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updated 10/28/2010 4:52:26 PM ET 2010-10-28T20:52:26

Whistles, catcalls and lewd come-ons from strangers are all too familiar to New York City women, who say they are harassed multiple times a day as they walk down the street. Now lawmakers are examining whether to do something to discourage it.

A City Council committee heard testimony Thursday from women who said men regularly follow them, yell at them and make them feel unsafe and uncomfortable. Advocates told stories of preteens and teenagers being hounded by adult men outside city schools and pleaded for government to address the problem.

"This is not our way of not being able to take a compliment," said Nefertiti Martin, who testified at the hearing. "This is an issue of safety."

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Street harassment of women is as old as cities themselves and is common around the world, but the pushback against it is a more recent movement. Volunteer activists in Cairo are planning to launch a website, Harrasmap, where women can instantly report cases of leering, groping and other sexual threats.

Soon, the group Hollaback, an organization formed five years ago to stand up to street harassment, will release a smart phone app allowing women everywhere to do the same.

Hollaback told councilmembers that women have left jobs, broken leases and skipped school all just to avoid incessant unwelcome advances from strange men they pass on their commutes.

Holly Kearl, author of "Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women," said she informally surveyed more than 800 women from 23 countries and 43 states, and 99 percent of them had been harassed by strangers.

"Because of street harassment, from a young age women learn that public spaces are male territory," Kearl said. "They learn to limit the places they go, they try not to be in public alone — especially at night — and when they are alone, they stay on guard."

Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras, chair of the women's issues committee that held the hearing Thursday, recalled learning as a young teen how to "speedwalk" to dodge certain men, and which corner stores she should always avoid.

"This harassment limits the rights and freedoms of women and girls to enjoy a simple walk outside," she said.

The Associated Press heard similar stories from New York City women.

Kat Pope, 28, of Manhattan, said she quit going to her gym in the mornings because she was harassed so badly on her way there and back. Men at a construction site would whistle, stare and yell at her as she passed, every single day.

She still gets harassed in other locations, but it happens maybe once a week instead of daily.

"It feels disgusting," she said. "In the moment, I feel helpless and I never know what to do to make it stop."

Carrie Goodman, 27, a student who lives in Manhattan, said she hears a whistle or comment "once or twice a day."

"It bothers me, but I just keep walking," she said. Goodman is skeptical that lawmakers can do anything about it, though.

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"You can't really control what comes out of people's mouths," she said.

Hollaback is pushing the city to commission a study, a public awareness campaign and perhaps even legislation, including "no-harassment zones" around schools to protect young women.

"Too commonly, street harassment is believed to be the price women pay for living in New York City," said its executive director, Emily May. "But we're not buying it."

Councilmembers said they are open to many of the ideas, but said they are in the early stages of exploring just what can be done. If there were to be legislation, a key issue would be enforcement, since the concept of no-harassment zones could encroach on First Amendment rights.

New York men who told the AP they have called out strange women on the street said they were doing it just to be friendly and seemed genuinely surprised that any attention can be unwelcome.

"We say hello, that's all, nothing derogatory," said Tony Alibrandi, 54, a construction worker taking a lunch break with several of his fellow workers. "We see a friendly face, we say hello."

Terrence Beam, 41, said he had no problem with lawmakers investigating "whistling and howling and that sort of thing."

"Yeah, because that would be harassment," he said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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