Adolescents’ experiences of street harassment: creating a typology and assessing the emotional impact

Lucy Betts (Department of Psychology, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK)
Rachel Harding (Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK)
Sheine Peart (Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK)
Catarina Sjolin Knight (Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK)
David Wright (School of Arts and Humanities, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK)
Kendall Newbold (Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK)

Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research

ISSN: 1759-6599

Publication date: 11 February 2019



Research examining young people’s experiences of harassment has tended to focus on the school and digital environment. Despite street harassment being identified as a common experience for adult women, very few studies have explored adolescents’ experiences of street harassment. The paper aims to discuss this issue.


A person-centred analytical approach, based on experienced reporting, was used to create a typology of street harassment. The reports of street harassment were received from 118 (68 female, 43 male, no gender reported in 7) 11-15-year olds over a 6-8 week period.


Cluster analysis revealed four distinct groups: “predominately verbal”, “non-verbal/non-direct”, “other incident”, and “all forms”. Young women and those in the “all forms” group reported experiencing greater negative emotions following the episode of street harassment. Young men were equally as likely as young women to report experiencing street harassment.


The findings uniquely highlight that adolescents experience distinct types of street harassment, some of which are associated with negative emotions.



Betts, L., Harding, R., Peart, S., Sjolin Knight, C., Wright, D. and Newbold, K. (2019), "Adolescents’ experiences of street harassment: creating a typology and assessing the emotional impact", Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research, Vol. 11 No. 1, pp. 38-46.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited

Adolescents’ experiences of school bullying (Olewus, 2013) and discrimination-based harassment (Russell et al., 2012) are well documented. However, little is known about young people’s experiences of harassment outside of the school environment apart from digital harassment (Kowalski et al., 2014). Logically, young people are likely to experience harassment in other contexts that are not constrained by these school or digital environments. Despite the perception that young people are vulnerable and at risk in public spaces from “stranger danger” (Francis et al., 2017), and evidence that young people spend reduced time outside because of perceived fear of strangers (Ding et al., 2012), research has only recently begun to explore how experiences of bullying influence how Canadian youth travel to school (Cozma et al., 2015).

Although the research by Cozma et al. (2015) focussed on bullying, parallels can be drawn between this research and studies exploring street harassment. Street harassment represents “unwanted behaviours from strangers that typically occur in public spaces (e.g. in the street or on public transportation)” (Davidson et al., 2016, p. 553). According to Davidson et al., these behaviours include: whistling; leering; sexist, homophobic, or transphobic slurs; persistent requests for someone’s name or number after they have said no; sexual names; comments; and demands. Therefore, street harassment encompasses seemingly innocent comments to vulgar suggestions to outright threats which, along with the fear these behaviours generate, led Kissling (1991) to argue that street harassment contributes to a culture of “sexual terrorism” (p. 456). Moreover, Kearl (2010) proposed that street harassment represents a form of bullying behaviour that is motivated by power and disrespect with commonalities evident in street harassment and bullying behaviours. For example, name calling and comments are characteristic of verbal bullying (Rivers and Smith, 1994). Despite street harassment being a common experience for many, relatively few studies have examined the phenomena (Vera-Gray, 2016), especially with young people.

Using data collected from over 2,000 9-16-year olds during 1996/1997 from the UK, Deakin (2006) examined experiences of harassment. Compared to other forms of harassment, young people were more likely to report experiencing harassment travelling to or from school while in public places, and half of the sample reported that they had experienced street harassment. While Deakin’s research provides an insight into the prevalence with which young people experience street harassment in the UK, it is important to note that the data were more than 20 years old and involved retrospective reports. Experience sampling methods overcome recall bias associated with retrospective accounts and maximise ecological validity by asking participants to complete measures when an event has occurred (Shiffman et al., 2008). In the current study, we asked a large sample of young people to report every incident of street harassment they experienced over a six to eight-week period so that we could identify a typology of street harassment. Adopting experience sampling allowed us to reduce potential recall bias.

To create the street harassment typology cluster analysis was used. Cluster analysis, a person-centred analytical approach, identifies groups of individuals based on their scores on an indicator enabling naturally co-occurring experiences to be examined (Anderberg, 1973). In the context of street harassment, cluster analysis would identify distinct groups based on the young people’s actual experiences whereby members of the same group have similar experiences of street harassment which are distinct from the groups to which they do not belong. However, it is important to note that interpretation of the clusters is often highly subjective (Henry et al., 2005). Cluster analysis has been used to examine other forms of harassment such as cyber (Betts et al., 2017), face-to-face (Lovegrove and Cornell, 2014), and workplace (Leon-Perez et al., 2014) bullying. Despite the benefits afforded by cluster analysis regarding creating groups based on common experiences, to date, no study has adopted such an analytical framework to examine adolescents’ experiences of street harassment, something which the current study addressed.

