Street harassment: Anatomy of a pain in the ass

Walking to the grocery store yesterday, I passed by two teenagers who were smoking and drinking 40s behind the taco joint next to the club across the street from my destination.

As I got close to them, the one with his back to me glanced at me and then back at his friend, who took the cue and smiled like a daft young wolf as he intercepted my gaze.

I let my eyes wander away a second too late. Contact was made, and the opportunity was seized. “Hello there!” said the wolf.

Most days, this stuff is easy. The trick is to sass them first and sass them better. Do this with spirit and they’ll be left confused, on the defensive, even respectful. But today I wasn’t on my game — not enough coffee, maybe, sluggish — so I just nodded and kept walking.

For him, this was a golden opportunity.

“Oh, not going to say hi?” he said, cartoonishly disappointed.

Then, as I kept walking, in a hurt tone, “What’s your problem?”

Then, in anger, “fucking bitch!”

And as I walked out of earshot, “Go back to wherever you moved here from!”

Getting hassled by men on the street (or “street harrassment” as it is popular to call it these days) used to completely faze me. I still get moderately flustered, but I’ve learned to see the pattern, which is pretty much identical each time. I think of it as a series of buttons. They are pressed one after the other, in a prescribed order, until one lights up.

First there’s the initial invitation, often nonverbal, to engage in a flirtation.

The next button comes the instant you don’t respond enthusiastically, and pushing it entails explicitly reminding you of your obligation to respond to a social cue — “Why don’t you smile?” Worse, there’s the danger of hurting his feelings — “Don’t you want to talk to me? I’m a nice guy.”

If you don’t play along at this point, the next button is where things go downhill fast. There’s something wrong with you — you’re rude, you’re crazy, you have a bad attitude, why are you scared of me?

Next, the insults. These are sometimes vicious and heartfelt, other times shouted casually.

And then, finally, if you’ve thus far proven impervious to this comprehensive menu of potential triggers, and if you wait around long enough to get to it, you come to the great moment of truth, the blurting out of the aggression or resentment or expectation or whatever it is that’s motivating this guy to keep on trying to coerce you onto his wavelength. It’s the kind of thing you could have a conversation about, in different circumstances.

If at any point you give in and play along, start talking with him, answer his questions about you, flirt back — as I used to sometimes do when I was younger and didn’t know better — he suddenly gets real nice, complimenting you effusively and taking an interest in your life and your availability for a date. Never mind that he was hurling insults at you just a minute earlier.

This pattern plays itself out in a lot of different situations, not just on the street. But I’ve noticed that it not only happens frequently in public, but it’s something I almost expect when I go out. The older I get the less often I’m accosted, but it still happens every week or two.

This particular encounter left me shaken and upset, but was relatively benign, typical enough that I probably would have forgotten about it after an hour or two if I hadn’t recently been reading a slew of stories (and a cartoon!) about way worse situations. And others that are way, way worse.

Street harassment has started to come up consistently in the growing national conversation about the gender gap in cycling. But after it’s mentioned it just hangs there — nobody seems to know what to do about it, or even what to say. Meanwhile, it’s a real barrier. Not just in bicycling, but in our ability to participate freely and equally in public life. This kind of encounter doesn’t just make you feel bad, it makes the place you’re in feel unsafe and unwelcoming. It makes you think twice about going there again.

So what do we do about it? One thing we can do is see exactly what’s going on and not fall for it. We owe it to ourselves at least to learn the difference between the one-sided power plays of street harassment and a real conversation with a stranger who sees women as human beings in our own right and is willing to take no for an answer.

But it also isn’t really on us. Whatever the satisfaction is in hassling women on the street, it doesn’t actually require our participation to ruin our day, and plays out the same way no matter what we do — especially if we aren’t interested. No amount of badass mojo on the part of the world’s women is going to stop guys from doing what they do, and thinking it’s entirely on us to control other people’s behavior is symptomatic of the same problem.

