Responding When You’re STREET Harassed
The truth is, there is no right or wrong way to respond to street harassment, because it isn’t your fault. How you respond is your decision.
Before we launched Hollaback!, we tried every strategy in the book to confront street harassers directly – we yelled at them, scolded them, educated them – but it never seemed to work. We eventually decided that our attempts to be “one-woman street harassment education machines” weren’t hitting this issue at its root. To end street harassment, we had to change the culture that made it acceptable to begin with. Cultural shifts start with people coming forward to boldly share their stories, and story by story we’ve been building the case since 2005 for why street harassment – and harassment in all public spaces – matters.
According to the National Women’s Law Center, “Sexual harassment often has a serious and negative impact on women’s physical and emotional health, and the more severe the harassment, the more severe the reaction. The reactions frequently reported by women include anxiety, depression, sleep disturbance, weight loss or gain, loss of appetite, and headaches. Researchers have also found that there is a link between sexual harassment and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
Our research shows that responding to harassment reduces its emotional impact – but how you respond is your choice. You can decide to respond directly to people who harass you, or choose to respond by taking action against the culture that makes harassment acceptable. We’ve got some examples of both below.
But first, what is STREET harassment?
According to The Advocates for Human Rights, street harassment is, quite simply, “unwelcome or unwanted verbal, non-verbal, physical or visual conduct based on sex or of a sexual nature which occurs with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person.” It can also be based on race, disability, class, gender identity, or other social identities, and serves to remind marginalized populations of our vulnerability to assault in public space.
Examples of STREET harassment:
- Sexually explicit, racist, ableist, transphobic, and other derogatory comments
- Unwelcome comments about your appearance, accent, sexuality, etc.
- Leering, making vulgar gestures, flashing you, or exposing oneself
- Threatening to remove an item of clothing, for example your hijab
- Claiming that you don’t have the right to be in a public space
- Whistling, barking, or kissing noises
- Following you or blocking your path
- Sexual touching or grabbing
- Public masturbation
STEP #1: TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS
Trust Your Instincts. Listen to what your gut is telling you. There is no “right” or “perfect” response to harassment; however, studies show that having some kind of response (either in the moment or later) can reduce the trauma associated with harassment. If you decide to respond, do it for you
Remember it’s OK to do nothing. It’s even ok to smile and keep walking. You get to decide what’s right for you.
STEP #2: ReCLAIM YOUR SPACE
This one is optional; your safety is the first priority. If you feel safe and choose to have a response, here are three approaches:
- Set the Boundary. Tell the person harassing you exactly what you want them to do and why. Look them in the eye and denounce their behavior with a strong, clear voice. Many people prefer to name the behavior. For example, you can say, “Do not [what they’re doing], that’s harassment.” You can also simply say “that is not okay” or “don’t speak to me like that.” Say what feels natural to you. The important thing is that you aren’t apologetic in your response, and that you don’t engage with them after you set the boundary. Oftentimes, people who harass may try to argue with you or dismiss you through further conversation or by making fun of you. As tempting as it may be get into a verbal war with them, we don’t recommend it. The attention may further feed their abusive behavior and cause the situation to escalate. Once you’ve said your piece, keep it moving.
- Engage bystanders. Tell them what’s going on and what they can do to help. Not all bystanders have been trained to respond, but typically people do understand that street harassment is not okay and they want to help you, so what can you do to ask for that help? You will need to loudly announce to people around you what the harasser just said or did and identify them, like: “That man in the red shirt is following me. I need help!” Then tell people what you want them to do, like, “Can you wait here with me? Can you call the police?” Remember that it is okay to ask for help, it does not mean that you are weak, in fact, it means that you are strong because you’re acknowledging that street harassment, in fact, hurts.
- Document the situation. If you feel safe, consider taking a picture or video of your experience — or asking a bystander to do this. This could include the person harassing you, their license plate, or the scene. Some people use photos or videos to report an incident — for example if the person was at work when this happened people may choose to report it to their employer. Others use it to share their story on social media or anonymously through ihollaback.org. Many find it to be empowering to turn the lens off of them and onto the person harassing them. It often has the potential to be hugely transformative. If it feels right to you then do it. It doesn’t work that way for everyone so ask yourself, “Does it feel right for me?” or “Is there another way to respond?”
STEP #3: PRACTICE RESILIENCE
There is no such thing as a perfect response, this is not your fault, and you are not alone. Take the time to recover and employ strategies for taking care of yourself. Here are some ways to respond:
- Develop a quick ritual to do every time harassment happens, like, “shaking it off.”
- Have a buddy you text every time harassment happens.
- Say an affirmation to yourself, like “I don’t let the haters bring me down. I deserve better. I’m awesome!”
- Share your story with trusted loved ones.
The idea here is that you want you to develop resilience so that you can get out there and keep being you in the world. Some people want to take it to the next level and prevent this happening. Do do that, we need to change the culture that makes harassment a “normal” part of everyday life. Here are some ideas on how to do that:
- Share your story of harassment on this website or through our free iPhone and Droid apps. Once you’ve told your story, share it with your friends via social media or email and ask them to click the “I’ve Got Your Back” button to show their support.
- Make a personal pledge to help others if you witness harassment. What’s worse than being targeted for harassment because of your race, sex, religion, gender, size, disability, religion, or origin? Being targeted while surrounded by a bunch of strangers who choose to remain passive bystanders. We’ve got a wealth of resources to help you become an effective, active bystander.
- Educate your networks about how to respond! Link to this page and connect your friends with our work and resources. Invite your Facebook friends to our Facebook page, give @ihollaback a shout-out on Twitter, or find us on instagram @ihollagram.
- Keep the movement moving by supporting our work. We are powered by your donations. Be a part of the movement and donate here.
- Take action! Review our Holla! How-To guides for tips on conducting community safety audits and research, hosting film screenings and workshops, and more.
You’re awesome. And we’ve got your back.