THAT LOOKS LIKE A DICK in my peripheral vision.
But that can't be right—because I'm just sitting here on a bench in broad daylight. I look up, and yes, that's a dick. I'm waiting for the bus, and the guy next to me is masturbating. He flees the scene. That's when I realize I'm about to spend my evening filing a police report and answering questions from a compassionate detective at the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office. I'll offer to identify the suspect if they manage to locate him, which I'm happy to do because public masturbation isn't just the height of rudeness—it's a crime. And it's a type of crime that often goes underreported, even though it's all too common.
Case in point: Safely home, I text my buddy about the man we will forever refer to as "The Masturbator." She responds by telling me the same thing happened to her, also on public transportation—which makes me feel a little bit better... but also worse, because being a sex-crime victim on your daily commute shouldn't be this ordinary.
The Face of Harassment
While the Portland Police Bureau cracked "The Curious Case of the Daylight Masturbator," by identifying the perpetrator (who was linked to several later crimes)—it's only one of many demeaning incidents that women are subjected to on the regular. See also: "Hey, blondie!" shouted by random guys while waiting at a MAX stop; unsolicited jokes from strangers about chloroform and implied kidnapping (this happened to Mercury reporter Shelby R. King); constant admonitions that we should "Smile!" because "a girl as pretty as you shouldn't have anything to frown about"; and that eternal workout staple—getting catcalled from a car for having the AUDACITY to exercise in public.
Ask any woman you know, and you'll find that street harassment is a real and terrible daily occurrence, but it's also far from being a so-called "women's issue." According to a national report commissioned by nonprofit Stop Street Harassment (SSH) in 2014, these incidents range "from verbal harassment to flashing, following, groping, and rape." And it impacts people "across all ages, races, income levels, sexual orientations, and geographic locations." A majority of US women experience street harassment, and some men do, too—particularly those who identify or are perceived as identifying along the LGBTQ spectrum.
Women often downplay street harassment, but make no mistake—it's a crime. Indecent exposure, unlawful filming, stalking, and other harassment are illegal in Oregon, and, if women report offenses to the police, the harasser can be charged with crimes like second-degree intimidation and invasion of privacy.
Street harassment starts early: Half of SSH's survey respondents said they'd encountered it by the time they turned 17, and for most people, it happens more than once. Though verbal abuse is the most common form of street harassment (57 percent of female respondents reported it), 41 percent of women reported "physically aggressive forms, including following, flashing, and groping."
Shockingly, "nearly one in four women" reported being groped, one in five had been followed, and 14 percent of female respondents and five percent of male respondents had been flashed. Almost one in 10 women had been "forced to do something sexual."
Though men are sometimes victims of street harassment (most often reporting "being called a homophobic or transphobic slur"), the majority of perpetrators are unsurprisingly male. And while the face of the average anti-street harassment campaign is likely to be a distraught-looking white lady, people of color are more likely to experience these crimes—as are those who are low-income and in the LGBTQ community.
SSH categorizes street harassment as a human rights violation as well as a form of violence, citing the real damage it can do to victims' quality of life. One of the worst impacts? It creates an environment where victims don't feel safe in ostensibly public spaces, thereby denying them equal access. Many victims of street harassment worry the incident will escalate into rape or assault (which isn't unreasonable, given that it sometimes does).
Analyzing data from the SSH study, Beth Livingston—assistant professor at Cornell University's ILR School—determined that victims of street harassment reported feeling "fear, anxiety, anger, shame, and helplessness." And for survivors of sexual assault, street harassment can trigger memories of the event.
"These sorts of emotions—particularly when experienced day after day—can become paralyzing," writes Livingston. "It is incredibly likely that, as with many other negative emotional experiences, the impact can accumulate over time, leading to behavioral and health outcomes that we all should be concerned about."
Killing the Root of Harassment
So what's the proper response to being sexually harassed on the street? Many times we resort to ignoring the situation, or coming up with insulting comebacks that run the gamut from goofy—"Virgin!"—to out-of-control vulgarity (like the time one of us bellowed "EAT A BAG OF DICKS!"). While it may feel great in the moment, what does it really accomplish? People who responded to the SSH survey listed a number of coping strategies, from talking to friends and consulting online resources, to hiding behind headphones and sunglasses. Some stopped going to the location where they'd been harassed. Others took more drastic action, like moving or changing jobs. Only 13 percent of women reported the incident to "a police officer, transit worker, store manager, or other person in charge."
That low percentage of reported incidents likely wouldn't surprise Portland Police Sergeant Pete Simpson, who says the city doesn't have an "accurate account" of street harassment in Portland because the offenses "would be reported so many different ways." He adds that the numbers would be inaccurate because incidents of street harassment are likely underreported.
But according to authorities and experts, that's exactly what you should do: Report it. Pick up the phone and call the police non-emergency number (in Portland that's 503-823-3333) and tell them what's happening.
"First, I would suggest people being harassed try to walk away," Simpson says. "If there are threats of violence or weapons seen, then the person (or witness) should call 911."
That isn't to suggest that the burden of crime prevention should be placed upon the victims. Killing street harassment at the root is a complex proposition that would require drastically rewriting the cultural myths surrounding masculinity.
"[O]ur culture repeatedly tells boys and men that one way to prove their masculinity is by putting someone else down," said Shira Tarrant, professor of women's, gender, and sexuality studies at California State University, Long Beach. "This is a form of hypermasculinity that relies on exerting power over people who are perceived as less valuable. Harassment is a way to make that happen."
There are concrete, eminently practical approaches to cutting down on street harassment's reach—and its impact on victims. The SSH solicited ideas for reducing incidences of street harassment, and the most frequent suggestion was "more security cameras in public spaces and the increased presence of law enforcement or neighborhood watch groups." Though surveillance carries its own set of complications, it can be a deterrent; the possibility of being seen has been linked to reduction in criminal activity. (Consider the horrific gang rape in Brooklyn's Brownsville neighborhood that made headlines earlier this month: It occurred at night in a playground that, according to the New York Times, should have been properly secured and illuminated, but wasn't.)
And when harassment does occur, security camera footage can be used to identify suspects. In the Daylight Masturbator incident mentioned earlier, it happened at a bus stop with no security cameras, and the suspect wasn't identified until he was caught on cameras elsewhere—when he'd already subjected several other women to his unsavory offense.
Of course, one of the best ways to cut down on street harassment is for witnesses to step up, and speak up for those being harassed, and then report it to authorities—because street harassment doesn't exist in a vacuum, but on a continuum of escalating behaviors including rape. "[T]here are literally hundreds of little comments, harassments, and other forms of abuse that lead up to what we think of as a sexually violent act," writes Joan Tabachnick of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. "Each situation is an opportunity to intervene by reinforcing positive behaviors BEFORE a behavior moves further towards violence."
And if you're a perpetrator, you really need to stop. If you see a stranger walking around in a public space, and you feel compelled to comment on their appearance/perceived sexual orientation/lack of smile, just don't. If you feel the need to grab an ass that doesn't belong to you, or to show them your dick, just don't. What you're doing isn't just an inconvenience, and it certainly isn't a compliment.
You're hurting people. And it's a crime.