Sexual Harassment and The City

Forward by Chamin Ajjan, MS, LCSW, A-CBT

Anyone who has walked down the streets of NYC has been subject to or witnessed street harassment.  It is a long standing tradition and so commonplace that even Miss Piggy was a short-lived victim of catcalling back in the ‘80s by construction workers until she showed them who’s boss in Muppets Take Manhattan.  The rest of us have not fared quite as well with these unwanted advances. We have been socialized to accept it, to pretend we like it and to smile at it.  However, many of us loathe it and feel fearful for our safety if we dare protest it or show displeasure.  Let’s take a deeper look into the history of this behavior and its impact.  

Understanding Terms

Street harassment is a custom in patriarchal societies.  The word patriarchy derives from Greek and literally translates as “the rule of the father”.  We often use it as a term for societies in which male is the favored gender, and in which men hold power, dominion and privilege. (Via Male power in a patriarchy can be found in family, community and social settings. As a result, women are seen as inferior, weak, generally less capable, less intelligent, and less worthy.”

Another buzz word/phrase we hear regularly is “toxic masculinity”. This isn’t only about behaving like a man.  It involves extreme pressure to feel and act in ways that are harmful, especially to women.(Via We have all heard the saying “boys will be boys” which minimizes bad behavior and we see young boys being socialized not cry or being told not be a sissy. These are just a few of the ways these behaviors are enabled and reinforced. 

Toxic masculinity can be identified by three things: toughness or the idea that men should be physically strong; emotionally callous and behaviorally aggressive; anti-femininity which is the idea that men should reject anything considered feminine such as showing emotion or accepting help; and power which denotes the assumption that men must work toward power and status (social and financial) so that they can gain the respect of others. (Via

Street harassment is the mingle of both of these terms (patriarchy and toxic masculinity) and is considered anything from unwanted sexualized comments, provocative gestures, honking, wolf whistling, indecent exposures, stalking, persistent sexual advances and touching by strangers in public areas such as streets, shopping malls and public transportation. Women are more commonly victims of harassment by men, although all genders can experience this. 

Understanding the interplay of patriarchy and toxic masculinity allows us to appropriately examine how cat calling can be considered sexual harassment and the need for it to stop. 

What is The Impact?

Studies show that catcalling negatively impacts how women think about themselves. It can cause women to feel degraded and for some, gives rise to concern around safety and fear of being assaulted.(via  Many women mitigate these concerns  by coordinating Ubers for friends, using clear communication with close ones when traveling or even carrying keys or other tools while walking to ensure they will be safe in case the catcall turns into being followed. These actions are all valid and encouraged in order to ensure mental peace and physical safety. 

It is disturbing that some women share their youngest experiences of being catcalled at 8 years old. This sounds like an opportunity to reflect internally and examine what structural changes we can make so we can all feel more comfortable in public spaces. Research demonstrates that these regular sexual objectifications can increase body shame, eating disorders and depression. It is clear that this is an under-discussed social problem in America and prominently right here in New York City. Preventative measures can alleviate the long-lasting impact on young women’s and girl’s self-esteem after interacting in public spaces. 

Stop Asking Women To Change

There are always things that women are requested to do to change the response of men around them such as “wearing different clothing” or wearing headphones to appear occupied. (Via This is not a conversation about asking women to change anything about their behaviors. Perpetrators remain a danger whether or not women adhere to these unfair requests.  

It is a privilege to not need to care about these issues or to be able to blame the victim. Many women would prefer to mind their own business and not have to worry about that leading to aggression. 

So What Can We Do?

If you are a man seeking a healthy relationship with yourself or with others, it is acceptable to show up with all of your authentic feelings and thoughts and learn or unlearn how to behave. Men can seek the support they need to act in a way that builds up and heals rather than tears down and damages others, especially women. 

Obviously, this is not a structural or macro solution to what is considered an epidemic in several major cities in America. However, it seems like a healthy place to always start is within. 

Begin to take a stance against these behaviors, in the same way that some might with racism or other social injustices. Speak out about this social problem. And seek support if you are suffering from these issues and feel negatively impacted. Women can learn assertive ways to speak up for themselves and communicate disinterest. Having a plan or a narrative in place can also help someone feel more comfortable or safe when a catcalling situation arises. 

It is always best to try to remain calm in these situations although it is common and perfectly normal to feel irritated, angry and sad or anxious during and after experiencing street harassment. Protecting your mind and engaging in self-care after these encounters allows you to maintain a balanced perspective of yourself and body. It helps prevent these negative comments and threats from creating permanence in your psyche. 

It is important to be clear that, although street harassment is common, it is wrong and a form of sexual violence. @catcallsofnyc and do a great job of sharing stories of harassment to provide concrete, in-the-moment examples of this public issue. These supportive sharing spaces allow for people to learn, emote and heal together while strategizing for a better future where everyone can feel safer despite gender. 

If you’re feeling desensitized as a woman about these issue consider that the realized root of the street harassment is to assert power similar to racism and rape. It is a deep issue that is only more recently being considered, addressed and even pushed politically to be classified as a crime by sisters Maya and Gemma Tutton in London. 

If you are in therapy, discussing these issues with your therapist can help. A supportive listening ear that allows you to vent and ground yourself in the strengths you already have, can help you to overcome similar situations and cope. Or you can learn new skills, new ways to cope and create a new narrative. We may not currently have a grand scale solution to these problems but talking about the problem and exploring your options, whether you are a man or a woman, can help give us hope for the future. Together we can consider mental and emotional shifts towards wellness and political and cultural changes we can make to alleviate the impact of harassment.


If you are struggling with issues around street harassment or want to learn more about Ammari Edwards, LMSW email her at for more information.

Chamin Ajjan Psychotherapy


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