Street harassment is unwanted, aggressive attention by people in public. Because this problem is so prevalent, many people see it as ‘just a fact of life’, while others brush it off as complimentary, or that the victim is being ‘oversensitive’. In truth, it’s about control and a desire for attention. When things don’t go to the harasser’s will, the victim may be faced with violence, stalking or even an attempt on their life.
Although women can be harassers and men can be victims, the vast majority of perpetrators tend to be men, and the majority of victims tend to be women. To simplify things, I’ll be identifying the victim as female and aggressor as male in this article. Regardless of who does what, street harassment is never ok.
The Difference between Harassment and Compliments
First, a few definitions are in order. Despite what some may say, there is a difference between compliments and harassment.
A true compliment is delivered with a sincere desire to make a person feel better about themselves. Generally, they’re delivered in either a playful manner or polite, genuine tone. Unless the two parties already know each other well, they’re never sexual.
A lot of times, compliments are followed by a request for a date or phone number. I personally see nothing wrong with that, provided the man is prepared for potential rejection. If he can accept the “no” and move on, the entire interaction isn’t a problem. However, if he reacts by cursing, insulting, continuing to pressure the woman or in any other negative way, then it becomes harassment.
Harassment is almost always of a sexual nature. Even if the words are benign, they’re delivered in a sexual tone or context. Often, they’re accompanied by the harasser looking the woman up and down, lewd gestures and/or unwanted physical contact. When a man yells at a woman from a moving vehicle, whistles as she passes by or forces her to stop so he can talk to her are also versions of harassment.
When harassing comments include a request, or demand for her number or a date, the reaction usually involves curses, yelling, or in rare cases, physical violence.
Types of Harassment
There are no “official” categories for street harassment, but these are how I have most often experienced it.
The first is when a guy riding or driving a vehicle yells at, whistles, honks the horn or makes lewd gestures at a woman on foot. Sometimes, things get thrown, and if she fails to react, he’ll scream curses and other verbal abuse at her.
There is literally nothing the woman can do about this type of harassment, outside of either shouting back or gesturing at the car. Often, the harassers have already passed her when it happens or are going so fast that she may not even know which car it came from.
Men will sometimes pull over or slow down to keep up with her and continue the harassment. Both of these scenarios are terrifying, because the victim has no way of knowing what the aggressor has in mind, if they have a weapon in the car, or if he’s going to try dragging her into the vehicle.
Face to Face
This happens when both parties are in a public place. What makes this occurrence particularly frightening for a woman is that the chances of unwanted physical contact go up dramatically.
This includes unwanted comments, questions and prolonged looks, but it can also include inappropriate touching, public masturbation and full out assault.
I have personally been groped in crowded public places, and our local news has reported on young women being grabbed and beaten by stranger. There have also been rapes by strangers, as well. The danger is very real, and it’s not unreasonable to be afraid when men behave aggressively.
If the woman doesn’t respond in the way the assailant wants her to, she’s more vulnerable to his potentially violent reaction. The majority of harassers tend not to react physically, but quite a few of them aren’t shy about yelling slurs or curses at her.
Face to face harassment also has the potential for the perpetrator to follow the woman on foot. This can range from being annoying to terrifying. The last thing anyone wants is for someone who’s demonstrating aggressive tendencies to know where they work or live. Many women have had to completely change their routes to avoid men who do this.
The third most common place for harassment to take place is on busses, subway cars and trains. There’s no denying that these modes of transportation can get ridiculously crowded, which means personal space becomes non-existent. Generally, people are still respectful of each other and endure the cramped quarters peacefully.
Unfortunately, this also opens the door to some people who take advantage of close quarters. It can be difficult to tell whether that brush to the posterior was on purpose or accidental, but grabbing is always intentional. The vehicle doesn’t have to be crowded for it to happen.
The harasser has a captive audience. Unless the driver or other passengers intervene, there’s no way for the woman to get away from the aggressor. Given the chance, he will continue with the harassment throughout the ride.
As with the man who had followed me, yelling threats of rape until I found someone who was willing to help, they can also get off with the woman and continue the harassment.
Since most people who take mass transit do so to get to and from places like work or school, they become more vulnerable to repeated harassment. Unless the authorities get involved, there’s little a person can do outside of altering their route.
How to Prevent Street Harassment
Unfortunately, there is nothing victims of street harassment can do to prevent it. It will happen regardless of what you wear, where you walk, and sometimes, who you are with. It is never your fault.
