How to Respond to Harassment

Want more information on how to respond to harassment? For tips on responding to online harassment, check out HeartMob’s resources and FAQs. Keep reading for tips on responding to harassment in other public spaces.

Responding When You’re Harassed

The truth is, there is no right or wrong way to respond to harassment, because it isn’t your fault. Your response is a matter of personal choice.

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  harassers, 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 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.”

Examples of 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

If I choose to respond directly to harassers, how should I do it?

Your safety is the first priority. If you feel safe and choose to respond directly to harassers, here are some general guidelines designed to keep you safe:

  1. Be firm. 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.
  2. Don’t engage. Harassers 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.
  3. Keep moving. Once you’ve said your piece, keep it moving. Harassers don’t deserve the pleasure of your company.

There is no perfect response, because every situation is different and every person is different. Here are some examples of responses from readers on our blog:

  • Self-defense skills saved Caly from getting raped in El Paso. Now she carries pepper spray wherever she goes.
  • When a man tried to grab her phone out of her hand “to put his number in it,” C from the Twin Cities started running. A kind construction worker walked her home.
  • Ignoring the harasser on the street of Delhi did not work for Saaniya. She threw a rock at him after he asked for a “kissie.”
  • The stalkers disappeared when Sarah, from Alberta, reached a crowded place.

How else can I respond to street harassment?

To reduce your risk of trauma, there are many other ways you can respond that are equally as powerful as a “direct response” on a personal level, and also have the power to change the culture that makes street harassment acceptable to begin with.

Only got five minutes? Here Are some ideas:
  • 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. Read more information on how to safely intervene here.
  • 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 go old-skool and just shoot an email out.
  • Keep the movement moving by supporting our work. We are powered by your donations. Be a part of the movement and donate here.
Got a little more time?
  • Launch a Hollaback! in your town. Click here for more details.
  • Take action! Review our Holla! How-To guides for tips on conducting community safety audits and research, hosting film screenings and workshops, and more.

Responding as a Bystander

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.

You’ve read the stories, you know who we’re talking about: the “it’s none of my business” guy, the “he doesn’t mean anything by it guy, or the woman who approaches you after – not to ask if you need help, but to pay an irrelevant compliment.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Hollaback! partnered with the bystander program Green Dot to develop tools to help you intervene when you see harassment happen. We’ve got guidance for you in the form of the Four D’s.

What are the Four d’s?

You can make a choice to actively and visibly take a stand against harassment. The Four D’s are different methods you can use to support someone who’s being harassed, emphasize that harassment is not okay, and demonstrate to people in your life that they too have the power to make the community safer.

The Four D’s are direct, distract, delegate, and delay. You can use the first three in the moment to interrupt harassment. You can also delay and check in with the person who was harassed directly after the incident.

Direct

You may want to directly respond to harassment by naming what is happening or confronting the harasser. This tactic can be risky: the harasser may redirect their abuse towards you and may escalate the situation. Before you decide to respond directly, assess the situation: Are you physically safe? Is the person being harassed physically safe? Does it seem unlikely that the situation will escalate? Can you tell if the person being harassed wants someone to speak up? If you can answer yes to all of these questions, you might choose a direct response.

  • Tell the harasser to knock it off, that you’ll summon the authorities if they continue, that they’re being disrespectful or gross, that what they’re doing is harassment.
  • Take a picture or video with your phone and let the harasser know you’re recording them.
  • Ask the target if they’re alright, offer to accompany them to their destination, make empathetic eye contact, stand near them so they’re not alone with the harasser, ask them if there’s anything you can do to help.
DISTRACT

Distraction is a subtler way to intervene. The aim here is simply to derail the incident by interrupting it.

DELEGATE

Delegation is a helpful tactic for bystander intervention. Delegate tasks by asking a specific person or resource for help.

  • Find the store supervisor or a transit authority work and ask them to intervene.
  • Call 311 or 911 (if it is safe) to request help.
  • Get your friend on board and have them distract while you check in with the person being harassed.
  • Give another bystander a specific assignment.
Delay

Even if you can’t act in the moment, you can make a difference for the person who has been harassed.

  • Ask them if they’re okay and tell them you’re sorry that happened to them.
  • Ask them if there’s any way you can support them.
  • Offer to accompany them to their destination or sit with them for awhile.
  • Share resources with them and offer to help them make a report if they want to.

* A note about safety: We don’t ever want you to get hurt trying to help someone out. Always think about safety and consider possibilities that are unlikely to put you or anyone else in harm’s way.

Once you’ve acted, share your story on Hollaback! You’ll inspire others to take action, and give hope to people who experience harassment on the regular that there are folks out there ready to have their backs.

With Love and Revolution: Bystander Intervention

More BYSTANDER Tactics

In addition to responding in the moment, there are other steps you can take to change culture and prevent violence in your community.

You can fight harassment in your day-to-day life. There are plenty of ways to do that.

  • Sign the pledge to do your part to have people’s back when you witness harassment.
  • Have people’s backs through Hollaback!. Read some of the Hollaback blog posts and let folks know you’ve got their back.
  • Become a HeartMobber and practice bystander intervention online. Sign up at HeartMob to become a HeartMobber and learn how to support people facing online harassment.
  • Share the love on social media. The more people out there that know we exist, the more impact we have. Invite your Facebook friends to our Facebook page, give @ihollaback a shout-out on Twitter, and follow and re-post us on Instagram.
  • Any time you see someone practicing bystander intervention, tell them they’re awesome! A little positive reinforcement goes a long way.

If you’ve got a little more time to give, you can learn up or contribute.

  • Read all the research about harassment you can get your hands on.
  • Get the word out about Hollaback!’s work and mission! Contact holla@ihollaback.org for details on how you can raise awareness about harassment at your next event or party and get some cool Hollaback! swag in the process.

Got a lot more time? Start organizing.

  • Find a Hollaback! in your community and volunteer.
  • Launch a Hollaback! in your community if there are no Hollaback! chapters near you.
  • Organize an action using our Holla! How-To guides.

BACKGROUND ON GREEN DOT’S GOT YOUR BACK CAMPAIGN

The specific application of Green Dot to harassment is a collaborative between Hollaback! and the awesome folks at Green Dot, etc.