How Do YOU Respond to Street Harassment? Here Are Some Suggestions

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Earlier this month, thousands of people in Berlin held a vigil for Tugce Albayrak, a 23-year-old student who died at the hands of a street harasser. Albayrak bravely intervened when she witnessed a group of men harassing two teenage girls on November 15. In retaliation, one of the young men, an 18-year-old, turned on her, beating her into a coma from which she never awoke. Her death is senseless and horrific, and people around the world are rightly outraged.

She isn’t the only one to be murdered or seriously injured while intervening with a harasser. In October, an Egyptian teenager was stabbed to death while stopping to help young women experiencing harassment. In March, a Chicago man was killed by a harasser in front of his 15-year-old daughter after he confronted the man for making “inappropriate gestures” at his daughter. Last month a San Francisco man sustained life-threatening injuries after asking a harasser to leave his girlfriend alone. A Philadelphia man was hospitalized after he told a harasser to watch what he was saying to women nearby, and the harasser got out of his vehicle and attacked him.

And then there have been the horrific incidents in which harassed women have been hurt or killed. There was the woman in Detroit who was shot dead after refusing to give a stranger her phone number. The woman in New York whose throat was slashed by a man she refused to go on a date with. The woman in Seattle who faced a man’s gun after she ignored his repeated invitations to “hang out.” And the two transwomen in Atlanta who were harassed and then violently attacked in a subway car, prompting them to move from the city.

While these stories of toxic, violent masculinity may seem extreme, they’re not unusual or new. Violence that starts as harassment is as old as oppression itself, and women (plus other oppressed groups) have always been punished for resisting. In a nationally representative study commissioned by Stop Street Harassment and conducted by survey firm GfK this year, 41 percent of women [PDF] had experienced physically aggressive harassment. This ranged from being followed (20 percent) to being sexually touched (23 percent) to being forced to do something sexual (9 percent). One only need look at the Tumblr When Women Refuse or the Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen, both started after Elliot Rodger’s women-hating shooting spree this year, to find stories to match the statistics.

Street harassment isn’t a compliment. From verbal demands to smile or to say one’s name, phone number or destination; to homophobic, sexist or racial slurs; to physically invading someone’s space, street harassment is about power and control. It’s often about men’s need to control women, and when women don’t agree to it —or when a bystander intervenes on their behalf—some men lash out. We never know which men will.

So how are we to respond? What can we, as a target of, or witness to, harassment, do?

Many believe silence is the best strategy, but the answer is that there’s no one “right” way. Whether you pretend to ignore a harasser or stand up to him, the situation may escalate to violence, as happened in Seattle, New York and Detroit. Hopefully, the more strategies you have at hand, the more empowered you’ll feel. Here are three strategies you might try when being harassed:

1. Talk directly to the harasser, telling him calmly what you want him to do (“Stop touching me,” or “That’s disrespectful. Don’t call me ‘baby.’”). Tell him what he’s doing that you don’t like (“You’re standing too close”) rather than characterizing him (“You’re such a creep.”). Avoid cursing, name-calling and put-downs.

Be prepared for him to call you names—something he may also do if you’re silent. Just call it a success if you’ve said what you want to say and feel safe walking away.

2. Enlist bystanders, either by directly asking for help, going to stand or walk with them, or yelling loudly. If you are a bystander, you can ask the target if she needs help, you can get others involved, you can join the target in speaking up to the harasser, and more.

3. Preempt harassment by humanizing yourself: Look at people on the street and greet them (“Hi, how’re you doing?”).

Only you can choose the best response in a given situation. Are other people around? How far are you from help? How committed does the harasser seem? How scared or pissed off are you?

There are two important reasons you may want to stand up to harassers. First, verbal harassment and low-key touching (a pinch, a grope, unnecessary body contact) can be a harasser’s way of testing how far he can go. Many harassers take a passive response as a green light for further violation. Second, we don’t want to let harassers silence us. If we keep our mouths shut and make ourselves small, our lives are ruled by fear, and we unintentionally give harassers permission to continue exerting their dominance.

We’re often in positions where we risk harm if we assert our rights. But if we never assert our rights, we don’t really have them.

Photo from Flickr user Ted Eytan under license from Creative Commons 2.0 of 2011 march in Washington, D.C., called “Our Streets, Too!”

