When Street Harassment Is More Deadly Than Catcalls

front-street-harrassment-600x826Recently in Florida, a 14-year-old girl was walking down the street when a man in an SUV pulled up beside her and offered her $200 to have sex with him.

When the girl refused, he pulled her by her hair into his vehicle and choked her until she lost consciousness. Then he dropped her on the ground and ran over her multiple times, only stopping when witnesses intervened. The girl was airlifted to a hospital and stabilized. The man has been arrested and charged with attempted murder and kidnapping.

Lest you think outrageous incidents like these are an anomaly, a few weeks ago, a man in a car pulled up next to a woman running in California and offered her a ride. When she refused, he backed up and hit her not once, but twice, dragging her behind him the second time. She sustained non-life threatening injuries, and the suspect is facing charges of second-degree assault and hit-and-run.

It’s not just men in cars who harass and harm women. In Georgia, a woman was walking alone at night and three men approached her, trying to talk to her. She ignored the men and, without warning, they pushed her to the ground. Two men held her down while the third man sexually assaulted her until a passerby scared them away and helped the woman home.

These seem like extreme stories. But in a survey of 811 women, 75 percent reported they had been followed by a man they did not know, more than 50 percent had been sexually touched, and 25 percent had been assaulted. Nearly one in four of these women said their street harassment experiences began around age 12 and nearly 90 percent said they had been harassed by age 19.

Since whistling, comments such as “Hey, baby” and demands for a smile or a phone number are the most common and visible forms of gender-based street harassment, it is easy for many people to dismiss the problem.

“Get over yourself.” “It’s a compliment.” “What’s the big deal?” “If you don’t want to be harassed, don’t go outside.” These are examples of what I’ve been told for speaking out, while others, like activist/writer Soraya Chemaly, have been told to “lighten up” and that the behavior is just “flirting.”

While people may think it is a stretch to connect catcalls with assault and attempted murder, sometimes catcalls escalate into something worse and women never know when that might happen.

More importantly, both catcalls and assault are forms of entitlement. The (primarily) male street harassers believe they have the right to access girls’ and women’s bodies. They feel they can say and do whatever they want, and if women don’t comply, well, then they’re a bitch or ugly, and the men may feel justified in grabbing them, throwing trash at them, assaulting them or running them over.

As a leading expert on this topic, I’m often asked what people can do to avoid harassment. This is the wrong question. Girls and women already change their lives in myriad and often impractical ways to avoid harassment, such as changing routes and routines and even moving neighborhoods–and such tactics don’t always work.

We need to ask instead how we can stop harassers and how we teach men to stop acting entitled to women’s attention or bodies.

Here are three ideas.

  1. Call out, interrupt or distract friends who are harassers. Many harassers (including women) only harass in groups and they may be trying to impress their friends or get a laugh. Friends telling them it’s not funny or cool can influence them to stop. This video includes many ideas for what to say to harassers, and Stop Street Harassment’s website offers tips.
  2. Report and protest cultural content that encourages street harassment and assault and portrays it as OK. The YouTube channel Simple Pickups (with more than 1 million subscribers) is one example; it teaches men how to make vulgar and threatening comments and to grope women they don’t know, including such lines as, “What is the biggest c*ck you’ve ever had up your a**hole?” and “This right here means you like to have your face ji**ed on.” It’s never okay for someone to speak like that to someone without their consent. Sign this Change.org petition asking YouTube to take down the channel.
  3. Break the cycle of harassment and talk to kids, especially boys, about the issue. Often, when kids start out as harassers, they are mimicking what they’ve seen among male relatives or older friends, or they are trying out what they’ve seen in the media (including kids’ cartoons and online porn). Talking to them at a young age about what street harassment is and how to interact with people respectfully in public spaces without being a harasser is extremely important to help counterbalance those messages. Here are three resources to help: The Futures Without Violence program Coaching Boys into Men provides men with a playbook/toolkit they can use to talk with boys about street harassment, domestic violence and sexual violence; the Roger’s Park Young Women’s Action Team compiled their work on addressing gender-based violence with boys in the “Where Our Boys At?” toolkit; and Jake Winn, a Peace Corps volunteer and youth development facilitator in northern Azerbaijan helped his male students make an Anti-Street Harassment video as well as developing a companion lesson plan.

