Sexual harassment on public transportation comprised 22% of incidents reported in a study by Hollaback! and Cornell University.

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Story highlights

Many women are routinely subjected to catcalls and sexual advances on the street

When physical assault is involved women may have difficulty finding legal recourse

Women who've been subject to harassment are telling their stories on the Internet

The websites where these stories are shared hope to end street harassment by airing it

CNN  — 

Head down, look straight ahead. Earbuds in, volume off. Walk quickly, but with purpose. Don’t make eye contact unless you need to. Look behind you every few blocks, make sure you’re not being followed. Don’t be obvious.

It’s not nighttime. You’re not in a known drug zone, or the sketchy part of town.

This is simply how many women steel themselves when walking down a city street in broad daylight, or even when boarding crowded public transportation. Why? Because many women, regardless of age, weight, or appearance, say they’ve heard something along the lines of “Hey baby, you want some of this?” or “I like what I see” or “nice ass.”

All of those statements are sexual harassment. And while some men might consider them compliments, to many women, they are a threat.

What is sexual harassment?

Fear and discomfort are what define sexual harassment. Not every catcall is followed by unwanted physical advances, and yet that reality has to be considered a distinct possibility for safety’s sake. Aggressive or sexual comments alone can instill terror – so why do catcallers think they’re OK?

Part of the problem lies in how the general public defines sexual harassment in public spaces. At work, there is a government-approved definition: “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” There are rules to be followed, departments to hear grievances, and punishments issued to offenders.

But out on the street, or on public transportation, that line is blurred or nonexistent. What may sound like a simple hello to some can come across as threatening to a woman trapped in a train car.

While the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects people against workplace harassment, street harassment is dealt with on a state-by-state basis. In New York, for example, a person is guilty of harassment “when he or she intentionally and repeatedly harasses another person by following such person in or about a public place or places or by engaging in a course of conduct or by repeatedly committing acts which places such person in reasonable fear of physical injury.”

Other states, such as Connecticut, are stricter in their definition. There, harassment occurs when someone “threatens to kill or physically injure [a] person and communicates such threat by telephone, or by telegraph, mail, computer network, or any other form of written communication.”

What if touching is involved? In California, you may be a victim of sexual battery if you have been touched in an “intimate part” against your will, and the touching must be for the specific purpose of sexual arousal, gratification or abuse. Lt. Karen Stubkjaer of the San Diego Sheriff’s Department said in an e-mail: “Simple ‘catcalling’ does not amount to a crime in California. If there are actual threats or improper touching, of course, we have more options for action.”

When things get physical

While the law might draw distinctions between verbal harassment and physical battery, on the street things get fuzzy. What’s standing between a catcall and a slap on the backside? Not much, judging from the experiences of women who talked to CNN.

Brittney Gilbert knows this all too well. Early September in San Francisco, a stranger on the bus she was taking to work assaulted her. “He was sitting next to me to my right and as I got up to de-board the bus I had to take a wide stance to get around him and when I did he reached up and grabbed my crotch,” she remembers.

CNN Radio: Calling out catcallers

Brittney Gilbert decided to put her private attack in a public space onto an even more public forum -- the Internet.

Gilbert went to work, but later decided that what had happened to her should be reported. “All I wanted to do was report the crime. … My experience from there was disappointing and surprising. I didn’t expect anyone to give me a hug but I was just surprised at how difficult it was to file a report. [The policeman] didn’t say to me ‘You can’t file a report,’ he just kept questioning if that’s what I wanted to do.”

After the alleged assault, Gilbert did something unusual: She decided to put her private attack in a public space onto an even more public forum – the Internet. She blogged about her experience because, she says, “I had no idea [how being assaulted felt] until it happened to me, how incredibly violating it was. I felt really icky. It made me feel like crying, it made me feel like vomiting. I was just violated against my will. I wanted to get these feelings down on paper for myself. I just wanted to tell one story of what happened and it’s not exaggerated.”

CNN policy is not to name victims of sexual assault, but in this case, Gilbert wanted to make her case public.

After her blog went viral, the Special Victims Unit re-interviewed Gilbert. She says the followup reassured her that something was being done, but she’s not sure whether the initial handling of her case or the secondary interview is typical. The San Francisco Police Department declined to comment on Gilbert’s case as the incident is under investigation.