Holly_Kearl

Holly Kearl is the founder of the nonprofit organization Stop Street Harassment and author of two books about street harassment, most recently 50 Stories about Stopping Street Harassers, with a third forthcoming in 2015. She has also authored the only national report on street harassment in the U.S. and has written scores of articles on the topic.

 

 

lauren taylor

 

Lauren R. Taylor directs Defend Yourself, teaching skills for stopping harassment, abuse and assault. You can also find her on Facebook or follow her @1defendyourself

Comments

  1. This is a great article. Just yesterday, some man looked me up and down as I was rushing to a doctor’s appointment and started with “Hey, how are you today?” After I gave him a glare as I passed him, he still felt it within his rights to watch me walk past leering and continue with “You’re so beautiful.” At which point, I firmly said “Not in the mood.” and kept walking. This garnered no response and I felt accomplished that I said what I wanted to and nothing escalated.

    The scary thing though is that you never can tell. There have definitely been other occasions where I felt it necessary to aggressively give the finger to men in trucks honking at me as I walked up the stairs to the el (Chicago). This instance didn’t turn out so well as they started honking and screaming even more.

    Bottom line is that street harassment is absolutely something we should continue to voice and continue to make people aware of it. Shrinking and living in fear is never the answer!

    Thanks for writing!

  2. Great article! Just yesterday I experienced an incident of street harassment too while in the store. I was looking down at my phone and older man said I was gonna get hurt standing there looking so good. It took me a minute to realize what he said and when I had he had passed by. I felt so voiceless though by the time I realized what happened, then I felt anger and rage.

    Articles like this help me to think of what to do to prep for the next time. But since this is not always at the fore front of my mind and creeps came come out of nowhere (as was the case yesterday) I dont always feel prepared.

  3. Vanessa gamble says:

    This kind of violence is senseless and infuriating. I wish I could do something to assist both sides of this situation. What kind of mental conditions is the attacker suffering from? How can you prevent people from acting violently? How can we protect people from this kind of violence?

  4. This is a great article, and I love that it offers a range of options. We all need to carry them with us. We continue to work to prevent street harassment, by cultivating compassion in boys and men. Every. Single Day. We can and we much teach boys and men that #seximisnotsexy . It breaks my heart that bystander intervention is ending in violence against those intervening. But we will continue to build awareness. If we really grow these efforts everywhere, one day, peer pressure will steer boys and men in the direction of respect. Listening, nurturing, kindness and fairness will be seen as manly. One day. It will take work. It will take time, 6,000 years of patriarchy won’t give way easily, but we have to work to create a new masculinity that says there is strength in vulnerability, that power must be shared, and that women are NOT PREY, but deserving of respect. We have to. Because we need a new normal.

  5. I like this article except for Number 3 (Preempt Harassment). I understand the idea–humanize yourself, make the person recognize you are a person–but it rings exactly like the whole “don’t dress a certain way”, “don’t drink too much”, reasoning/”advice” for women who do not want to be sexually assaulted.

    So women must actively prevent speech against them? No. That’s like saying women must actively police their surroundings and actions/dress to prevent assault.

    If I don’t want to say hi or be pleasant b/c of any number of personal reasons, I shouldn’t feel like I’ve failed to prevent someone from harassing me.

    With that, I absolutely agree that we must police ourselves and take steps to ensure security, but am I the only one who sees the active “preempt harassment” as analogous to the “advice” on how to pro-actively prevent sexual assault. If I say “hi. how are you.” (regardless if i want to), then I’ve protected myself. COuldnt same be said “if I don’t drink too much and dress a certain way, then I’ve protected myself.”

    I see a slippery slope of the burden on women to prevent assault/harassment rather than stopping the wrongs all together

  6. Manja Ressler says:

    What I find interesting is that the article doesn’t mention self-defense. It is ultimately the only way to prevent sexual harassment. My rules: (1) as long as they’re just talking, I ignore them. (2) the second they are about to touch me, I use self-defense techniques to keep them from touching me. If successful, this is very effective. Last time I had to use this was in NYC, when a man approached me in a way that made it clear to me he wanted to grab my breasts. So I used a technique from Taekwondo to fend him off and he was shocked and actually a little scared, so he walked on as quickly as he could. (3) If they really touch me, they can expect me to hurt them real bad. You don’t have to be very strong, just learn relevant techniques and stay alert. No one has the right to touch you without your consent. Your advantage is that most men who do this kind of stuff, don’t expect a woman to physically defend herself. Impress yourself, impress others!