Street harassment is not a joke nor a compliment, and it’s time for everyone to commit to stopping it.

Photo taken from Stop Street Harassment.


Holly Kearl is the founder of the nonprofit organization Stop Street Harassment and author of two books about street harassment, including the just-released  50 Stories about Stopping Street Harassers. She also works as an international consultant for the United Nations’ Global Safe Cities Initiative.


  1. I’ve had success distracting harassers by looking past them with curiosity or surprise, like there’s something very interesting (or dangerous) going on behind them. Like a head fake in basketball. They turn, see nothing and realize they’ve been had. Breaks the power spell.

    • Cory Barclay says:

      That’s a really awesome strategy, Janet. I just played it through in my brain and was like (if I were a woman): “Oh shit, look! There’s an eagle,” or “Watch out! Your post is falling!” and as they turn their head, you escape into the wind.

  2. I came across a couple the other day. I was driving by. She was standing on the side walk, he was riding his bicycle in very tight circles around her, slapping at her and yelling at her. I stopped the car dead in the middle of the street and honked at him… he started yelling at me and riding toward my car. He actually hit my car with his fist several times. But he rode away from her and left her alone. I asked her if she needed help. She said no, but thank you. I get the feeling the guy was her boyfriend. I told her she could do much better than him and drove away. My boyfriend actually gave me hell for stopping, said the guy could have really damaged the car. I just turned to him and said, “Yeah, and he could have really damaged HER, too. I’d much rather he punch the car.”

    Women should not have to fear leaving their homes simply because they are women. For some reason, it’s becoming more and more acceptable to treat women like piece of property, without even the social niceties of pretending it’s not okay.

    • sandrasam says:

      Good for you! We should all support each other like that. And for your boyfriend…. you too deserve better!

  3. I don’t know where to begin. A guy running over a 14-year-old girl deserves to be put away for a long time. He’s dangerous and unlikely to change. A friend and I were harassed recently while walking our dogs by a man who refused to restrain his big dog, letting him run up unleashed into the street and letting whatever happened, happen. Luckily the dog wasn’t as ill-mannered and mean-spirited as the man, although my friend (who has 2 very small dogs) ran home with her little dogs. This is the same guy who was very respectful of my husband when he walked our dog past his house. Tom thought he was the kind of guy who “leaves you alone if you leave him alone.” He had no idea — two small women get treated very differently than a 6 foot 5 inch man.

  4. These stories make you realise that it is not just Pakistan where women are raped and murdered in public and it doesnt matter what you wear, whether is a hijab, school clothes, running clothes or normal street wear women are harrassed from an early age. I remember men calling out dirty things to my daughter when she was 12 infront of me and I used to get so angry! We were just riding our bikes!

  5. Love #3 in the ideas section. It’s inspiring what other people are doing about this!

  6. I wish every guy could learn about the Theology of the Body by Blessed Pope John Paul II. It talks about the human person, human dignity, and human sexuality. How we are made with dignity and we need to protect every persons dignity. How authentic love is the willing the good of the other. That lust is sacrificing the other person for yourself, while love is making a sacrifice for the other person. Lust is self-gratification, and love is self-donation. Lust enslaves us to our own passions, while love demands us to learn how to say no to lust to set us free to honor the person. I hope more men and women look into this because it is SO beautiful and would open our eyes more to the dignity and value of humans. It is amazing all the beauty we hold, and how it is worth the sacrifice to respect each other rather than jump at a person and use them against their will. Love does not impose your will on the other. Lust see’s people as “something”, while love see’s people as “someone.” Anyone interested can look up Christopher West on youtube about the Theology of the Body. He does a forward of it and I just reeeally, really hope people look into it! You can also find the actual documents of John Paul II if you google “Theology of the Body. We are all craving for authentic love, but our society is polluted with all this lust and its destroying the way we view each other and i’m tired of it being this way. We all hold mystery and we need to approach each other keeping this in mind. Love, respect, dignity, and value. We all have this and it is so worth learning to love a person. Not because we have to, but because we want to. When we learn that we all deserve respect, dignity, love, and value, we will certainly want to love others! What is authentic love? It is to long for what is good for the other person…to will the good of another. If those men had no been blinded by lust they would have seen those girls dignity. Again, please look up Theology of the Body. It is sooooo beautiful, I wish all men could learn about it. And of course women, too. Stay safe, love authentically, and God bless! 🙂

