Saturday, February 15, 2014

Responding to Street Harassment

I was in a railway station in a major urban center tonight.  I was thinking about the lecture I'd just heard and walking quickly so I'd have time to dart into one of the shops and buy a bottle of water before getting on the train.  A guy comes up to me.  He falls into step beside me and gets very close to my face.  I take about five more steps, long enough to hear some commentary about what I'm wearing, and interupt him by saying coolly, "do I know you?" His answer does not bear repeating -- although it was a decided no -- and I did something I have never done before.  I raised my voice and said loudly, "Leave me alone!"

This did not work, so I yelled:


Now, I am a singer with a reasonable lung capacity and no fear of volume.  I was in a crowded and particularly acoustically-lively railway station.  

It worked the second time. 

In the past, I've responded to street harassment with a jolt of shock and surprise and then have continued on my way, trying to cool my burning cheeks and ignore whatever had just happened.  Today was not the day for that.  I've felt badly bullied this week, and he picked the wrong girl on the wrong day, and I was not about to take any nonsense from anybody.  The whole thing was an odd mix of completely terrifying and a little satisfying.  But I did learn a few good lessons.

1. It's ok to make a fuss.  Women are so strongly socialized not to do this.  Be polite, take it as a compliment, blah blah blah bullshit.  Make a fuss.  Draw attention to inappropriate behavior.  Alert strangers that you may need help. 

2. But be smart about where you do it.  In the nanosecond before I yelled, I had this flash of adrenaline-driven clarity.  I knew exactly what I was going to say, I knew exactly where I was going to walk as soon as I said it so I could see if he was following me, I saw that there were a lot of people (including several women) standing around who would notice.  Public well-lit place with lots of people? Go for it.  Dark isolated place?  Just keep walking. (This, by the way, is why you should not wear shoes you cannot walk in unaided.) 

3. Be clear and unequivocal in what you say.  No conversation, no deflection, no chitchat, no explaining.  It is not your responsibility to teach him manners or to protect his feelings.  No name-calling or profanity either.  "Leave me alone" worked well for me, and I will try to remember it in the future. 

Any other favorite responses?  Do share.  


  1. Ughhh. Yes, what a good response. Why is it that this sort of behavior makes the woman feel embarrassed, not the man? Point #1 has a lot to do with that. I can think of a number of times I wish I had reacted in this way, especially when I did not feel safe and was in a public place.

    1. Yes, I think you're right that the socialization not to make a fuss is mostly why women are embarrassed. But why men are NOT embarrassed is another issue.

      I suspect that the jerks who do it aren't embarrassed because they want some sort of reaction. More precisely, I think, they want to enjoy the discomfort of the woman involved and to enjoy their own sense of power at being able to get a reaction.

      The non-jerks, men who care about women and take no delight in a woman's discomfort, simply don't notice. Once upon a time, after a seminar that was 10% Actual Content and 90% Gender Theatre, I talked with a colleague of mine. He's a good, kind, intelligent man who loves his wife and is friendly and collegial to me. We were talking about the seminar, and he simply hadn't seen any of the gender dynamics. He just missed it all.

      Or, as another male friend said when I described street harassment, "I just never see this stuff." I had to say, "Of course you don't. It doesn't happen to the women you're with when you're around."

      I'm hoping that now that I've figured out some language and have figured out that it's ok to make a fuss, I'll be more confident the next time it happens...


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