How Washington is trying to stop daily street harassment of women

Women in the U.S. capital say they are harassed on a daily basis by men who comment on their bodies, follow them, touch them and otherwise hound them in public spaces. The city council says it's listening to their complaints and has vowed to step up efforts to root out such behaviour.

Harassment of women is a 'huge problem' in D.C., but the city is stepping up efforts to tackle it

Women in Washington, D.C., say they are subject to street harassment on a daily basis. To help combat the problem the city is planning a public art display near where this woman was walking on 14th St. NW and U St. NW. (Jason Burles/CBC News)

Women in the U.S. capital say that every day as they walk the streets of Washington, they hear comments from men about their appearance, are touched and groped, leered at and followed, yelled and sworn at, spat on and otherwise harassed  — and they are sick and tired of it.

"How do you expect anyone to survive, much less thrive in an environment like this?" asked Shannon Kreider, one of many local women who shared their experiences at a D.C. council hearing on street harassment recently.

The behaviours can range from catcalls to kissing and hissing noises to more disturbing incidents such as following and assaulting women. Several women told stories about spotting men masturbating while staring at them and of being spat on when an advance is rejected.

They talked about how street harassment interferes with their daily routines, forcing them to change their commuting routes, for example, and how it makes them feel threatened and unsafe.

Women forced to be hyper-vigilant

For Kreider, a sexual violence survivor who struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, street harassment triggers strong emotional and physical reactions.

"Every time a man invades my personal space, refuses to listen when I tell him to leave me alone or verbally assaults me, I am reminded of my previous traumas," she said, choking back tears. "The constant triggers brought on by street harassment cause me to live my life in constant hyper-vigilance."

The accumulation of these seemingly minor yet absolutely incessant incidents creates an environment that is intolerable.- Melissa Yeo, Washington, D.C.,  resident

Melissa Yeo has been groped and followed on multiple occasions, experiences that she described as terrifying and that left her feeling helpless. She said she constantly hears comments from men as she walks down the street.

"The accumulation of these seemingly minor yet absolutely incessant incidents creates an environment that is intolerable and unlivable and, frankly, traumatic," she told the city's lawmakers.

Mindi Westhoff said she's harassed daily as she walks to work. She said it bothers her the most when she's out for a run, an activity that usually makes her feel empowered and strong. But those feelings quickly evaporate when she hears men telling her to get in their car, bend over and touch her toes or say they'd like to lick the sweat off her neck.

D.C. worse than other cities

Women all over the world experience street harassment, but some women in Washington who have lived elsewhere in the U.S. say it's worse here than in other cities.  

"I've never felt as unsafe as I do here," Rudhdi Karnik told the hearing, stressing that she still loves D.C. 
Jessica Raven leads Collective Action For Safe Spaces, a volunteer organization in Washington, D.C., dedicated to stopping harassment and assaults in public spaces. Raven is pleased with Washington's efforts to combat what she calls a huge problem in the city. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

The fact that Washington's local government felt the need to host a public forum on street harassment indicates that it's a problem worthy of a hearing but also that the city is doing something about it.

Women's voices are being heard, and the city council, community organizations and the public transit system are tackling harassment on multiple fronts.

The Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority has taken steps to deter harassment on buses and subways by putting up public awareness posters, training staff to recognize harassment and setting up an online reporting tool.

In addition to the public hearing, which lasted four hours and included emotional testimonials, the city council is also considering creating a task force. It would be the first U.S. city to do so. The Office of Women's Policy and Initiatives has been directed to collect data and educate high school students about the issue.

Washington is also getting creative. The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities is funding a $41,000 US grant for a public art installation to help deter harassing behaviours.

Street art to combat street harassment

 Arthur Espinoza, executive director of the commission, said in an interview that public art is a valuable way of addressing social justice issues.

"For many years, that's been the power of public art," he said. "It has been able to reach many people because it's accessible to so many."

A panel will evaluate proposals and pick a winner, and the hope is that the piece will be done by September.

Collective Action for Safe Spaces, a volunteer group dedicated to ending harassment, is also working hard on the issue. Among its initiatives is the Safe Bars program, which trains bar staff to recognize and stop sexually aggressive behaviour. It worked with the transit authority to develop its anti-harassment campaign, has a blog where women can write about incidents and conducts workshops.

"It is a huge problem. It's not about romance. It's not about sex. It's about power and control," said CASS executive director Jessica Raven after a recent workshop. "It's part of the spectrum of gender-based violence."
A woman uses chalk art on the streets of Washington during anti-street harassment week in April. (Holly Kearl)

She's pleased with the efforts Washington is making so far, noting that it's only the fourth city in the U.S. to hold a council meeting on street harassment.

"It has been a real leader," said Raven.

Holly Kearl, another local activist who started the non-profit group Stop Street Harassment, also said Washington is headed in the right direction.

"I would say Washington is on the forefront of this issue. It's starting to feel like a dream come true to have this issue taken so seriously," she said.

Men can generally walk from point A to point B without being interrupted. Women don't often have that luxury.- Holly Kearl, activist

​Kearl said any man who thinks that by catcalling he's paying women a compliment should put himself in the woman's position and consider how he would feel if every time he left home, someone, usually much larger than himself, commented on how he looks.

The woman being harassed has no way of knowing if the interaction will stop at just a comment or if the man is going to follow her or react aggressively if she tells him to stop.

And chances are she's already had multiple men give their two cents on her appearance that day or express what they'd like to do to her.

"That can get tiring and wearing and annoying," said Kearl. "And it's a matter of respect. Men can generally walk from point A to point B without being interrupted. Women don't often have that luxury."

Kearl said it's too early to determine if all of Washington's efforts will be effective in reducing harassment but that, at the very least, they are raising awareness.

"They are helping to set the tone that this is a serious issue that warrants attention, and it's not a compliment or a minor annoyance," she said.

D.C.'s transit authority has been trying to combat harassment of women through measures such as an online reporting tool and public awareness posters on subways and buses. During anti-street harassment week in April, staff were raising awareness about the problem outside a subway stop. (Holly Kearl/Stop Street Harassment)


  • An earlier version of this story said Collective Action for Safe Spaces operates a ride service. That service was offered as a pilot project and it is currently being restructured to address the needs of transgender women who face high levels of harassment.
    May 22, 2016 12:54 PM ET

About the Author

Meagan Fitzpatrick is a multi-platform reporter with CBC in Toronto. She previously worked in CBC's Washington bureau and covered the 2016 election. Prior to heading south of the border Meagan worked in CBC's Parliament Hill bureau. She has also reported for CBC from Hong Kong. Follow her on Twitter @fitzpatrick_m


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