Combating Street Harassment
Thoughts from a Veteran
Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director
Like most women and some men, I am a veteran of street harassment.
About 40 years ago, I was in my twenties traveling through Europe on my own, wearing a tie-dyed tee shirt and ragged blue jeans, treating the whole world as my friend. Although I mostly had a wonderful time, my trust was dampened by disrespectful males of our species who would:
- Make suggestive or threatening moaning, kissing, hissing, growling, sucking, or grunting noises.
- Stare intensely.
- Elbow each other, laugh, and point.
- Ask for sex such as, “You look like you need a man!” Or, “Pretty lady, would you marry me?” Or simply, “Wanna f***?”
- Make sexual gestures such as pumping the air suggestively near their crotches, sucking parts of their bodies, or licking the air with their tongues.
- Make threatening gestures such as slicing a hand across their throats or shaping their fingers like a gun and pretending to shoot.
- Make unpleasant remarks, such as, “Hey, look at that cute little doll!” Or, “Honey, you shouldn’t be out here by yourself.” Or, “Hey, I just want to talk to you. “ Or, “Just let me show you something.”
- Try to take my arm or hand to provide unwanted “help”, pinch and run, or, in crowded buses or subways at rush hour, try to grab anonymously.
- Follow me, crossing the street when I crossed the street and disappearing if I went into a store or joined up with other people.
Although it was worst when I was younger and on the road, I have experienced street harassment in many public places over the years – on my way to or from work, out shopping, hiking in the woods, or just walking in my neighborhood. I’ve even been harassed a few times by a man in a car in the lane next to my car while driving back home at night after teaching a self-defense workshop.
Street harassment was not new even 40 years ago, but in those days, it didn’t have a name, and many people didn’t think it was wrong. They believed then, as too many people believe now, that this intrusive, rude, occasionally threatening behavior is invited or provoked by the women experiencing it.
Street harassers tell themselves that:
- “It’s a compliment.”
- “It’s just a joke … a game … harmless teasing.”
- “She’s asking for it by how she dresses or how she looks.”
- “She deserves it for being here.”
- “He deserves it for acting ‘gay’.”
- “She deserves it for looking ‘like a dyke’.”
- “I’m not hurting anybody. Just saying what I think.”
- “I’m just having a little fun. It’s my right.”
Too often, women in public places without a man are seen as “fair game”. Too often, street harassment can turn into rape and murder. Recently, police reported that a woman walking down the street in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood was approached by a man who asked her to have sex with him. When she turned him down, the man slashed the woman in the face and stabbed her in the arm.
Harassment of any kind is like pollution – it might not put you in the hospital or kill you right away, but it can diminish the quality of your life.
Just ignoring street harassment allows it to keep going and can lead to your feeling bad inside. Confronting it directly can be dangerous.
So what can we do to stay safe when we experience street harassment in the moment? And, what can we do to change our cultures to see this behavior as being as unacceptable as defecating in public in the middle of the day in the middle of the street? How can we promote people exchanging friendly, respectful greetings on the street instead?
Stay aware. If we pay attention to our surroundings, we can notice potential problems sooner rather than later and often avoid them.
Project an alert attitude of calm and respectful confidence. Seeming oblivious or acting scared or timid increases the risk of being seen as a victim. Acting aggressive can escalate a rude remark into a physical confrontation. Instead, no matter how angry or scared you might feel inside, keep a neutral face, walk briskly, glance in different directions, and keep going.
Avoid direct eye contact. Making eye contact can be interpreted as an invitation to have more contact – or as staring someone down in an aggressive way. Instead, look around with a “soft eye” without focusing on anyone’s face. Keep looking around in different directions without fixing on any specific point, glancing towards the space behind the person or towards this person’s feet. The goal is so that he can see that you know he is there even if you are not making eye contact.
Change your plan. It’s worth taking a few extra minutes to avoid an unpleasant experience. If you know that a certain group of street harassers are often hanging out by a construction site or in front of a bar, cross the street or take another route.
Manage your emotional triggers. Protect your feelings by imagining throwing words away into a trash can and saying something good to yourself. Screen out the hurtfulness of rude remarks while staying aware of this person’s behavior. You do not owe a harasser the truth, and in the moment is usually not the safest time to try to educate this person.
Greet people kindly when it seems safe to do so. In some situations, I have stopped harassers in their tracks by smiling and waving. While continuing briskly on my way, I’ve said cheerfully, “Hi! Nice day, isn’t it.” Their mouths have dropped open, and they have replied sheepishly, “Hi.” If someone makes an inappropriate request, you can just ignore it or you can keep walking briskly without pausing, smile, wave, and say cheerfully, “No, thanks!”
Fight back. Wanting to get even is totally normal. On my trip, after being surprised by men who pinched and ran away too many times in Rome, I stalked around with my string bag, full of heavy objects, ready to sling it at the next man who tried. Once in the middle of the day, an American who had thought the Italians were on to a good thing, came up behind me suddenly. I whirled and my bag thumped into him. “Hey, what did you do that for?” he yelped indignantly.
“What,” I asked grimly, “do you think you’re doing?” After that, I still got harassed but men stopped pinching me. Was it my increased awareness? The fact that I looked more confident and less vulnerable?
We live in more violent times now, and my hitting that man could have led to him increasing his attack. Your safest choice is almost always to leave if you can and get to people who can help you rather than fighting back. However, you might need to fight to escape. And, as I discovered, being prepared to fight to protect your safety can greatly increase your confidence, which can discourage harassment.
Call out the problem. When an anonymous hand snaked through the crowd and grabbed my breast on the Paris subway at rush hour, I tried to shrug it off. When that didn’t work, I started elbowing bodies and stomping on feet in all directions, no doubt hitting the innocent as well as the guilty, but getting that hand off my breast.
Since then, women have told me about a much safer, more effective choice that has worked well for them. Slither your hand up to grab the offending hand, lift it forcefully up into the air bending back a finger if need be, and shout, “Who’s hand is this? This hand was on my breast!”
Be persistent in getting help. Remember Kidpower’s core principle that your safety is more important than anyone’s embarrassment, inconvenience, or offense. If you feel unsafe, go to the nearest place where people are, interrupt busy sales people, and explain that you feel threatened. Even if you don’t feel physically unsafe, being harassed can leave you feeling emotionally unsafe. Talk to friends. Reach out to local services to get guidance about how best to report a problem. If you continue to feel upset and anxious, get professional counseling.
Take community action. With repeated harassment in specific places, taking community action rather than individual action is likely to be both safer and more effective. Work with neighborhood organizations to identify problem areas, enlist police support, contact employers or businesses to let them know about problems, and seek other solutions.
Enlist respectful men as allies. In my experience, most men are kind, respectful people who have a hard time realizing that women often live in a different world than they do. They just don’t notice street harassment happening to women most of the time. Shortly after I married Ed, the Dutchman who I met on that long European trip, we went to travel in the Greek islands for a couple of months.
One day Ed was startled when I chose a longer, more tourist-oriented way to the market. “Oh, I don’t go the shorter way,” I told him. “That’s the street where men bother me.” Curious, Ed asked me to take the route I usually avoid and walk ahead, separate from him. To Ed’s horror and rage, men gathered like flies as soon as I was away from him. After a couple of minutes, Ed was back at my side and the men disappeared.
“Is that all you want to see?’ I asked.
“I’ve seen enough!” Ed growled. “This isn’t fair!”
And, Ed has been my partner in Kidpower, as in life, since the day our organization began.