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What is Street Harassment?

Updated on April 26, 2014

Allow People to Enjoy Their Lives, and Coffee, in Peace

Street harassment is such a big problem around the world that anti-harassment organizations are popping up all over the place.
Street harassment is such a big problem around the world that anti-harassment organizations are popping up all over the place. | Source

Summer’s here, the weather’s heated up and it’s time to break out the shorts. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of women, shorts season also marks an uptick in street harassment.

Street harassment is unwanted, often aggressive attention from strangers 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.

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. That said, I truly believe that the majority of men don't do this on a regular basis, but there are more than enough who do, and they make life extremely unpleasant. 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.

A Note About Gender Identity

When I use words like "woman" or "man", I include transgender individuals who identify as either gender in those categories. I by no means intend to erase anyone from this discussion, because everyone is affected.

The LGBTQ+ community suffers from this treatment as much, if not more in some cases, as anyone else.

The Difference between Harassment and Compliments

Despite what some may say, there is a difference between compliments and harassment.

This is pretty basic stuff, but 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, they’re never sexual.

If they’re followed up with an invitation for a date, which gets turned down, the one who gave the compliment usually reacts with perfectly natural disappointment, but lets the woman continue on with their day unmolested. However, continued complements, regardless of her reaction, become 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 harassing comments include or preclude a request, or demand, for her number or a date, the reaction usually involves curses, yelling, or in rare cases, physical violence.

Types of Street Harassment

There are no “official” categories for street harassment, but it seems to happen in three ways.

Drive By
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.

As I’d mentioned before, men will sometimes pull over or slow down to keep up with her and continue the harassment. Both of these scenarios are pretty terrifying, because the victim has no way of knowing what the aggressor has in mind, beyond what has already happened.

Excellent Video About Why Guys Street Harass

Face to Face
This happens when both parties are walking 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 looks, but it can also include anything from inappropriate touching to public masturbation to full out assault. In fact, our local news has reported on at least one young woman who was grabbed and beaten by a stranger and two rapes of different women by strangers in the past few months. 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 also 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.

No one I know of enjoys a ride in a crowded bus. Why make it even worse?
No one I know of enjoys a ride in a crowded bus. Why make it even worse? | Source

Mass Transit
The third most common place for harassment to take place is on buses, 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 to act up. 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 me, 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.

Campaigns like this one help rise awareness of street harassment in the hopes of preventing it, but we each must take steps to get rid of this problem.
Campaigns like this one help rise awareness of street harassment in the hopes of preventing it, but we each must take steps to get rid of this problem. | Source

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, potential harassers can prevent it. First, learn some body language:

  • Avoid eye contact
  • Reading or listening to headphones
  • Actively leaning away from you
  • Purposely keep their body turned away

If they’re doing any of the above, leave them alone and dissuade your buddies from harassing them. Although not all men engage in this behavior, the majority of men probably know someone who does. Voicing your opinion on the matter may help prevent others from doing it.

If you feel that you must let her know your opinion, a polite “excuse me” and kind compliment will most likely be well received. It might even brighten her day. If she’s not interested, try not to take it personally.

The key is respect, and rejection isn’t an indication of disrespect.

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 they must be addressed.

If the guy won’t leave you alone, let him know you’re not interested. Even just saying “I’m don’t care what you have to say, please leave me alone” in a firm, uncompromising tone is a good start. From there, it’s best to ignore him, if possible. He doesn’t deserve your attention.

If he becomes too aggressive, either call the police or find someone to help you. Your safety trumps his desires and getting the authorities involved will demonstrate 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 harasser 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 or worse.

Street harassment isn’t an issue for only women to deal with. It’s an issue for everyone to address.


Submit a Comment

  • ESPeck1919 profile image

    ESPeck1919 4 years ago from Minneapolis, MN

    Hi, Laura! Great tips! Thanks so much for the input. :)

  • Laura Schneider profile image

    Laura Schneider 4 years ago from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, USA

    Great article, ESPeck1919--I particularly like your advice about wearing visible earphones--even if you're not listening to anything they deter harassment. Pretending you received or are making a phone call might also deter on-foot harassers, especially potential harassers. Feel free to have a conversation with yourself on a dead phone line if the person still doesn't get the hint. Not making eye contact is very key, too, as you pointed out. Once I received and returned a rude gesture on the freeway from a car full of young boys--and for some reason we all laughed, luckily defusing the situation (which could have turned to road rage or other dangerous situations). It always helps to know where the nearest police and fire stations are on you routine paths around town--never go straight home unless you're SURE you weren't followed; go to a police or fire station (which often have police nearby, too). Even if you simply park and sit in your car with the doors locked for a few minutes you will most likely deter any followers. If you're on foot, walk into the building and, if you're still followed, explain the situation loudly but calmly to the nearest peace officer or firefighter and no doubt your harasser will vanish or be taken care of pronto. Avoid abandoned places--seek public locations only to avoid trouble with on-foot harassers. If you have a cell phone and the situation is dire or physical touching has occurred, DON'T hesitate to call 911 and stay on the line as long as possible.

    Great article! Voted up and awesome!