However, men can prevent it.
First, if the woman is doing any of the following things, she wants to be left alone:
- Avoiding eye contact
- Reading or listening to headphones
- Actively leaning away from you
- Purposely keeping her body turned away
If they’re doing any of the above, leave them alone and dissuade your buddies from harassing them. She’s probably not avoiding you because she has anything against you personally. She may be having a hard day, or just getting off a long shift. No matter how attractive or approachable someone looks, remember they’re also human, and entitled to a peaceful existence.
If you do think she’s open to your attention, it’s best to be polite, kind and non-sexual. If she asks you to leave her alone, or rejects your advances otherwise, leave her alone. It’s not personal. The key is respect, and rejection isn’t an indication of disrespect.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, call your friends out on it if you see them doing it. Part of why it’s so accepted is because the behavior is encouraged, through jokes about it, joining in on it or ignoring it. Unfortunately, women who speak up about it aren’t taken as seriously as men who do, so it’s vital guys who don’t approve of harassment to be vocal about it.
No, not all men engage in this behavior, but the majority of men probably know someone who does. Voicing your opinion on the matter may prevent others from doing it.
Reacting to Street Harassment
It can be tricky knowing how to react to a harasser. We’re conditioned to ignore them and continue on our ways, but there are circumstances in which the situation must be addressed.
If the guy won’t leave you alone, let him know you’re not interested. Even just saying “I don’t care what you have to say, please leave me alone” in a firm, uncompromising tone is a good start. He doesn’t deserve your attention, and usually, he doesn’t want trouble.
If he becomes too aggressive, either call the police or find someone to help you. Your safety trumps his desire and getting the authorities involved will further cement that what he’s doing is wrong.
If you happen to notice someone being harassed, don’t be afraid to step in. Most of these guys will back down as soon as their victim has company, because they don’t want problems. Only get involved if you feel safe in doing so, but here are some suggestions:
- Ask the woman if she’s ok or if she needs help.
- Tell the harassment that what he’s doing is wrong.
- Physically put yourself between the two.
If you think the situation is dangerous enough, call the police. At the very least, they’ll be made aware of a potentially harmful situation. At the most, you may prevent an assault.
Street harassment isn’t an issue for only women to deal with. It’s an issue for everyone to address.
More Resources on Public Sexual Harassment
- Cards Against Harassment
Cards that can be printed out and handed out to harassers.
- Hollaback! You have the power to end street harassment
Hollaback! is an international movement to end street harassment. We believe that everyone has the right to feel safe and confident when they walk down the street.
© 2015 Emilie S Peck
Emilie S Peck (author) from Minneapolis, MN on April 15, 2015:
Oh, yeah, it's wild how common it is. I grew up in a moderately small town, and was subjected to it from the age of about 12. I live in a mid-sized town, now. The last time I had to go downtown on an errand, (on a weekday, in the middle of the work day) I got to deal with street harassment from six different men as I walked one and a half blocks to the building I had to get to.
I'm relatively used to it, but I was stunned at how much happened in such a short period of time.
Anyway, thanks so much for reading, and I hope it'll help you out in the future.
Kylyssa Shay from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA on April 15, 2015:
It can be hard to explain street harassment to people who have not experienced it or seen it themselves.
I didn't have any idea how common and frequent it was until I started walking everywhere when I moved from a rural area to the small town associated with that area. Yes, it happens in small towns. That seems surprising even to me after experiencing it because you'd think everybody knowing everybody would have some sort of deterrent effect on the people prone to shouting rude things. It doesn't.
It happens in the city where I live now, too.
It isn't only young, pretty women who have problems with this, either. I'm 45 and I've never been attractive, but I've still been the object of catcalls, sometimes, even when I'm using my cane! I had hoped getting older and fatter would have resolved this problem for me.
Thank you for this clear and educational explanation of street harassment. I'm bookmarking it for use the next time I'm too tired or frustrated to explain catcalling to somebody myself.
Emilie S Peck (author) from Minneapolis, MN on March 14, 2015:
I'm so happy you took the time to read this, Eric. It's really stunning just how prevalent it is, and most guys who don't do it have no idea, because the harassers always avoid doing it around people who wouldn't approve of it.
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on March 14, 2015:
You opened my eyes. I was aware that this happens but thought it was so unusual as to be just an annoyance.