Maybe I’ve had Malcolm Gladwell’s work on my mind a little too much, but the more I look at street harassment the more I think it’s just a trend. These guys don’t actually seem to care about whether or not you talk to them, they’re just doing this thing that everyone does. Which seems like an unstoppable force, but it’s actually the kind of culture that can change really quickly, like the embrace of bicycling or yoga or third wave coffee. My friend Meghan was recently telling me that sexual harassment has pretty much been made uncool at a local soup kitchen thanks to a method called “gentle personalism.”

What if every single one of us, male or female, responded to situations of street harassment by gently letting the harasser know that it just isn’t cool? It takes guts to stick up for someone on the street, and even more to do it with confidence, not to mention empathy towards the harasser. It could work, though it’ll only work if there actually are enough of us on the street, in public, to witness and intervene.

Who’s in?

Update: Thanks to the commenters below for some excellent ideas and resources for dealing with street harassment, including this handy list of ways you can intervene without getting punched.

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20 Responses to “Street harassment: Anatomy of a pain in the ass”

  1. Sam May 24, 2012 at 5:23 pm #

    Count me in.

    I watch a lot of standup comedy, and one of the things I pay close attention to is how comedians deal with hecklers. My favorite responses come from Russell Brand, who deals with hecklers in a teasy yet spot on manner. I’ve been absorbing how he handles it in an attempt to make it a part of my subconscious expression…

    My latest way of dealing with a harasser, “you’re teaching me to ignore you”.

  2. Caroline May 24, 2012 at 5:24 pm #

    Two bratty kids (maybe 12 years old) did something similar (but with the eloquence of a grunt) to me while I walked a block down 82nd one day last winter. I couldn’t believe the audacity of them to disrespect a stranger in such a way that she MIGHT GRAB ONE OF THEM BY THE NECK AND THROTTLE HIM like his mother would. They just never know, do they? And if we freak the fuck out on them, they might have a laugh amongst themselves but it might show them just how unpredictable a bitch can be.

  3. Catherine May 24, 2012 at 5:36 pm #


    You have written so eloquently about something I have struggled with for more than a decade.

    I am glad to finally hear a constructive suggestion about how to “quell” some of this street harassment: calling them out.. I’m going to try it next time.

    • Elly May 24, 2012 at 5:46 pm #

      Catherine, let me know how it goes!

  4. ladyfleur May 24, 2012 at 6:07 pm #

    It’s always awkward, even when the harasser is just staring at you and not saying anything. You can feel the weight of their stares and ignoring them doesn’t take away my feeling like they’re in control.

    Then one day I looked back toward them but acted like something interesting was going on behind, by tipping my head, lifting my chin and wrinkling my brow. The two guys reflexively looked behind themselves to see what I was looking at, which broke the spell. When they looked back at me they knew I had taken back control. An awesome feeling.

    I tried it another time and had similar good results.

    • Elly May 25, 2012 at 3:18 pm #

      Love this jedi mind trick!

  5. beaktreats May 24, 2012 at 7:28 pm #

    Elly – You may have already checked this out, but has a mission to do exactly what you called for in the paragraph. Rock on!

    There is another blog called Stop Street Harassment which is run by Holly Kearl, the author of the book of the same name.

    Holly Kearl’s book was really eye-opening for me – she did studies of women/LGBTQ folks in different cities to see what their feelings were about street harassment and how it affected their lives. The most striking thing to me was that street harassment actually limits women/LGBTQ folks’ safe access to public space. It’s part of a much greater culture of oppression, and for many women/LGBTQ people it’s a daily reminder of the reality of sexual violence.

    Low-income women who don’t own cars are so much more likely to be harassed, and are more effected by it economically, emotionally, etc.
    I can’t remember the exact details, but in Holly’s studies she found women who actually quit jobs because they faced almost daily groping/comments on the bus or train they had to take to the job. That might sound crazy at first, but then think about the fact that Mexico City has separate metro cars for women and children to use during rush hour so that women don’t have to suffer daily groping, comments, etc. from men in packed metro cars. It’s a band-aid solution, but those cars are packed to the gills with women trying to safely get to where they need to go. Without the special cars, how many of those women would quit jobs or choose to stay home more often, thus limiting their access to public space and economic independence? It’s so messed up!

