“Hey, sweetie, smile for me.”
“I had to stop you. You’re so beautiful.”
“C’mon, baby, let me pull your hair.”
That one got me to whip around and unleash a string of expletives so obscene, it would embarrass an Urban Dictionary comment monitor.
Street harassment is one of the most relatable social interactions for both men and women. It takes many forms: catcalls, vulgar gestures, whistling, making kissing noises, and stalking. Sixty-five per cent of women and 25% of men in the U.S. report experiencing at least one type of street harassment in their lifetime, and an overwhelming majority say it has happened more than once.
While it may seem relatively innocent, street harassment does have detrimental effects. Immediately after the incident, targets report feeling annoyed, angry, embarrassed, threatened, or scared the situation will escalate. They contemplate how they “should have” reacted.
Those consequences linger. “It really impacts the way we move through the world,” says Debjani Roy, deputy director of the international anti-street harassment movement Hollaback. A woman harassed on her way to the office may be less productive at work because she plays out the scene over and over in her head. A girl who’s bothered by the driver of a passing car while walking to school may plan an alternate route — through a worse area.
It’s tough to shrug off. So we reached out to the experts for tips on dealing with catcallers.
If You’re Being Catcalled
Assess your safety. Because every situation is different, there is no perfect response. If it’s nighttime and you’re walking in a desolate area, or your harasser is in a group, the best response might be not engaging at all.
Make eye contact. Strong body language, particularly eye contact, will surprise your harasser. “It tends to work well because then they’re too shocked to retaliate,” says Holly Kearl, founder of Stop Street Harassment and author of “Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming For Women. “It forces them to think about what they have said or done.”
Use a firm voice. In an audible, unwavering tone, tell your harasser that his or her behaviour is not ok. Try negative statements like, “No, leave me alone.” “I don’t appreciate it.” “What you’re saying is disrespectful.” “Go away.”
If you’re feeling bold and the situation allows it, you can turn the tables on your harasser. Ask them to repeat what they said or loudly repeat it, comment on how they look, or take their photo.
Avoid swearing.It’s hard to resist, but cursing can backfire. “While it may work in some instances, this type of reaction is the most likely to make the harasser respond with anger and violence,” Kearl says.
Walk away. After you’ve made eye contact and said your negative statement, keep moving, Roy says. “Keep it short so the harasser doesn’t think it’s an opening to a conversation.”
Fake a phone call. If your harasser is still following you, cross the street and pretend to call a friend. Tell her you’re just down the block and will be there soon. Or threaten to dial 911. And if you fear the situation is escalating, make the call!
If You’re A Bystander
Watching street harassment happen is almost as painful as being a target of it. Hollaback suggests using one of the “four D’s” of bystander intervention.
Intervene directly. If you’ve assessed the situation and decided it’s safe for you to become involved, you might approach the harasser and tell him or her to “knock it off,” or loudly say “ugh, that is so gross” as you walk by.
Create a distraction. There are a few ways to disrupt the harasser’s antics without actually addressing the harasser. Approach the target and ask for directions, offer your seat, or act like you know each other. Say, “I’ve been looking everywhere for you. We have to meet our friends!”
Find a delegate. If you’re by a construction site, seek out the foreman. In the subway station, find a transit authority worker. Rally people standing around you who look like they would be more confident approaching the harasser. “You have the power to de-escalate the situation,” Roy says. “When other people get involved, usually the harasser backs off.”
Intervene on delay. When the situation has passed, ask the target if he or she is ok. Simply validating their experience by telling them “I’m sorry that happened” or “ugh, that happens to me all the time,” creates solidarity and makes a huge difference.
What To Do After The Fact
Remind yourself who’s to blame. Being harassed can bring up confusing feelings. “We feel very ashamed about the way we responded,” Roy says. Rather than harp on what went wrong or right, remind yourself that it is your harasser’s job to feel guilty, not yours.
Tell a friend. Talking about the incident and how it made you feel helps you gain support, give a voice to your experience, and realise you’re not alone.
Share your experience on social media. Websites like Hollaback and Stop Street Harassment invite you to tell your story on their blogs. Not only do you take ownership of the experience, but you raise awareness that this is a thing that’s happening.
“A lot of people don’t identify harassment as a problem. It’s just something we tolerate,” Roy says.
But a flip switches when they hear of a sister, friend, or daughter’s experience. Only then, do our communities, representatives, and harassers move together toward a solution.
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