  7. some good ideas here…
    tell them you have HIV that you got from the last asshole that raped you.
    and sign up for self-defense training: https://www.graciekids.com/
    girls are often trained to be nice. they also need training to resist and fight as necessary. in aikido, one uses the energy and momentum of the attacker to floor him.
    turn your fear into determination.

  8. Meghan O'Flaherty says:

    I’m nearly 70-yrs-old, overweight and gray-haired, and this still happens to me. When I was young it was “Hey, Baby….” Now it’s “Hey, Granny…” but it doesn’t stop. It is all about power – the power to intimidate and terrorize. Thank you for this article, more people need to speak up.

  9. We definitely need to put the focus back on men rather than women when it comes to sexual harrassment. Educate boys to value women and girls while we educate girls about ourselves and boys/men.

  10. These are horrifying stories, beyond words.

    This behavior unfortunately has been with us since the dawn of time and is a function of our reproductive programming. Our culture has to build boundaries in ways that guarantees and encourages respect for the other. We are awash in media content that objectifies women’s bodies and body parts and diminishes women’s sense of self-worth through alterations of model’s forms into unnatural dimensions. I am in my late 50’s so I grew up in an era where pornography was shrink-wrapped and behind the counter. The young men I know today grow up on a steady diet of Internet images that become fixed in their brains, requiring from them heroic efforts to dislodge and disengage these mental snapshots and erotic push buttons. Men are also awash in misogynistic hip hop and ghetto music that also diminishes women. And women themselves now dress in revealing ways that I find astonishing even in office environments. We are oversexed and under loved.

    This is tough stuff. How to break away from something so pervasive, powerful, predatory, and perfectly aligned with our basest passions. First, to allude to Bitsy’s introduction of theology, we are a fallen people so this kind of sin will always be present. Therefore, women have to do everything in their power to protect themselves and not encourage men’s base desires. Second, I agree totally with Bitsy. We have to raise up a theology of the body and a theology of the Other. Jesus calls us through multiple teachings to step back from our anger, our lust, our hatred of our enemies and see the Other for who they really are. This all arises out of our love for our neighbor, cosmically defined. We have to listen and truly see. We have to understand our emotions so we are not ruled by them. So that we have a choice.

    The other huge issue is who our culture says we are as men. Much of the misogyny arises out of a disaffected male African-American community that needs to assert its power and authority. Our culture has offered few healthy outlets for that overpowering need so men move into the spaces that are allowed. Rascism, in a perverse and soul killing way, lies underneath this pervasive misogyny.

    We need healthy models of what it means to be men. Our culture, our media, and social media tear down everything so we are left with tattered men and women where we once had heroes. We need heroes.

    • >> is a function of our reproductive programming

      It’s really not. Every man that shouts at and intimidates a woman in the street is making a choice to do that. Blaming biology is just an excuse.

    • I wish I could make men understand that responses like these are problematic.

      Do you understand that almost all of your commentary is made up of excuses? And racism? Everytime I read male responses to feminist articles I try to keep my mind as open and receptive as possible- but every time I read something like this, my mind closes a little more.

      As a college student, should I have to be afraid to walk by myself past groups of young men on campus? It’s really frustrating and makes me feel powerless to live in a society like this, and the fact that I have clinical depression which often clouds my judgement doesn’t help. It makes me feel as if there’s no point in living in a world which will always judge me by the fact that I am African American, the fact that I am a young woman.