Women talk back

Emily May runs a group called Hollaback! – an international organization that’s trying to end street harassment using crowdsourcing. Women can post their stories and pictures to the Hollaback! app or website. The theory is that the more publicized street harassment is, the less likely it is to occur. Posts are carefully screened and most of the faces of alleged perpetrators are blurred. Hollaback! uses that information to lobby for greater public safety, be it more street lamps and emergency phones, or increased police presence.

According to a 2010 report by the Centers for Disease Control, noncontact, unwanted sexual experiences were the most common form of sexual violence experienced by women. One-third of women will experience this type of sexual violence in their lifetime, compared with 12.8% of men.

Mobile tech fights sexual harassment

May wanted to take all the stories she heard from friends and colleagues and do something useful with them. There isn’t a lot of data out there on street harassment, and she is hoping that Hollaback! can change that. For her, the motivation is simple: “This is a human rights issue. This infringes our right to walk down the street safely, and we pay taxes too, we deserve to walk down the street and feel safe.”

Why catcall at all?

On the streets of Atlanta, men offered varying opinions about what motivates street harassment, whether they partake in it or not.

Kareem Watkins, a 26-year-old insurance claims adjustor said: “A lot of times it’s like pressure amongst men to like, you know, put on a show in front of each other. And kinda humiliate women sometimes … We’re raised to objectify women because we live in a TV world.”

But, Watkins went on to say that some women might be flattered by the attention: “I have heard that when a guy walks by a girl and doesn’t look, that she’s hurt by that,” he said. “I imagine it might feel pretty bad, but you know I can imagine it might boost their ego.”

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Watkins and his friend Jay Woods also put the onus on women for inviting commentary with their style of dress. “Did her mom tell her how to wear that? It’s all about how you’re raised,” said Woods.

And while neither of them could explain how a woman might command more respect while walking down the street, both did agree: “Women get treated the way they allow themselves to get treated.”

But for Marcus Jeffries, a 25-year-old student, catcalling is more about biology: “Men prey on women, unfortunately, because women [have] things that men want.” His friend Tyrone Evans said it “makes you look like a pervert … like [you’ve] never seen a woman before.”

Jared Ripps, 39, says he’s never even considered catcalling a woman. Why? “I have a sister and I wouldn’t want people doing that to her,” he said.

It happens every day

According to a survey that Cornell University conducted with Hollaback! in New York City, 60% of reported incidents of sexual harassment happened on the street. A further 22% happened on public transportation or in terminals.

Lt. Stubkjaer of the San Diego Sheriff’s Department recommended that in order to prevent harassment, women might choose to walk with a friend or in groups, and practice “basic personal safety protocols.” But some women would argue that they should be able to travel independently.

Lola Binkerd was on a train in Los Angeles last month ago when she was sexually harassed. After already switching cars to avoid a group of young men who’d started verbally haranguing her, Lola found herself in a virtually empty car, save for a man with a bicycle.

“He sits down in the seat across from me he leans in and tries to be very flirtatious and I look him in the eye and I say, ‘Please leave me alone’… very quickly he became very angry, very agitated … and then he stood up, punching walls, and it escalated to him shouting sexual threats and threatening to shoot me,” she says.

Like Gilbert, Binkerd also blogged about her experience. Her story revealed another aspect of sexual harassment: “There’s this expectation that you can’t just tell them to leave. People tend to think of it as ‘it’s not a big deal, just be nice.’ They don’t realize that someone’s making you uncomfortable. … The idea that you have to be nice when someone is invading your space is ridiculous,” she says.

The women CNN spoke to who blogged about their experiences aren’t looking for pity, they said, they’re looking for awareness.

Holly Kearl, founder of the website Stop Street Harassment, said she believes sharing stories is a key to ending street harassment. The site collects instances of street harassment and maps them.

“We can read other people’s stories and see that we are not alone, we can find ideas for standing up to harassers,” she said in an e-mail to CNN.

Kearl sees the issue as a global problem that demands more attention, and while street harassment has historically been seen as normal, it is now “less so than before because so many people are speaking out, exposing just how often it happens … and the negative impact it has on our lives.”

Have you been catcalled or assaulted in public? Have you catcalled another person? Share your experiences – in a respectful manner – in the comments section below.