  7. There is this individual who lives in my building, he harassed for nearly 2 years last November the 27th he talk to me again even if the police came twice previous times to talk to him and ask him to leave me alone, he made me lost my mind mind and I slap him, now I am the one charged with assault ! I feel hurt and disappointed the police actually came the next day and arrest me, we were having dinner at that time this is a nightmare, even if my lawyer said you don’t have anything to worry about since you have no previous criminal record, but why I have to go to court, why they had to scare my children, this is unfair and humiliating, other people who live in the building saw me they only handcuff me because while I was trying to explain things they said I was resisting arrest, they took me downstairs to the police car and read my rights and let me go few minutes after while the instigator is treated like a victim, I can’t believe the society we live in ! My husband couldn’t do anything to help me, besides talking to the harasser and he did not stop.

  8. The majority of street harassment that is either visual or verbal and comes from men whose intentions range from seeking your attention, provoking a reaction from you, involving you in a visual fantasy, intimidating you, to testing your suitability for predatory behavior.

    The problem with this type of harassment is that it makes you feel powerless and not in control of the situation. The problem with a knee jerk angry reaction such as “Fuck you, asshole”, is that it has the potential to escalate the harassment further. It also requires you to be angry in order to say it. In addition, “Fuck you asshole”, would seem out of place in response to the commonly used comment of “Hey, smile baby!” and is not appropriate around children.

    Therefore, what you need is simple phrase that works for almost every situation. You need a response that puts you in control and in the position of power. It must be predetermined response that you can say quickly without having to formulate a sentence. A response that lets the harasser and any bystanders know that you are:

    Not interested in talking to him.
    Not interested in what he thinks.
    Not interested in what he does.
    Not interested in how he feels.
    Not interested in seeing his actions.
    Not interested in what he has to say.
    Not interested in being victimized by him.
    Not interested in explaining why you are not interested.
    Not interested in becoming upset by him.
    Not interested in feeling violated by him.

    The response of “Not interested” is natural to say because it is most likely how you feel. Therefore, you are assertively communicating your feelings. “Not interested” is an unambiguous rejection of whatever the harasser has to offer or communicate. Therefore, you reject his “compliment” in the same manner that you reject his insult. You reject the harasser and his ability to have power and control over you. You let him and everyone else in the immediate vincinity know it.

    Your statement of “Not interested” informs potentially helpful bystanders of the true nature of the situation and creates an opening for their intervention. Your statement allows you to refute the harasser and continue moving away from him. There is no need to stop and confront unless you choose to. You can simply look at the harasser coldly, say “Not interested” and continue on your way. “Not interested” is the first step of physical assertiveness.

    Let’s see how “Not Interested” stacks up to commonly used harassing phrases and situations:

    “Hey mama!” – “Not interested.”
    “Do you need a ride?” – “Not interested.”
    “Why don’t you smile baby?” – “Not interested.”
    “I like the way you walk.” – “Not interested.”
    “I’d like to hit that!” – “Not interested!”

    For added dramatic effect, you can add a dismissive wave of your hand.

    Kissing noises, hooting, hissing – “Not interested.” (dismissive wave)
    A car honking next to you as you walk – “Not interested.” (dismissive wave)
    Feeling witty? You can add a second sentence.

    “Going my way?” – “Not interested. You’re not going anywhere.”
    “Can I be your boyfriend?” – “Not interested. Not in this lifetime anyway.”
    “I just want to say hi.” – “Not interested. I just want to say – bye.”
    “Why don’t you smile, beautiful?” – “Not interested. It’s because of people like you.”
    Masturbating in public. – “Not interested. But the police will be.” (as you take his picture)

    “Hey honey, come suck my dick!”
    Feeling angry and aggressive and want to throw caution to the wind? You could always add an insult qualifier such as:

    “Not interested. You piece of shit.”
    “Not interested. Dickhead.”
    “Not interested. You low life creepy fool.”