      The fact that I have a disgusting, abusive father whose abuse mentally scarred me and drove me to an eating disorder and suicide doesn’t help- I don;t want it to be, but it is only one building block towards my distrust in men.

      And every time I read comments like this, it only adds another block, until and I can only take so much before I feel trapped with no way out.

      You make me wish I was dead.

      • Bill Michtom says:

        Melissa, while I know that abuse has long-term, sometimes overwhelming results, I encourage you to NOT turn other people’s ugliness on yourself.

        If you need to feel someone should be dead, think of the abuser or the person who, like Scott, is being ignorant and chauvinist.
        You are worth living joyfully.

    • If this was reproductive programming, every man would do it. That not every man feels the need to harass women on the street means your attempt at explaining this away using “logic” is not really all that logical.

  11. So many men see themselves as good guys and don’t realize that what they’re doing can come across as threatening – that even if they themselves “mean well,” women don’t have ESP and can’t be sure of their intentions. Recently I was walking down the street near my home and a man pulled his car over to talk to me. I’d met him once before, so briefly that I didn’t recognize him at first as someone I knew and didn’t remember his name. This was someone two or three decades older than me, who was a virtual stranger, and he was pulling over in his car… to ask me if I’d go out with him sometime.

    When I told him no, he very politely let it drop and went on his way, and I genuinely believe he didn’t realize how this could come across. But the two examples in this article show why any sensible woman should be leery of a man pulling over on the street to proposition her. Men need to be educated on how even well-intentioned interactions like this can make women very, very uncomfortable.

    • Yeah, I’ve had a guy my age come up to my a car before, tell me I was beautiful, and ask if I wanted a ride because I was carrying my groceries home. I told him no. He was just like ok, have a nice day and drove off. Honestly, I think he wanted to show off his car, it was a nice car. I’ve also had guys start talking to me and walking with me, and when I told them to leave me alone they apologized and left. Really, sometimes I think guys are just not thinking sometimes how their behavior comes across because if a person did that to them it wouldn’t intimidate or bother them. Don’t get me wrong, there’s been times I’ve had to pull a knife on guys following me, or roll my eyes at catcalls. But most men I’ve come across are just being bone heads and not thinking about what they’re doing. The majority of men I’ve had to deal with in the city come up to try and flirt. I wouldn’t call that harassment so much as unwanted social interaction and flirting so long as they politely leave me alone.

      • NibblyBits says:

        Wow. You sure are lucky with that. I’d say about 90% of the guys I have to deal with hitting on me will continuously persist even after I’ve rejected their initial attempt; trying to coax me with poor attempts at acting like they’re just innocently trying to make friends or hypothetical scenarios that I’m clearly not interested in…even after I’ve stated that I’m in a relationship. “I just wanna be friends. You’re not allowed to have friends? I’ve been looking for people to network with. You could try going on a date with me, you never know you may end up liking me. You never know unless you try.” Etc, etc.

  12. The violent accounts mention in this article truly make my soul cry out. While these extreme, near-fatal attacks are rare – of course, they are still EXTREMELY important to bring up – I fear that most men’s misconception of everyday street harassment is also so very harmful.

    I’ve found with my campaign (endwolfwhistle.wordpress.com) that so many males are just complacent about street harassment and feel women are just getting “sour” and being “ungrateful for a compliment”! These widespread opinions of men truly perpetuate a strong rape culture and will lead to more awful, heart-breaking accounts like the ones you listed. I hope that someday soon men will recognise that street harassment is so much worse than and is so different to a “compliment”.

    Keep up the great work, I love your writing.

  13. Bill Michtom says:

    The video you link to is excellent because it puts the responsibility where it belongs: on men.

  14. I had 2 instances of sexual harassment while I was out running just in the past couple of days. Last Friday, a man on a bike rode by while I was running on a bridge (with nobody else in sight) and asked me if I was ready to race. Then he stopped ahead of me and yelled something that I didn’t catch. I didn’t react and just kept running. Then he rode by me again, yelling that I should bring the ketchup and he would bring the mustard to put a “hot dog” in “those buns.”

