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How to Deal With Street Harassment Safely

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It is an unfortunate reality that most women have experienced street harassment at least once in their lives. In a 2014 survey, Stop Street Harassment found that 65 percent of all women had experienced street harassment. What is even more appalling, however, is the fact that many women encounter street harassment on a regular basis. 86 percent of the women who reported being harassed said they had been harassed more than once. Whether you are unsure of what street harassment entails, you want to find out how to combat it safely or you wish to take action against street harassment on your campus, this article can help.

What is street harassment?

We talked to Holly Kearl, founder of the nonprofit organization Stop Street Harassment, published author and consultant for organizations like the United Nations and the U.S. State Department. She defines gender-based street harassment as “unwanted comments, gestures and actions forced on a stranger in a public place without their consent, directed at them because of their actual or perceived sex, gender, gender expression or sexual orientation.”

Gender-based street harassment can range from “mild acts like whistling, kissing noises and ‘hey baby’-type comments, to persistent demands for your name and number or sexually explicit remarks, and even to illegal acts like flashing, following and groping,” says Kearl. If someone says or does something without your consent that makes you feel uncomfortable, that is harassment.

How should you deal with street harassment?

Unfortunately, there is no guarantee of a safe or unsafe way to react to street harassment. You never know how the harasser may respond. That being said, there are some kinds of statements that are safer to use than others. “The types of responses that seem to be the least likely to prompt an escalated response are ones that surprise the harasser,” says Kearl. She suggests a few of these responses, including:

  • Call out the actions as harassment
  • Depending on the situation and your comfort level, say: “That’s harassment,” “Back off,” “No,” That’s not okay,” “Stop it” or “Show some respect”
  • Ask the harasser to repeat him or herself
  • If there are other people around to hear you, loudly announce what the harasser just said or did
  • Ask the harasser if that’s how s/he wants a loved one treated

On the flip side, the types of responses that are most likely to escalate a situation are using profanity, flipping the person off and throwing insults at the harasser. Although it may be tempting to react in anger, these actions could only make the situation worse.

If it does escalate, don’t engage further. The attention may only encourage their behavior. Once you’ve responded, keep moving. You can report the harasser to the police or another person of authority, such as a transit worker if you are on a bus or subway.

What actions can be taken to combat street harassment?

There are multiple resources available if you are looking for support. The National Street Harassment Hotline provides free, 24/7 help in English and Spanish. The number is 855-897-5910. “First and foremost it’s important to take care of yourself,” says Kearl. “Harassment can be really upsetting so talking to someone to get support and/or doing something that can help you vent, heal and feel better is important.”

If you feel comfortable doing so, Kearl believes that it can be powerful to share your stories on or offline. Talking about what happened to you can help other harassed individuals feel less alone. Additionally, it can raise awareness for people who might not see harassment happening—like most men. “It may also help men who engage in mild harassment (such as whistling or ‘catcalls’) realize most women don’t like that kind of attention,” says Kearl.

Another suggestion is to practice responses to street harassment. Role-playing with a friend may feel cheesy, but when harassment happens, you only have a split second to decide what to do. If you’ve acted out a few different scenarios beforehand, you’ll be more likely to respond in a way that feels empowering to you.

Related:I Was Sexually Harassed by My Boss

What if you witness street harassment happening to someone else?

You will need to quickly assess the situation before you decide what to do. If you feel unsafe acting alone, you can enlist other bystanders to help you out. You may also want to call the police or someone else for assistance. If you do feel safe taking action, Kearl suggests the “fake friend” tactic. This non-confrontational strategy involves pretending to know the person being harassed and engaging them in conversation. Other options include creating a distraction or interruption, physically placing yourself between the harasser and the harassed person and directly telling the harasser to “cut it out,” “back off” or leave the person alone.

How can you help prevent street harassment on campus?

If you are interested in preventing street harassment on and around your college campus, Kearl suggests organizing a forum or discussion group, and/or surveying students to find out about their experiences. “Once you have collected information through one of these methods, you can look for patterns,” says Kearl. “Are there hotspots for harassment? Are there certain times of day when it’s worse? What kinds of harassment are people experiencing?” You can then lead a more targeted response based on what you have learned. You can do sidewalk chalking and hang or pass out fliers in hotspots. If harassment is occurring repeatedly near certain bars, clubs or other establishments, you can enlist the owners and staff in organizing campaigns with you to address the problem.

The 7th annual International Anti-Street Harassment Week is from April 2-8 in 2017. “People can organize events on their campus, like sidewalk chalking, flyering, discussions or art projects,” says Kearl, who is overseeing the initiative.

If you experience street harassment, be prepared and know how to respond as effectively as possible. Call the hotline or reach out to a friend for support if you find yourself struggling after the incident. As Kearl says,Street harassment is a human rights violation. It’s not okay, it’s not funny and it needs to end.” Take the initiative and work toward preventing street harassment on your campus—and beyond.


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