Although most research examining street harassment has focussed on women, possibly because street harassment is seen as an expression of violence against women (Davidson et al., 2016), Laniya (2005) argues that it is important to recognise that men also experience street harassment. Based on research examining children’s experiences of peer harassment and bullying, it is possible that comparable gender differences in experiences of street harassment will emerge. Males frequently report experiencing a higher level of physical harassment and bullying (Nishina and Juvonen, 2005) and attacks on property (Betts et al., 2015), whereas females more frequently report verbal (Nishina and Juvonen, 2005) and social (Betts et al., 2015) forms. However, not all studies have reported such gender differences in young people’s experiences of peer harassment (von Marées and Petermann, 2010). Therefore, the current study will examine gender differences in young people’s experiences of street harassment.

Few studies have examined the impact of street harassment on young people; however, the research with adult females suggests that experiences of street harassment are linked to negative emotions (Davidson et al., 2016; Fairchild and Rudman, 2008). Stranger harassment in public spaces also reduces women’s perceptions of safety while travelling alone at night (Macmillian et al., 2000) and such experiences indirectly contribute to restricted movements (Fairchild and Rudman, 2008). Adolescent and young adult experiences of “Eva teasing” (a form of street harassment) are associated with negative emotions and restricted movements (Talboys et al., 2017), avoidance of school (Bhagavatheeswaran et al., 2016), and poorer mental health outcomes and suicidal ideation (Talboys, 2015). Further, adolescent females are twice as likely as adolescent males to report worrying about stranger danger when considering neighbourhood safety (Carver et al., 2008), more frequently report a sense of unease when they are stared at by a stranger or are alone at night in the street (Zani et al., 2001), and are more likely to experience street harassment (Meza-de-Luna and García-Falconi, 2015). Therefore, the emotional impact of street harassment will also be examined.

Gender differences in adolescents’ reported emotions following an incident of street harassment are expected for three reasons. First, adolescent females are more likely to report harassment as more harmful than adolescent males (Hand and Sanchez, 2000). Second, adult women experience greater negative emotional responses to street harassment than adult males (Bastomski and Smith, 2017). Finally, males increasingly restrict their emotional expression during adolescence (Polce-Lynch et al., 2001) and, as such, their emotional reaction may be lower than females.

The present study had three aims: to create a typology of adolescents’ experiences of street harassment, to explore the emotional impact of the incidents of street harassment, and to examine gender differences in adolescents’ reports of street harassment and the associated emotional impact.



All eligible 11-15-year olds attending 3 secondary schools across the UK were encouraged to complete a report when they experienced street harassment over a 6-8 week period during the summer term of 2016. Reports were received from 118 (68 female, 43 male, and no gender reported in 7) young people (M age=12.95, SD=1.15). When asked about their ethnicity, 72 per cent of the sample identified as white, 6.8 per cent as black, 10.2 per cent as Asian, 5.9 per cent as mixed, and 5.1 per cent of the sample did not report their ethnicity.


Experiences of street harassment

Participants were presented with ten different forms of street harassment that included vehicles (i.e. “vehicle slowed, I was watched” and “beeped at with a car horn”), physical (i.e. “cornered”, “had bag taken/grabbed”, “tripped up”, “pushed/hit”, and “stared at”), and verbal (i.e. “talked about behind back”, “whispered about”, “called names”, and “laughed at”) and then asked to indicate which one(s) had happened to them. The participants also had the option of selecting “other” if they felt that their experience was different. Responses were coded as 1=experienced and 0=not experienced. Finally, the participants were asked to use their own words to report what had happened and how it made them feel.

Emotional reaction

A modified version of the positive and negative affect schedule for children (Ebesutani et al., 2012), which included 27 positive (e.g. “happy”) and negative (e.g. “afraid”) emotions, was used to assess the participants’ emotional reaction to the street harassment they reported. Participants indicated how the incident made them feel by selecting as many emotions as needed. Each emotion endorsed received a score of 1; if an emotion was not selected, it was coded as 0. A negative emotion score was created by totalling the number of negative emotions the young people reported; the emotion jittery was excluded as this had a negative item-total correlation. The final negative emotion scale had acceptable internal consistency, α=0.72, 95% CI [0.64, 0.79].


