Mia Eschinger, 17, was eight years old the first time she was sexually harassed.
“Being an eight-year-old, I was confused and felt violated, having not known why someone has looked at me in such a way,” Eschinger, now 17, said. “In my experience, sexual harassment has been degrading and violating.”
Sexual harassment is defined as sexual behavior without consent, according to the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault. It can take different forms, including physical contact, sexual comments and propositions and unwanted communication.
Unwanted communication and sexual comments are the most common forms of sexual harassment, occurring when individuals on the street, in school or at work make sexual jokes at the victim’s expense. These comments can vary from demeaning and forceful to “flattering” and flirtatious.
Of the teenage girls interviewed for this story, every one had been sexually harassed at some point.
“It made me uncomfortable because I’m a person,” Michel’le Langley, 17, said. “I don’t want to be labeled by what I look like and what your intentions are.”
A report by Stop Street Harassment found that 65 percent of American women experienced at least one type of street harassment in their lifetime. Among those women, more than half experienced verbal harassment, and 41 percent of women had experienced physically aggressive forms of harassment, such as being sexually touched (23 percent), being followed (20 percent), or being forced to do something sexual (9 percent).
For men, 25 percent experienced street harassment, including 18 percent who experienced verbal harassment and 16 percent who experienced physically aggressive forms.
Eighty-six percent of women and 79 percent of men who reported being harassed said they had been harassed more than once. Women were more likely than men to say it happened sometimes, often or daily.
“I believe that the more we discuss the rules of consent in a sexual place, the more people will realize that a low-cut top doesn’t mean ‘touch me,’ that a shorter dress doesn’t invite unwanted catcalls and gropes,” Sahara Sidi, 16, said. “If our legal system takes sexual assault more seriously, then perhaps our attackers will think before they act.”
Among those surveyed by Stop Street Harassment, 91 percent believed there are ways to stop street harassment. The majority recommended more security cameras and increased police presence in communities (55 percent) or educational workshops in schools and communities that provide information about street harassment (53 percent). Survey respondents also suggested that law enforcement be trained to spot street harassment.
“Educate your children,” Vyanne Dinh, 17, said. “It depends on how they grow up. If they’re in a home environment that shows them that it’s not an OK thing to do, they will know it’s not OK and spread that along to other people.”
Stephanie Felix is a student at Mercy High School, Middletown.