2 min

Study finds street harassment common in Ottawa

Women, LGBT people most likely to experience harassment

Women are most likely to be harassed on the street. Credit: ThinkStock

Nice tats. Nice tits. If you ever wanna go straight, I'll help you out.

That kind of misogynistic and homophobic street harassment is nothing new to Jess Golden, 32, who says she's harassed on the street so frequently in Ottawa she actually started keeping a journal about it.

Golden, a social-service worker, joined Hollaback Ottawa earlier this year to add her voice and energy to the grassroots, anti-street-harassment organization that's galvanized Ottawans about harassment on OC Transpo buses and elsewhere in our city.

In July, Hollaback Ottawa released a report showing the results of its online survey. Of about 350 respondents, 97 percent of people said they'd experienced street harassment in Ottawa in the past year. Eighty-four percent of respondents identified as women, and 54 percent identified as LGBT.

"I think that too many people accept street harassment as status quo," Golden says. "Because the majority of harassment is to females and members of the LGBT community or even any type of ethnic community, I think it's something that in a privileged sense is just very normalized in that we should accept and deal with it and because it's not a physical assault that it really doesn't count as much."

Still, the attitude that honking horns, leering, crude gestures and sexist and homophobic comments are an unwelcome but obligatory part of life for women and members of the queer community is changing, Golden says, as more people take to social media or websites like Hollaback’s to call out harassers and share their experiences.

The sheer prevalence of street harassment, along with the misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and privilege in which it's rooted, makes combating it an uphill battle, she adds.

Ageism, though, can create an unexpected advantage. Some female survey respondents reported experiencing less street harassment as they got older. Amanda Ryan, 61, a local trans woman and Capital Pride's lifetime achievement marshal, says she's fortunate that street harassment isn't an issue for her.

"If I get a look, even if someone double-takes and figures out that I'm trans, I'm more likely to walk over to them and say, 'Hi, how are you?' and 'What can I tell you about trans people?'" Ryan says. "I don't find that kind of thing disconcerting at all. As a matter of fact, I see it as an opportunity to open up a conversation."

Individuals who are harassed have individual reactions. Some, like Golden, politely but firmly call out their harassers. Erica Butler, CP's youth marshal, says she tries to avoid confrontation.

"I had one man literally prevent me from leaving the situation by blocking my path with his bike, which was really scary," Butler writes in an email. "I tend to feel really powerless and afraid in the moment, and the disgust and anger comes later. I hate feeling like I can't do errands alone after a specific time or like I need to hide my relationship in public spaces."

Underscored in all street harassment is the threat of violence. On its website, Hollaback identifies street harassment as a "gateway" crime that begins with unwanted attention and comments and can escalate to flashing, stalking and assault.

Creating a community response to street harassment is at the forefront of Hollaback's efforts. In June, site director Julie Lalonde and other community organizations met with Diane Deans, Ottawa's transit commission chair, to discuss a public education campaign about street harassment and bystander intervention.

With nothing concrete materializing since, Golden said Hollaback plans to forge ahead, with or without financial support from the city and OC Transpo, and is considering fundraising options to finance an anti-harassment ad campaign.