Young people were given the option of completing an online or paper version of the questionnaire whenever they experienced street harassment during the six to eight-week period. The young people were informed that there were no correct answers, that individual responses would be kept confidential unless they gave serious cause for concern, and that all responses would be anonymous. Consent was initially given by the head teacher at the schools and letters were sent home to inform parents of the study. Parents were asked to inform the school if they did not want their son/daughter to participate in the research. In addition, the young people gave their consent.


Typology of street harassment

Cluster analysis (Ward’s method) was used to examine whether distinct groups emerged according to young people’s experiences of street harassment. The participants’ reports for the 11 types of street harassment were entered in to the analysis.

Four distinct groups emerged from the cluster analysis that were validated using direct discriminate function analysis (p<0.001; Youngman, 1979). The groups were labelled according to the distribution of the means which are shown in Table I. The “predominately verbal” group was the largest (n=49, 42 per cent) and was characterised by endorsing all forms of street harassment; however, the most frequent forms of street harassment experienced by this group were name calling, being laughed at, and being talked about behind their back. The second largest group was the “non-verbal/non-direct” cluster (n=33, 28 per cent). This group was characterised as experiencing high levels of being beeped at with a car horn, being stared at, and vehicle slowed and no other forms of street harassment. The “other incident” group reported very low levels of the street harassment types listed but rather unanimously indicated that their experiences of harassment fell into the other category. This group had 26 members (22 per cent). The “all forms” group had the highest reports of all types of street harassment and comprised individuals who reported that they had experienced all forms of street harassment, although there were notable peaks for verbal forms of harassment. However, this was the smallest group with ten members (8 per cent).

The participants’ free text responses were used to further explore the nature of the street harassment incidents experienced by the “other incident” group. Common to all the responses was a perception that the young person was experiencing threatening behaviour or unwanted attention. These behaviours were often ambiguous in nature but were interpreted by the young people as threatening. For example:

I was in the park with James and Stuart and a man started cornering us in the park pretending to be on the phone and then after 5 minutes he started to come in the park and started coming towards us and so we grabbed our bikes and went quick

(Female, aged 12).

To examine whether there were gender differences in the membership to the four groups of street harassment, a χ2 test was used. Although females provided more overall reports of harassment than males for each harassment type except all forms (Table I), there were no significant gender differences in young people’s reports of street harassment, χ2(3)=2.60, p=0.458.

Emotional reaction to street harassment

Table I contains the descriptive statistics for negative emotions according to gender and harassment type. For negative emotions, there appears to be variation in the reported emotions that young people experience following an episode of street harassment. To examine whether differences occurred according to gender and type of harassment in the reported negative emotions following a street harassment incident, a 2 × 4 (gender: male, female × type of harassment predominately verbal, non-verbal/non-direct, other incident, all forms) unrelated ANOVA was performed. The dependent variable was the reported negative emotion following the street harassment incident. When interpreting the results of the ANOVA (Table II), it should be noted that Levene’s test was significant indicating that the variance in negative emotion was not equal across the street harassment groups, F(7,102)=2.40, p=0.026, the data were not normally distributed, Kolmogorov-Smirnov =0.193, df=116, p=<0.001, and the group sizes unequal.

There was a significant main effect of type of harassment. Tukey post hoc tests revealed that young people who belonged to the all forms group reported experiencing significantly higher levels of negative emotions following episodes of street harassment than those in the non-verbal/non-direct group, p=0.029. There were no other significant differences between the type of harassment and the reports of emotion suggesting the reported negative emotions were generally similar, irrespective of harassment type.

There was also a significant main effect of gender; young women reported experiencing significantly higher negative emotions following an episode of street harassment than males. There was no significant interaction between harassment type and gender.


The current study examined young people’s experiences of street harassment using an experience-based method to create a typology. Four distinct patterns of harassment emerged: predominately verbal, non-verbal/non-direct, other, and all forms. Females reported experiencing higher levels of negative emotions following street harassment, and those who belonged to the all forms group also reported elevated levels of negative emotions following street harassment compared to the non-verbal/non-direct group.

The predominately verbal group most frequently experienced name calling, being laughed at, and being talked about. Consistent with research examining young people’s experiences of school-based bullying (Wang et al., 2009), the predominately verbal group was the largest. Although this group did not report elevated negative emotion, exploring the impact of street harassment on those who were most hurt by the verbal comments would be a logical next step. Previous research with adults has reported that those who experienced name calling during childhood and reported the experiences to be particularly hurtful were more negative about their past experiences and recalled that the name calling negatively impacted on their school life (Crozier and Skliopidou, 2002).