    (NOTE: Using an insult is NOT the suggested response. These are examples that demonstrate the flexiblity of the “Not interested” response. Safety must always be your first priority.)

    “Not interested” can always be followed by a verbal warning such as “Back off!”

    “Come here and let me touch your sweet ass!” – “Not interested. NOW BACK OFF!!”
    “Ah, come on over here, baby.” – “Not interested. I SAID I WAS NOT INTERESTED!!”

    Find yourself in a work related or social situation and don’t want to come off too strong?

    “Boy, you are beautiful.” – “Not interested. Let’s focus on the getting the job done.”
    “Wow! You look fine.” – “Not interested. I don’t need compliments.”

    “Not interested” also works for non-street harassment situations.

    Annoying phone calls. – “Not interested.”
    Aggressive sales people. – “Not interested.”
    Pesky men at a bar. – “Not interested.”
    Unwanted invitations – “Not interested.”

    “Not interested” is your one stop, all purpose, predetermined, first response to street harassment. It puts you in control. Because it takes no conscious thought to say, you can say it quickly and while under stress. With a little practice, “Not interested” will become your automatic assertive response to most forms of street harassment.

    Try it today and then pass it on!

    • I love this! Thank you for the helpful advice!!

      • Thank you for the articles and to all of you for your feedback. I’ve had two situations while walking with my wife. Once in D.C. and another just last night in Chicago. in both instances the persons approached from behind and asking, “sir, can I speak with you a moment?” I ignored the invites and continued walking. In D.C., the person didn’t find this acceptable and followed us for several blocks shouting racial slurs; “you’re just a white punk bitch.” I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I ignored him long enough and asked him what he wanted. He had no answer and just continued with his racially fueled rant.

        Last night however, the person decided to move onto the next couple passing very close behind us and immediately started in with the similar racial slurs as mentioned previously. This situation made me more angry because this couple was in their 60’s. I turned to confront the couple with the intent to help them move away, but my wife talked me out of it. Probably for the best.

        Today, I’m still very angry. What do they want? What are they trying to accomplish? Are these tactics for money? Are they sizing up a situation to rob me?

        Thank you all again,

        John

  9. urbanpink says:

    Ms. I think you do a great job about illustrating that violence against women is about control and power. I am a gregarious, strong woman. For my own safety, I yield. I do not “talk” to insulting and controlling men who cross my boundaries. I do not let them hear my voice (that probably turns them on). I turn away, put my head down and leave. If my children are with me, I draw them in. I believe that this behavior clearly shows the perpetrator that I know he’s doing something wrong and anti-social. One of the best principle’s of self-defense is escape.

  10. Street harrasment is something I have to deal with on an almost daily basis.It goes from guys looking at me in a way that makes me feel threatened to words, “catcalling”, to them wanting to touch me-thank goodness this only happens seldomly though.I was on the bus ride home one afternoon when on the next station this older man got on the bus, he was obviously drunk and he wanted to sit next to me, I placed my purse on that seat yet he insisted and his body posture was leaned toward me, so I sat up and moved to another part of the bus, found myself another seat.Had he tried to touch me or even say a word to me, I would of punched him in the face.
    I hate it, walking on the street or taking the bus and having my guard on all the time.It’s exhausting and anxious.
    I dress relatively decent.I don’t put much make up on… A bit of eyeliner and a natural colored lipgloss.That’s all.I’m not even super attractive.Pretty, but I’ve seen more attractive women out there.Yet men still harrass me.
    I ignore them.At least I act while I can’t hear them but inside I’m affraid.I know a few self defense tricks and it makes me feel a bit better.If anyone would dare lay a hand on me I’d respond with all the agresivity I’m capable of.
    But this is not life.This is not normal.One can’t live in fear and feeling like in a constant danger.This needs to stop.Men need to learn we are not their property.We are individuals with rights, we have the right to be safe and to be free to live life without fear.Street harrasment needs to end.

  11. I have a hard time knowing what to do when confronting street harassers because of concern about my saftey. The violence that Tugce faced is devastating. Speaking up is important but how can you gauge the situation to know if it’s safe or not? You can’t really. Tugce did the right thing- it’s heartbreaking when people are subjected to senseless violence because of that.

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