What This New Study On Street Harassment Says About The Men Who Do It

Chris Hondros/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Street harassment is a problem so prevalent that practically all women have experienced it at one point or another in their lives. And new research on the motivation behind this behavior reveals one of the most striking findings on the topic yet. According to a study by international research group Promundo and UN Women, a vast majority of men harass women is because they find it fun and exciting.

Earlier studies have shown that at least 75 percent of women in cities across the globe have experienced street harassment, ranging from catcalls to public groping to rape. Instead of focusing on women's experiences, the Promundo study looked into the men who do it, and their motivations behind it.

Researchers surveyed men and women in Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon, and Palestine to try to get at how men see their position in the world and to understand their views on the relationship between the genders. And while the study's authors contend that substantial numbers of men are comfortable with some aspects of gender equality, many parts of their findings say otherwise.

Between 31 and 64 percent of men reported that they had taken part in some kind of street harassment of women, most frequently by yelling sexual comments at women, stalking or following them, or staring at them. Up to 90 percent of the respondents said that they did it for fun — and up to 75 percent said that they did it because women dressed provocatively.

It wasn't only men who held that belief — the majority of the women surveyed in multiple countries agreed that provocatively-dressed women deserved to be harassed.

When asked about how the men thought women perceived street harassment, the study revealed a significant disconnect between the genders. Many more men than women said that they thought that women enjoy street harassment.

The study, then, not only reveals why men harass women, but it indicates the lack of empathy with which women and their experiences are considered.

Holly Kearl, the executive director of Stop Street Harassment, tells Bustle about additional research and anecdotes she's encountered that back this up. Kearl references a study from the 1980s by Cheryl Benard and Edith Schlaffer from the University of Vienna, which found that the majority of men who harassed women on the streets did so because they were with their friends, and it was a way of bonding.

Kearl, who also gives talks about street harassment, shared with Bustle an excerpt of an essay she included in her book Stop Global Street Harassment: Growing Activism Around the World. The study was written by a male college freshman who attended one of her talks and later wrote about his changed perspective on catcalling:

When I’m with my boys riding around and see a fairly attractive female, I would yell out the window at them saying comments like ‘AYEEE CUTIE!’ without thinking twice of it ... I was just doing it for fun, without thinking about how the girl felt about some random guy yelling out the window at her. Now ... I see that my actions could be a form of street harassment. Even though I had no intentions of trying to harass anyone, I see that my actions could have made those girls uncomfortable, and that was the last thing I was trying to do.

Young men and boys, Kearl believes, harass women because they simply haven't thought about its impact on women. "Young men may not realize what they're doing is upsetting to girls or women," she says. "But I do believe older men, many of whom target teenage girls, know exactly what they're doing and that girls and women don't like it. They are being predatory."

In fact, the Promundo study indicated that more educated men were more likely to harass women on the street. As one researcher told NPR, the men in question "have high aspirations for themselves and aren't able to meet them, so they [harass women] to put them in their place." They feel like the world owes them, he went on to say.

This also fits in with a pattern that Debjani Roy, Deputy Director of Hollaback!, a grassroots movement to end street harassment, has seen in her work. One thing the organization has noticed, she tells Bustle, is that street harassment can sometimes be a manifestation of what some men might perceive as "a power imbalance in public space."

Things like social problems and a lack of employment could result in "a fear that masculinity is being challenged," Roy says, "so when it comes to reclaiming ownership of public spaces, it’s going to manifest itself as harassment."

Hollaback! and ILR School at Cornell University

Organizations like Hollaback! and Stop Street Harassment provide both possibilities for change, and a method through which to change them. (Hollaback! has launched a public campaign to train people in bystander intervention — and this is, of course, something that anyone witnessing street harassment can play a role in.)

Kearl and Roy say there is hope yet, and they agree that early education is the best way to combat street harassment. "We need to create spaces for boys and girls to talk to each other about these issues, and boys can learn that girls they trust/like/respect don't like this behavior," says Kearl.

Roy adds that truly addressing the problem won't just involve educating people at an early age, however. Combating street harassment takes a village, so to speak, beginning with more research and extending to action.

"We have a better understanding of why these men are acting the way they are in these locations, but for every man who does that, there can be a person who can counteract that by being an impactful bystander," Roy says. "Early education is really important, and the early education around bystander intervention is also really important. It’s not just about prevention by telling people not to do it, they also have to explain the same thing to other people."