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. We’ve got a wealth of resources to help you become an effective, active bystander.