The second largest group was the non-verbal/non-direct cluster which was characterised by experiencing high levels of being beeped at with a car horn, being stared at, and vehicle slowed. Despite debate about whether individuals can accurately determine whether they are being stared at (Sheldrake, 2005), the research with children has reported that they can accurately determine when they are being stared at above chance level (Sheldrake, 1998). In the context of street harassment, it has been suggested that stares represent a form of dehumanising behaviour (Roenius, 2016). From the data we collected, it is not possible to determine why this group were the targets of such behaviours. Therefore, in future, researchers may wish to consider whether a particular trait makes young people vulnerable to such forms of harassment.

The other incident group accounted for 20 per cent of the reports from the young people, and for these individuals, the street harassment was distinct from the pre-defined experiences that were derived from the previous definitions of street harassment (e.g. Davidson et al., 2016). To further understand the experiences of the other incident group, the free text comments provided by the young people were considered. The incidents of street harassment reported by this group were often ambiguous in nature but were interpreted as threatening. The ambiguity that typified the experiences of those belonging to the other incident group directly supports Bailey’s (2017) observation that street remarks can have different meanings to the various individuals involved and that these meanings can often be contradictory. Interpreting the behaviour of others relies on an individual’s social processing ability and attributions. The variation in children’s response strategies to ambiguous behaviours also varies by the perceptions of intent of the peer engaging in the ambiguous behaviour (Dodge et al., 1984). Consequently, a young person’s ability to interpret street harassment may represent a potential confounding variable. Therefore, to fully examine this potential attribution bias, future research should explore how young people interpret and make sense of ambiguous behaviours that may constitute street harassment.

The final group was labelled as all forms and was akin to findings from other studies using cluster analysis to explore forms of harassment where groups were identified that experienced high levels of harassment (Leon-Perez et al., 2014). Given this groups’ unique experience, they may be particularly at risk of negative outcomes following street harassment. Previous research focussing on chronic targets of bullying has found that these children are at greater risk of mental health problems and academic difficulties (Bowes et al., 2013).

There was no significant variation in the composition of the four groups according to the young person’s gender. Therefore, our findings suggest that young males are equally as likely as young females to report experiences of street harassment. This finding is consistent with previous research with adults that has also found no gender differences in incidences of street harassment (Bastomski and Smith, 2017). However, the current findings are counter to previous research that has reported gender differences in young people’s experiences of bullying and harassment (Betts et al., 2015; Nishina and Juvonen, 2005). One potential explanation for this finding resides in the fact that street harassment is often a one-off episode whereas bullying behaviours are often used to maintain social status within peer networks (Volk et al., 2014). Specifically, adolescent males may engage in more physical forms of aggression with their peers because their networks are characterised by physical activity whereas adolescent females’ social networks tend to be maintained by self-disclosure and intimacy (Betts et al., 2015). Although there were no significant gender differences in young people’s experiences of street harassment, as with the previous research with adults (Bastomski and Smith, 2017) and adolescents (Hand and Sanchez, 2000), adolescent females in our sample reported greater negative emotions following an episode of street harassment. While this finding may reflect adolescent males’ tendency to restrict their emotional expression (Polce-Lynch et al., 2001), it is important to recognise the methods used in this study overcome the issue of women having a greater tendency to remember negative events an argument previously used to explain why women report more fear associated with an episode of street harassment (Bastomski and Smith, 2017).

Young people belonging to the all forms group reported the highest level of negative emotion. This elevated level of negative emotions may be reflective of the severity and nature of this type of harassment. The lack of a significant difference in the emotional response for those belonging to the all forms group and the other incident group may be accounted for, not in terms of the frequency of the event, but by how the young people process the event. Specifically, young people belonging to the other incident group interpreted ambiguous behaviour as threatening, and previous research has reported that ambiguous behaviours interpreted as negative are associated with greater levels of anxiety (Murris and Field, 2008).

