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What Would You Do? — Street Harassment


The above video, the Harry Potter Alliance addresses the underlying causes and some solutions to ending street harassment. While “street harassment” sounds vague and abstract, most of us have experienced it in some way.

Maybe this has happened to you: you’re walking down the street by yourself, and a man calls out to you, saying, “Hey, baby.” You keep walking, but he starts to follow you– and the comments get more and more explicit. He’s commenting on your sexual attractiveness– and not in a nice way– and you’re keeping your head down, trying to get where you’re going as quickly as you can.

Street harassment includes any catcalls, sexually explicit comments, sexist remarks, groping, leering, stalking, and assault that happen in a public place. Street harassment can happen while you’re walking, well, on the street, down a school hallway, walking in the mall, or riding on public transportation. Research shows that between 70 and 100 percent of women worldwide have experienced some form of street harassment.

When you’re experiencing street harassment, it can be terrifying– and hard to know how to respond. Here are some tips for how to handle street harassment.

If It Happens to You

There is no “best” way or one “right” way to respond to street harassment– what works in one case may not be right for a different person and/or a different situation. What’s important to remember is that there are options for responding to inappropriate behaviors, and you don’t have to ignore these comments or actions if you don’t want to. The ultimate question to ask for how to respond to a harasser is, “What makes you feel safe?” If you feel that a direct response will escalate the situation, then ignore the comments, walk away, or get help from someone else.  But if you feel as though you need to respond to a harasser to make them stop, then below are guidelines on how to approach that situation.

One way to handle street harassment is to directly ask the harasser to stop. Here are suggestions for how to talk to harassers.

  •  Use strong body language. Show assertiveness and strength through your posture, facial expressions, and voice. Street harassers are usually just bullies, and bullies back down from true strength.
  • Project confidence and calm. Even though you may be freaked out inside, it’s important to appear assertive and serious.
  • Don’t apologize, ask a question, or make excuses for what you’re saying. You don’t have to be sorry or try and justify why you’re asking for what you want. Don’t be afraid to be firm.
  • Don’t respond to questions, diversions, blaming, or guilt-tripping. Say what you want and need to say, and don’t let anyone side-track you. Don’t be afraid to be firm. 
  • Don’t swear or lose your temper. Responding with curses or anger will likely make the harasser respond with violence. Remaining calm, assertive, and serious will help you make your point without escalating the situation.

If you need some suggestions on exactly what to say to someone who is harassing you, here are some suggestions:

  • Name the behavior and state that it’s wrong. “Don’t touch my butt, that’s harassment.” “Don’t call me baby, that’s gross.”
  • Tell them exactly what you want them to do. “Back away from me!” “Stop touching me!” “Go over there!”
  • Make a non-specific comment about why harassment is wrong. “Show some respect!” “Nobody likes being harassed.”
  • Identify the perpetrator, and tell them to stop. “Man in the purple hat, stop touching me, now!”
  • Take a “Miss Manners” approach. “I can’t believe you just said that to me,” combined with a look of disgust.

When you’re experiencing harassment, it’s normal to feel flustered, disgusted, and off-balance– so it can be hard to remember a super-awesome way to tell your harasser to STOP unless you’ve thought about what you’re going to say, or even practiced it beforehand. Decide what good, generic response to harassment best fits you and your needs, and practice saying it while staying assertive, confident, and calm.

If It Happens to Someone Around You– Effective Bystander Response 

If you see another person being harassed on the street, in the hallway, or on public transportation, there are ways of effectively intervening.

If you see a person experiencing harassment, walk up and ask if s/he’s okay or if s/he is being bothered. You should not directly confront the harasser if s/he is a stranger, because this can often increase the risk of escalation (which puts you and the victim at risk). If s/he says yes, try and help as best you can– but if s/he says no, then leave. You don’t want to be another person intruding on their personal space and boundaries.

If you feel like this sort of personal question will make the victim more uncomfortable, try asking for directions, for the time, or other innocuous questions that will be enough of a distraction for the harasser to move on.

If one of your friends is catcalling or making inappropriate comments, call them out on it! Tell them that such comments are rude, disrespectful, and scary– never mind the fact that shouting “Hey, baby!” to a woman on the street is a terrible way to start any kind of friendship or connection with her. Ask them why they’re doing what they’re doing, or if they would tolerate such behavior towards their sister, or their mother, or their girlfriend.

No matter how you decide to respond, street harassment is never okay. There are ways for you and others to stop the culture of street harassment.


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