    Then, earlier today, I ran by 2 younger men (still older than me) on a pathway (they were sitting on the ground) and one told me that he “likes to eat clit” as I ran by. I was on an out and back run, so I had to alter my route as to not run by them again because I was scared. I haven’t faced much harassment before, but after these two altercations, I have begun to feel uncomfortable. Even though nothing physically happened to me, the comments that I have received have ruined parts of my runs and I get scared that if I could so easily be a target of verbal abuse, then I could soon be a victim of a physical attack.

    I refuse to let people like this scare me away from running, an activity that I love, but it makes me angry that I have to worry about people saying or doing things to me while I am out just trying to exercise and go about my daily life. I have since downloaded a safety app on my phone that will alert pre-set emergency contacts if I enter a situation where I feel unsafe. A few days before the first harassment, I just had an intuitive feeling that I should start taking my phone running with me, even though I don’t like to carry things while I run. After these two instances, I am glad I listened to my intuition and I hope everyone else is taking proper safety precautions as well, because you never know what might happen. Stay safe, everyone and have a good day!

  15. I thought I was unusually young when I was sexually grabbed by a stranger in the street for the first time, but I’m starting to realise this happens to many girls at a very young age! I was 13 and on a weekend break with my parents in London. It was a hot day and I was in a little swishy blue skirt and a vest top (I remember this because a cousin of mine had convinced me to wear it – I was insecure about having my legs and arms out). I was outside a tube station with my little sister waiting for my parents to buy tickets. There were loads of people streaming out of the tube station and one of them grabbed my bum and squeezed it pretty hard before letting go. I absolutely froze! I didn’t jump or shout or move at all. I was totally shocked. No idea who did it. Loads of people walked past. I didn’t tell my sister or parents because I felt really embarrassed (and actually a little ashamed for wearing the outfit I was wearing, which of course I know now is totally wrong, but at the time I sort of felt it was my own fault).

    Of course, it’s happened many many times since. Mainly in clubs, and it’s always threatening and never fun. That first time though, I just remember it perfectly – it totally ruined that holiday for me, and I refused to take off my dad’s massive coat for the whole rest of the day, despite the heat. Urgh.

    • Oh my gosh, Chloe…I was reading this and for a second thought it was something I posted myself. I had the same experience at 12/13 and it’s haunted me and actually came up in my memory again recently as I’ve been experiencing aggressive street harassment travelling as a 33 year old! I’m just completely over it and glad that the issue seems to be coming to light again in discussion because I actually feel that as women we tolerate so much subtle sexism and it’s so dehumanising. Will not get easier in the days of Tinder and porn. Street harassment feels so hurtful, shameful and demeaning. Worst of all I feel unsafe and have been in the position where my life has felt threatened due to it escalating. I’ve learned to tolerate it because there’s no solution but it’s not ok. I feel supported when I read that others are sharing this because maybe we can figure it out together xo

    • And when I think back on that experience of having my ass grabbed at 12 and how shaming it was and how I felt innocence lost I am angered by a society that says this is ok through tolerating the sexualisation of women. I was a very young-looking 12. It’s disgusting. And I remember feeling very afraid and self-conscious around men after that experience, never knowing when they’ll choose to strike again. I wish I’d been able to talk about it and that it was accepted more that a woman’s body is her own and noone is entitled to it without her consent.

  16. This didn’t happen to me. But instead to a female barista at a coffee shop in the same building as a local library. This guy was sexually harassing the barista. She kept telling him that she was going to call security on him. Well a friend of mine who is a security guard went up to the shop to get a bite to eat. The dude looked at her and said that he didn’t believe that she had the guts to do so. The harasser took off right after that.
    At the time, my friend was in his work jacket. He was at the time contracted to a DiY store. He had been at the library to get a few books.