    This subject is really interesting to me and I would love to talk more about it!

    • Elly May 24, 2012 at 7:45 pm #

      Thank you — I hadn’t heard of any of these resources and am glad to. Seriously bummer statistics. It’s sobering to realize that what frustrates me every couple of weeks in Portland might happen on a daily or hourly basis somewhere else, or if I were in a different demographic. UGH. Seems like a recipe for mental breakdown or, more to the point, for staying home all the time.

      Also, there’s this:

  6. beaktreats May 24, 2012 at 8:00 pm #

    You’re welcome for the resources!

    Ugh, that article makes me sad.

  7. Ashley May 25, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

    Unfortunately, “street harassment” — or some manifestation of machismo — is something extremely common and accepted culturally in Spain and many Latin American countries.

    The semester I spent studying in Toledo, Spain, taught me how to laugh at some of these interactions (and their patheticness). Other times it taught me to curse them out in Spanish, like when it crossed the line into physical harassment as some guy leaned out of a passing car to smack my rear as I walked by a towering cathedral one evening.

    Why would anyone think that was a “compliment” or an even remotely OK way to treat a person, particularly in public?

  8. Amy May 29, 2012 at 1:34 pm #

    Not to be the completely obtuse one in this conversation, but hearing how often this happens to some ladies has made me feel like the ugliest woman in the world. I can count on one hand how many times I’ve been harassed or even commented on when going about my daily affairs, and while I know that it is demeaning, especially in the capacity that is happening to some commenters, I can’t help but feel like the guys when I hear women talking about this: “Oh poor you, too many people are telling you that you’re attractive?”

    I don’t entirely know my point, as I realize this is an issue of feminism and stopping women from being treated like sex symbols, but I guess it’s to say that when it’s such an engrained part of our society, being the one not getting the catcalls in a group of who are can hurt just as much. It’s just confirmation that no, I’m not what society expects me to be, and while I’m happily married and have one person who claims to think I’m beautiful, it’s tough to agree or believe or feel positive about my self-image when the rest of our culture seems to claim otherwise. Which may be an entirely different thread of conversation, but I thought I’d put the counter-point from someone who is not a recipient of unwanted attention out there… obviously I don’t exactly know how bad it can make you feel, but it seems to me like it would at least be a reason to not look in the mirror with disgust later in the afternoon. Just my two cents.

    • Elly May 29, 2012 at 2:58 pm #

      Amy, thanks for the two cents. Man, what a can of worms. It’s funny you mention this, because I normally get the wolf whistles and such when I am by all objective standards at my least attractive; meanwhile when I look good and know it the predators leave me alone or engage less fiercely. The correlation seems to be way more with perceived vulnerability and confidence than with any outward markers of beauty.

      So maybe the lack of harassment you experience is less a comment on your relative resemblance to a fashion model and more on your air of easygoing self-assuredness? Which is, in my opinion, about the hottest thing going.

  9. Davey Oil May 29, 2012 at 3:15 pm #

    “The correlation seems to be way more with perceived vulnerability and confidence than with any outward markers of beauty. ”
    Here, here!

    Amy, you are super-brave and cool for bringing up your feelings here.

    I think that Elly is right that for the aggressors in these situations, the opportunities to make harassing comments or corner a woman with come-ons is about power and intimidation, not an actual come-on, like a romantic pass. That’s not to say that all of these distinctions are not blurry and problematic, they are.

    I’ve known many men who have behaved like this (assholes) and I can confirm that they are getting off on making their targets uncomfortable, not on giving them compliments. I can’t say for sure, but I bet most women who are targets of this behavior still often look in the mirror with disgust, just like you and me, and that these experiences of street harassment are not helping their self-esteem.

    blah blah blah. just some dude’s two cents…

    again, thanks for stepping up with such frank honesty, you are awesome!

