine Ridge group cited frequently having his car arbitrarily pulled over by police officers. Participants echoed that they’ve lost faith in their local law enforcement and were often frightened of them.

These groups offered possible solutions to help decrease harassment in their communities, including sensitivity training for policemen, better lighting along walking and bike paths, community bike patrols and safety escorts, and increased youth mentoring for both young men and women focused on respect and life skills.

A graphic summarizing the major findings of the report, courtesy of Mother Jones, can be found below:

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