  17. When I was 5, and in Kindergarten, a boy named Roy, also 5, took me into a bush, pulled down his pants exposing himself and then said, “Okay, now show me yours”. I said, “No thanks. I don’t have a penis”, and walked right back out.
    When I was 9, swimming in the apartment complexes pool, a boy(again, same age) grabbed my groin/vagina through my swimsuit under the water as I was at the steps.
    When I was almost 10, an older(more than 40) neighbor who liked to listen to Beach Boys, grabbed me hard by my inner thigh, said I’ll like what he could do for me. I punched him in his balls and went home(next door). He had previously complimented my eyebrows(a compliment that has forever stayed creepy now because of him).
    Fast forward to adulthood, my significant other felt the need to take it(you know) from me when I was sleeping, because I said No when I was awake. I’m a heavy sleeper and close to constantly woke up with my clothes either off, being taken off, or being engaged in sexual activities that I did not consent to. The excuse when asked why he would do that when I was sleeping was “Well, when you’re awake, you said no and won’t”…
    I left him, and when I did, he said he had dreams and thoughts that he was going to kill our kids, kill me and then himself. I stayed gone though, didn’t go back.
    Last year,single life, I went on a couple of dates. One that sticks out, we had gone to eat, went bowling, and after I got my kids to bed, went to have a few drinks and conversation at his house. It got to be pretty late, and I didn’t want to drive after I’d been drinking, so I asked him if he minded that I sleep there. He said, “Sure, you can sleep on the bed”. I drift off pretty quickly and abruptly woke up to the same sort of thing I previously dealt with. I am still under the influence, asked to stop, it still happened. I fell asleep or lost touch with consciousness at some point, woke up to see 2 used condoms on the ground. Didn’t go on any more dates after that.
    Then, got depressed after I did get into a relationship, had to end it because of work. So, an older man(47 to my 29) danced with me(never had a man done so with me), talked and listened to me, but then took things physical, and I told him I wasn’t ready. He simply kept insisting(by words and physical overpowering), held me down, held me in place against my will, all the while I was crying with tears down my face(worried I would be hurt or killed if I resisted further) pleading “no” in every language possible- English, Spanish, French, Japanese, German, etc..
    I have experienced stalkers, and guys that would blow my phone up when I hadn’t met or seen them but one time, talking about they wanna marry me and have babies with me. I would tell them I was spoken for, didn’t work as a deterrent.
    Other guys have tried picking me up at my job, asking for my digits, I tell them I have someone: “Come on baby, what’s one more… What he don’t know won’t hurt him… I can be your man on the side… So what? You’re not even gonna give me a chance to get to know me?” just to name a few of the responses.
    And almost 2 years ago, a man randomly requested me on facebook. I seen he worked with one of my high school friends(whom I still keep in touch with), and so I accepted his request. He immediately questions my relationship status, to which I was in a relationship. He said I should give him a chance, go on a date and see where things go, that he’s a nice guy and that I’ll like him. I said no more times than I can count, said I did not feel comfortable, and just stop talking to me if he wanted anything more than a friendship(something I had said as the start to our first conversation). He would not accept this, and became angry and upset, I told him this further added to the red flags and only justified my feelings in the matter. One day, in our mutual home city, for idk what reason, I said alright, I’ll meet and talk with you. Maybe I felt guilty I hadn’t of given him a chance. He said, I’m house sitting for a friend, you can come here and chill. I asked chill like how? He said you lay on the bed and I’ll do a few things, make you feel real good. My response: “Aaaaaand, now I’m not gonna meet you anywhere.. I would’ve met you someplace public, but you’re asking to be alone with just us, I cannot afford to be that trusting. And then you’re talking about doing other things, like what kind of woman do you honestly take me for dude? Please leave me alone and stop messaging me.” He became infuriated, but I stuck to my guns just as he stuck to his creepy.
    This is not ALL the times I have had to deal with unwanted advances or abuse, but ones that I decided to share. Being a girl/woman is not the same experience as being a man. I don’t try to put myself in dangerous positions, but I have made bad judgement calls unfortunately. On the flip side, I lived and learned from my mistakes and won’t be so open to make the mistakes again.

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