  10. Sam May 29, 2012 at 3:37 pm #

    I’ve always felt uncomfortable about talking or writing about getting harassed because of the sort of comment Amy voiced . I do appreciate the perspective and see where it’s coming from and have tried for decades to embody the sort of image that would not get harassed and I can’t figure it out. Is there something I can do? I’ve been told that I appear extremely confident and self assured, so that doesn’t seem to help. I’ve been told that I come across as extremely stand-offish, that doesn’t seem to keep the creeps away. I’ve dressed in as un-flattering of a manner as possible to no avail (wearing baggy clothing, baseball hat, putting my hair up). Granted it’s not like it happens all the time, but every time I leave the house I have to mentally be prepared for whatever may come my way and that is an energy drain.

    And I agree with Mr. Oil’s perspectives in that often it is not to flatter, but rather an attempt to make uncomfortable (“I know I can’t have her so I will make interact with her to make her uncomfortable”).

    So here is a Q I would like to propose – how do we deal with this? Standards of beauty vary and not being hit on doesn’t mean you’re not some hottie (for years I was told was an ugly POS, and I have yet to get over that). But still women are getting harassed. While I disagree with the Slutwalk principles, surely there is some other way to deal with this issue? I’m at a loss for what that might be short of, “let’s get old and wrinkly and then the problem will stop”

  11. KJ May 29, 2012 at 3:42 pm #

    FWIW Amy, My experience kind of correlates with Davey’s comment. I don’t get much harassment. When I do it’s a comment on my appearance as I pass by, and I am not a conventionally attractive or slender or fashionable or particularly young person.

    I very occasionally get “Those” looks or a whistle or some low spoken comment. More so since moving to a more blue collar part of Portland. But rarely.And not always in ways you would think flattering…one guy once commented on my “strong ankles” in a truly appreciative way, while i was stopped on my bike at a light. I hate my ankles. I never get exchanges like many women seem to get that are about intimidation and power. (Women of all shapes and looks and ages.) Not even that I can recall from when I was younger.

    My guess has always been it’s because I look pissed off without trying very hard. I look people in the eye, if someone says hi I nod or give a gruff hey man. I tend to not walk or posture in ways considered very feminine. Even when I have a dress or skirt on. It’s kind of a masculine posture I think. I never really thought much about it. I look like a right bitch unless I am actively paying attention to what my face is doing. i.e. not an easy target.

    But I can imagine that other women who behave like me may have compleatly different experiences, especially dependent on where you live. I got a lot more harassment in China and S America.

  12. Amy May 30, 2012 at 11:50 am #

    Thank you all for your follow-up comments.

    I don’t, on an average day I guess, really consider myself to be ugly as much as just very average in the looks department, so maybe it is the way I carry myself, though that in turn does make it sound like some girls are carrying themselves in ways that cause them to get harassed, which I also know is not the case. Maybe it’s also living in the south, where there are fewer people walking around in general so maybe a little less of an opportunity for it to happen. Heck, maybe there are some sort of uncontrollable pheromones each of us put off and I lucked up with one off-putting to douche-baggery. Regardless, I’ll try to feel less bad when I’m the one girl not being “hit on” (that sentiment seems to draw a parallell with how it actually feels, no?) with your comments in mind.

    KJ, thanks for your perspective. Your story of strong ankles made me chuckle a little. I don’t know how I’d take that. I don’t think I’ve ever given a second thought to my ankles, but I guess it goes to show that beauty is in the eye of the beholder? ;)

    Sam, I totally get where you’re coming from. I have a friend who would walk down the aisle of a church and get low whistles while dressed in a t-shirt and grungy sneakers. It makes no sense and I understand how disrespectful it was to her in those times. It would make me feel uncomfortable on her behalf in those situations… though admittedly more jealous as men were honking at her while we were walking by. I wish there was a clearcut way of making men not be assholes, but that seems a formula as yearned-for as the fountain of youth.

    Davey, many thanks for your male perspective, and for making me feel less lame about posting my follow-up.

    And Elly, I agree with Davey… “The correlation seems to be way more with perceived vulnerability and confidence than with any outward markers of beauty” seems to be spot-on, and I’ll take it to heart.

  13. Erik Sandblom August 21, 2012 at 8:00 pm #

    Discussion continues here. Interesting comments:

    Unsolicited Advice – Let’s Go Ride a Bike


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