As noted in the results section, the data violated the underlying assumptions of the ANOVA. However, Schmider et al. (2010) reported that ANOVAs are robust to such violations. It is also important to acknowledge that the street harassment typology was identified in the UK. Therefore, because of subtle differences in some aspects of street cultures (Brookman et al., 2011), the typology may not be universal. Consequently, future research should aim to examine the applicability of the proposed typology in other cultural contexts. The current study also only examined the immediate impact of street harassment with regards to the initial emotional reaction, and researchers should also explore how young people cope with street harassment for two reasons. First, Gardner (1995) reported several strategies that adult women used to deal with street harassment such as changing their appearance, but it remains unclear whether adolescents adopt similar strategies and the relative success of these strategies. Second, the coping style that young people adopt when they experience bullying impacts on their adjustment (Gardner et al., 2017).

The implications from the current findings are both theoretical and practical. From a theoretical stance, it is clear that young people’s experiences of street harassment are distinct, and we have proposed a typology of street harassment that is reflective of both adolescent females and males. The strength of this typology is that it is underpinned by data which were collected in an experienced-based manner so as not to be biased by participants’ memories as previous typologies may be. Also, by enabling young people to provide their own accounts, we were able to understand episodes of street harassment that fell outside of the previous definitions. Therefore, this typology provides an important and unique contribution to the literature. From a practical perspective, the findings of the current study have implications for how practitioners respond to the calls of authors such as Laniya (2005) regarding how to best educate young people about street harassment. Our findings suggest that enabling young people to interpret the behaviour of others, and identify potential street harassment, will enable them to better manage the negative impact it has on them. However, whatever programme is designed to educate and support adolescents who experience street harassment, it is important to recognise the potential unintended consequences of the material. Weiss (2016) argues that one of the unintended consequences of the apps designed to make women aware of street harassment is that they may ultimately create women-free zones.

In summary, the current study identified a person-centred typology of street harassment in adolescents that overcomes recall bias. Female adolescents reported that they experienced greater negative emotions than males following an episode of harassment. Together, these findings highlight the significance of street harassment for young people and the unique variation in their experiences.

Descriptive statistics for reports of the various forms of street harassment according to group and for negative emotions split according to harassment group

Predominately verbal Non-verbal/non-direct Other incident All forms Total
M SD n M SD n M SD n M SD n M SD
Street harassment forms
Vehicle slowed, I was watched 0.00 0.00 0.45 0.51 0.04 0.20 0.70 0.48 0.19 0.39
Beeped at with car horn 0.12 0.33 0.76 0.44 0.12 0.33 1.00 0.00 0.37 0.49
Talked about behind back 0.29 0.46 0.03 0.17 0.00 0.00 1.00 0.00 0.21 0.41
Whispered about 0.16 0.37 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 1.00 0.00 0.15 0.36
Cornered 0.04 0.20 0.03 0.17 0.19 0.40 0.60 0.52 0.12 0.33
Bag taken/grabbed 0.10 0.37 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.60 0.52 0.09 0.32
Started at 0.49 0.51 0.15 0.36 0.15 0.37 1.00 0.00 0.36 0.48
Called names 0.37 0.49 0.09 0.29 0.00 0.00 1.00 0.00 0.26 0.44
Laughed at 0.29 0.46 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.80 0.42 0.19 0.39
Pushed/hit 0.16 0.37 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.50 0.53 0.11 0.31
Tripped up 0.14 0.35 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.40 0.52 0.09 0.29
Other 0.12 0.33 0.09 0.29 1.00 0.00 0.30 0.48 0.32 0.47
Negative emotions
All sample 2.44 2.38 49 1.96 1.86 33 2.38 2.08 26 4.30 3.40 10 2.47 2.43
Male 1.44 1.09 16 1.75 1.82 12 1.75 1.82 9 3.67 3.88 6 1.81 2.08
Female 2.94 2.69 32 2.13 1.93 16 2.13 1.93 15 5.25 2.43 4 2.90 2.35

ANOVA summary table for differences in reported negative emotions following street harassment according to street harassment type and gender

Source SS df MS F p Effect size
Harassment 49.18 3 16.39 3.24 0.025 0.087
Gender 31.49 1 31.49 6.23 0.014 0.058
Harassment × gender 7.16 3 2.39 0.47 0.703 0.014
Error 515.90 102 5.06
Total 1,276.00 110

Notes: SS, sums of square; MS, mean squares. Effect size = partial η2


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Corresponding author

Lucy Betts can be contacted at:

About the authors

Lucy Betts is an Associate Professor in Psychology at the Department of Psychology, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK.

Rachel Harding is based at the Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK.

Sheine Peart is based at the Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK.

Sjolin Knight is based at the Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK.

David Wright is a Lecturer at the School of Arts and Humanities, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK.

Kendall Newbold is based at the Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK.