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What Do You Do When You Experience or Witness Street Harassment?

Was thinking about a few things in regards to my post yesterday and reading your stories of unwanted attention and harassment. I find myself depressingly unsurprised at the accounts. This crap is all too common.

A few years ago I made a decision to try and talk/fight back against harassment I experienced or witnessed. I live in New York, so hardly a day goes by when I don’t see it happen. Depending on my situation at the time (rushing to work or alone on a dark street or whatever) I will try to get the guy’s attention and say NO! really loud and like I’m talking to a dog. No! Bad man! Baaaaad.

If I’m the target of the comment or catcalls, I sometimes say something nasty. You know what really gets them upset? Insulting the size of their penis. I didn’t think it would be so easy to insult a guy, but it really is. (Sorry guys!)

Sometimes I don’t jump to that right away. Once I was walking down the street and a guy passing me said something like, “Girl, you are so fiiiine,” and I stopped and said: Excuse me, but that’s really inappropriate! We ended up having a loud debate in the street about how he was just trying to compliment me and put a smile on my face (there’s that fucking ‘smile’ stuff again…) and how by saying something nice about my appearance he was attempting to bring something positive to my day. No matter how much I tried to impart on him that random comments from strange men tend not to make women feel that way at all, and how would he feel if someone did that to his mother, made any impact on him.

Since I have a camera in my phone, I try to take pictures of the guys and tell them I’m uploading them to the Internet with the caption “Skeevy Asshole.” They don’t like that, either.

Every now and then I’m not alone when I do something like this. And it’s usually without warning. I’ll just be walking down the street, talking to a friend, then I’ll whip around and shout, “Leave her the fuck alone!” while my clueless friend is left wondering if I’ve suddenly gone mental.

Once they understand what I’m doing, people get kind of upset with me. On some level that’s understandable. People have gotten into physical altercations over less. Which is why I only do this when I feel relatively safe. On a crowded street, near open restaurants/stores, mostly during the day. However, the objection isn’t always just about that aspect. Some get embarrassed as if what I’m doing is somehow more horrendous than what the guy is doing. Like my acknowledgment and anger about it are breaking a social code we have in our culture. Men will harass women and women will deal with it individually as best they can.

That doesn’t cut it with me, though. Because I know how it can feel when the harassment is happening. Standing on a crowded street and having some man try to intimidate you and no one does a damn thing about it. I hate that feeling. I have no idea if the women who are being harassed appreciate my actions or even know about them. They may be trying so hard to ignore and get by that they just register someone yelling, but not about what.

I admit, I’m also doing it for all the times I found myself in that situation and didn’t fight back or tell the guy to go to hell; when I was intimidated and even scared. You’ll never hear me tell anybody that their response or reaction was incorrect or wrong or that they should have been stronger/fought back. I’ve heard guys say things like that and it’s complete bullshit. I’m glad for the times when I have the wherewithal to tell harassers to go to hell, but I forgive myself for the times I can’t.

25 thoughts on “What Do You Do When You Experience or Witness Street Harassment?”

  1. delagar says:

    I’m just commenting to say I really like this approach — the bit where you speak up, both when it’s you being harassed and when it’s you seeing other women being harassed. You’re right, men get away with doing this because women have been socialized into believing they’re at fault; and when everyone turns away, that reinforces that belief. –> you caused it, you deal with it. If we speak up, that says no, he’s the one at fault, he needs to stop; also, that it’s not acceptable.

    I have a friend (Zelda is her blog name) who has started doing the same thing when she sees people mistreating their kids in public. (For instance, she saw a fella kick his ten year old daughter in the rear in the Shoe Carnival the other evening, b/c the child didn’t at once come like a dog when the guy snapped his fingers.) Zelda calls them out — tells them that’s abuse and they should stop right now.

    Sometimes it makes the parents stop; always, it makes them leave; often, it makes the kids see that the outside world, at least, knows what is being done to them is wrong — as opposed to when that outside world just turns away, and pretends everything is fine.

    Well, this isn’t what you’re talking about (I’m not equating women with children — Gah!) I’m saying calling men who are harassing women out might work the same way; and maybe empower the harassed women as well.

  2. Sammie says:

    I have nothing but complete and utter admiration for you right now.

    (I must admit, I don’t do much apart from trying to get away as fast as possible when it’s guys trying to stop me when I’m walking down the street minding my own business – unfortunately, due to my hearing problems, they tend to physically stop me, which is when I really panic. Those same hearing problems tend to save me from the ones who shout at me from a distance, but they also mean that I have a hard time knowing when it’s happening to others ;_;)

  3. nojojojo says:

    I usually ignore it, mostly because I can’t stand the idea of interrupting whatever I was doing — further, since they’ve already interrupted me — by stopping to tell these fuckers off. They always seem to hit me when I’m in a hurry to get somewhere, or having Deep Thoughts ™ about something important, or whatever, and it isn’t right to let them dominate my attention even for the few seconds that it takes to register what they’re saying, formulate a response, and deliver it. (Much less have a whole conversation — really? No way in hell do they get that much of my time.)

    But I have tried to master the non-verbal “What the fuck is wrong with you?” Look. One of my best friends is a tenth-degree black belt in this: when she hears harassment she stops, cold. Looks at the guy, saying absolutely nothing for about 3 seconds — it feels like a long time — but with an expression of utter contempt on her face. Sometimes she looks him up and down. Then she visibly dismisses him — usually with a little shake of her head — and walks on.

    Sometimes, like any confrontation, this pisses the dude off more and he shouts after her. Usually, though, the response is just silence, and maybe muttering between him and his friends. Dunno how effective it is as a deterrent, but when I’ve tried it, it sure as hell makes me feel better.

    1. Haddayr says:

      Oooh. I LIKE this one!

    2. lkeke35 says:

      This is in response to Nojojo. When I was younger I used to get very angry and respond with the nastiest epithets I could think of, but now I prefer your approach better. It’s just more dignified for me now that Ive gotten older and I don’t like to give them any more of my time or attention after they have interrupted my thughts.

    3. Shani says:

      That is a FANTASTIC tactic. I wonder if I could make it work.

  4. unusualmusic says:

    Honestly, when I dealt with this shit on a regular basis, I was too damned scared and trying to ignore everyone to do anything about witnessing it happening to someone else. And when I tried to pretend that they were not talking to me. Ignored them. Or tried to anyway. I was too scare of escalating reaction to do anything else. Hell going to the police didn’t stop one persistent asshole, it only made him angrier.

  5. wbradley says:

    You are my hero. I tend to stand around and make a big thing of “standing and checking she’s OK” with a side order of “I’m going to be a really good witness if she presses charges”. Not sure how scary I am, but I do my little best.

    You might connect with the Backup project, too – same assholes, different venue. (, in case people don’t already know)

  6. Delux says:

    One time I saw a woman being harassed by two dudes at a bus stop. She was mocking them quite well, on her own, but as I walked past her to get to my bus, I said to her, “well clearly its hard out here for a pimp.” She fell out laughing, AND THEN the dudes wanted to know what we were talking about! To which I said “girls stuff’ and laughed some more.

    1. brownstocking says:

      so full of win. I heart this forevs.

      I do a look and keep walking. If it’s a dirty old man I usually wave and mutter about dreaming.

      I generally walk around with the pissed black woman face, though, so, I’m usually left alone.

    2. C says:

      Priceless! Good one

  7. Haddayr says:

    I don’t deal with this as much as I used to, being middle-aged and crippled and having moved to a place where this just isn’t as much of a problem in general, but I have always found that bringing up the topic of menstruation stops men cold. I am particularly fond of the phrase “eat my menstrual chunks,” which is delightfully disgusting and turns a misogynist’s innate fear of the female body against him.

    I have only used the phrase twice under extreme duress when the men were just getting CRAZY nasty. (These were in NYC, too — go figure). Both times I used it, the men fell down: howling, bent over, hands over their faces, as if I’d just punched them in their noses, as I just walked on by.

    I am not sure how this would work at a bus stop where you have to stand there with the asshole, waiting; I was on a crowded street and moving fast.

  8. 42nd Wave Feminist says:

    I don’t deal with this sort of thing often, but when I do I’m always at a loss. I’m so glad you posted this. Between your tactics and those of the other commenters I’ve got some great ideas to try out.

  9. Becca says:

    I have really been trying to stick up for myself and others in situations like this (so far, I have not managed it), but this gives me more courage for it. Or perhaps courage is the wrong word, but either way, I’m inspired to at least show that other people NOTICE this kind of behavior.

  10. Isbel Ingham says:

    I’m so happy to hear that there are other women who fight back. I rarely have let things go–but since I’m 58 now the things I’ve done are too numerous to mention. However, once when a man came down to the river where we were skinnydipping to see if we wanted to f*@& him, I got so mad at him he ran (and he had a chain wrapped around his fist, looking to intimidate us). My rage is huge. I have kicked in the side of a caddy, pounded the hood of cars, asked, “Who the fuck do you think you are?!”–the list goes on and on. Sometimes I’ve had the presence of mine to engage a man in conversation–which has occasionally worked well, other times cause him to go away quickly. The more of us who say something, however, the more likely it is to stop.

  11. Jonquil says:

    Thank you for being so brave and taking action. I haven’t been that brave yet, but I’ll try. (I’m also, at 50, pretty much past the catcalled stage.)

  12. Shani says:

    Ugh. I feel like I can’t go two weeks without some stupid incident or another. It’s probably only more like once a month, but it’s enough to REALLY enrage me. Recently (by which I mean the past year or so) I’ve taken to responding in some way instead of pretending I can’t hear and walking off hurriedly – at least when I feel safe, which is 99% of the time in my city.

    I used to freeze up inside and have no idea what to do except GET AWAY GET AWAY, and then feel really stupid and like I underreacted to their harrassment (by not shouting something WITTY and CUTTING back) and overreacted to the not really a threat (by running away when I’m in a daylit crowded street, giving them the pleasure of intimidating me). I don’t know why I don’t get that rabbit in headlights feeling so much any more. Maybe just older and wiser at the grand old age of 23 than I was at 22, but I’m finding it really satisfying.

    If it’s someone trying to make conversation in a harrassy way (‘why won’t you tell me your name? You’re so mean! I’m only trying to be nice! Why won’t you smile?’) I go with a firm and loudish ‘No. Go away’ and a MEAN STARE, and not responding to their guilt trips with any ‘please forgive me my rudeness’ wide eyes or excuses.

    In the case of shouting/arse slapping and then run away, I tend to shout something outraged after them. It still leaves me feeling a bit helpless and inadequate, and it probably doesn’t discourage them from doing it again, but I do feel a little bit better than if I do nothing at all. Maybe one day I’ll start chasing them down, but I dunno.

    I’ve never confronted someone while they were harrassing someone else. So far by the time I’ve noticed and gathered my wits they’ve already buggered off. But I always make eye contact with the woman afterwards and say something or gesture to express my sympathy. When I’m the victim I always appreciate it when other people make me aware that they’ve noticed it too and they’re on my side. I also note that so far, it’s only ever been women.

  13. Katie says:

    Hey – I used to say the “Stop harassing women! Show some respect” line, but now I usually just say “Fuck you,” as it leads to less discussion.

    I do like “What the fuck is WRONG with you?” though. I might start using that.

  14. Emma says:

    Since I have a camera in my phone, I try to take pictures of the guys and tell them I’m uploading them to the Internet with the caption “Skeevy Asshole.” They don’t like that, either.

    Have you heard of HollabackNYC – “Holla Back NYC empowers New Yorkers to Holla Back at street harassers. Whether you’re commuting, lunching, partying, dancing, walking, chilling, drinking, or sunning, you have the right to feel safe, confident, and sexy, without being the object of some turd’s fantasy. So stop walkin’ on and Holla Back: Send us pics of street harassers! “

  15. osiyo says:

    I had some fuckwit comment on my body at a 7-11 once. It was something along the lines of how one body part was nice, but another could use some work. (I don’t recall exactly what was what, I was too furious) So I reciprocated. At length. For the whole store to hear. I told him his hair was too greasy, his skin was unhealthy, his eyes were too wide, his nose was bulbous, his lips were too thin, his chin was an asschin and his ears were lopsided. And I finished it with ” And that’s just your FACE. I bet you have back hair too. That’s just gross”. I left him standing there turning red, with his mouth hanging open and everyone in the store looked stunned.

    You wanna dehumanize me? Better bring a lunch buddy, because I’m a mean fucking asshole and I got all day.

  16. C says:

    I usually tell them to get a life and walk off. If it gets physical and I feel threatened, I use a stun gun.

  17. Julie says:

    Back Off: How to Confront and Stop Sexual Harassment and Harassers

    Great book with creative and real stories from women dealing with street and habitual harassment. I recommend it to any woman who is sick and tired of looking at the ground and shuffling away from a nasty comment. Pass it on.

  18. Liz L says:

    I tend to get vocal, because I want everyone in the vicinity to know that what is happening is not OK, or normal, or something that can be ignored or laughed off.

    I once ended up following this asshole for something like 8 blocks and watched as he “brushed up” or “bumped into” every woman he passed. He barked like a dog while getting into the personal space of a bunch of preteens who had no clue how to respond. So when we got to this big crowded square (outside the American Girl store in Chicago!) and I knew I was going to lose him, I shouted something along the lines of “Fuck off and leave those girls alone.” At which point all the guy can throw back at me is a few stammers and “Hey fat lady, take it up the ass.”

    That guy had serious issues, and I doubt I caused him anything more than temporary embarassment. But it felt good to call him out because the lesson sank home for the fifty or so people who watched the scene go down: if I can call out a man who sexually harasses women and in broad daylight, *why can’t you?*

  19. julie brilliant says:

    I totally agree with you and do actually share your approach. Sexual harrasment is so much part of being a woman I almost managed to forget how much it limits me. The other day I was in a train in Berlin, Germany. I was with two little boys aged 6 and 11. So we where on our way back from a party, where Usain Bolt was at since it was at the time of the athletics championship in Berlin. Well we headed back from the party, wich was utterly filled with sexual harrasment of its own kind, since it was not just a party in Berlin, it was somewhat “jamaican” and that means you find all kinds of jungle fever there. You know like zillions of white fols with Dreadlocks and white women chasing Black men and so on. Anyways we got on the train, which was of course filled with drunken people, men and women. Then something happened that I didn´t even consider surprising because I either always witness or am part of the harrasment myself basically every week. A group of young boys comes in, teenagers not older than 17 and one girl. The girl sits down where the boys sit or the other way around. Well me being with those two lil babyboys trying to get them home safely actually made me feel different than before because I felt I not only have to make sure I protect myself but also these children. Well the teenagers, one was of course the loudest whereas the other boys did neither participate nor intervene, starting talking to the girl. Or rather about the girl and i was irritated but still thought she knows them. The guy goes and now even my little boys are listening and find it very disturbing. The guy was talking about the girl in sexist terms, insulting her as she didn´t reply to his “you are damn fine…” shit. Only then I realized she didn´t know them either but she just didn´t stand up and leave. Usually I intervene, the train was packed btw, but I didn´t realize the situation until we and the girl left the train. And the children I had with me asked wether they know her or not, they didn´t understand what was going on. When the girl also left the train, at the same time as we did, the guys started moving away from the “you look good I want you”-harrasment and started calling her a slut and a whore.
    I was annoyed with me not having completely understood the situation before. then I had to xplain what just happened to the boys because I felt like I have to so they know better what it´s like and how wrong these kind of guys are. So I ended up explaining what whore means to a six year old. The good thing these children are really cool, the understood Iwas telling them and where completely aware how wrong those guys are. The six year old even suggested what he thought I could have done and what those guys shouldn´t have said.
    So for one part I was happy to see that there is some kind of hope, like I see how the children reacted towards it but it also mad me aware that I somehow have become numb when it comes to sexual harrasment. I can´t think of one time on a pubic train at night where I didn´t get harrased and nobody intervened or signaled towards that I am not alone. But I just remembered I rather put that knive back into my purse and use it when necessary like I used to do when I was younger just so I do not feel so powerless. And all of my friends have pretty much the same experience. nobody where we go female bodies are objected to sexual harrasment and violence in public. I mean how many times did I or and of the women I know have had to protect either ourselves or other women. Men don´t step up and there is no point waiting for them to do it.
    We should get armed and fight back! I am tired….

  20. Nisi Shawl says:

    Back in Michigan a construction worker two stories up hollered at me: “Nice hair!” I hollered back: “Nice ass!”

    A beat or two of embarassed silence, then the man finally managed to yell something back: “Thanks!”

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