As we enter a new normal and people start commuting into the office, meeting friends for drinks, and simply being out and about, many have ditched the masks: except for some women.

While masks have been a major point of contention in American society, several women have noted that they now rely on masks as protection against street harassment. The Washington Post reveals that many women reported facing less harassment when wearing a mask. Some attribute the lessened street harassment merely because their faces were hidden. They weren't told by catcallers to “smile for me.” (Washington Post, March 20, 2021). On the contrary, many women in the service industry have faced crude remarks when masking up. One woman recalls being told to lower her mask by male customers and then they will decide how much they should tip her. The New York Times coined this “maskural harassment” (February 21, 2021). As vaccination rates increase and masks become more optional, what does this mean for women and street harassment? My friends and I have experienced more street harassment when the masks are off. Are masks the new pepper spray for women?

Women experience street harassment at disproportional rates than men. A survey fromStop Street Harassmentfound that at least 65% of women have experienced catcalls and unwanted sexual propositions and advances. (2019). "Among all women, 23% had been sexually touched, 20% had been followed, and 9% had been forced to do something sexual. Among men, 25% had been street harassed (a higher percentage of LGBT-identified men than heterosexual men reported this) and their most common form of harassment was homophobic or transphobic slurs (9%)" (Stop Street Harassment, 2019). Past research on the psychology of street harassment reveals that oftentimes, perpetrators feel out of control in their personal lives and use street harassment as a way to feel powerful (Stop Street Harassment, 2019).

I recently moved to Washington DC, a dramatic shift from my life in a small college town. My zest for city life quickly turned to fear. I schedule my days to ensure I’m home well before dark, change my routes to avoid places I’ve been harassed in the past, or skip out on plans because I didn’t feel I could safely travel alone. My female friends and I have noted that when we are dressed up and maskless, we experience street harassment and when we are dressed down and masked up, we experience less harassment and feel more protected. When talking with some of my male friends, this concept is completely foreign to them. They would never consider walking with a mask to avoid harassment. They would never skip out on plans because they had to walk alone. Women have to make sacrifices because they know the potential consequence of being out and about alone. Why is it thatwomenhave to adjust their behavior? Shouldn't theperpetratorsof this harassment be the ones reprimanded? Why do women have to carry around pepper spray and keep their masks on? Why can't street harassers, who are predominantly men, learn to keep their comments to themselves? (Street Harassment, 2019).

Allure explores what catcalling looked like during Covid and shared an anecdote from Florida resident, Astra Parrillo. Astra believes that her mask may have lessened harassment that’s specifically related to her identity as a transgender woman. While she still faces harassment based on both her identity as a woman and a trans woman, she believes that with her face covered, she’s less prone to harassment (Allure, May 2020).

Masks have now become a means of protection for women because they offer an escape, a disguise. Sadly, a mask doesn't always prevent women from experiencing harassment, so keep your peppy spray nearby.