Street art from Stop Telling Women to Smile.
Street harassment has been part of my existence since I was a young teenager, but it wasn’t until I was in graduate school in 2006 that I even learned the term “street harassment.” I found the term on the website of the Street Harassment Project (founded in the early internet days of 1999). When I learned the phrase, I was so relieved: there was a name for what I experienced. There were other people who hated it, too.
Now, years after finding support from that site, I’ve started an anti-street harassment site and have put together a book that collects stories about street harassment. Coming out this Monday, September 23, 50 Stories about Stopping Street Harassers features women and men in 16 countries who use creative, entertaining, and empowering techniques and strategies which readers can consider trying out, too, when they feel safe. Bitch asked me to pull together excerpts of seven stories from the new book to share with readers.
The collection has its roots in that personal stories thousands of people read on that old Street Harassment Project website. It was the first place where women could share their stories and their archive contained hundreds of them. I read them all. This is one of my favorites, though I do not encourage violence, it always makes me chuckle:
“A friend of mine worked nights at 7-Eleven and a creepy little guy browsed around the store until he was the only customer, then brought a can of creamed corn to the counter. She turned aside a bit to ring it up, and when she turned back, he’d taken his willie out and laid it on the counter. She panicked, and did the first thing that came to mind…she smashed it as hard as she could with that can of creamed corn. Split it down the middle. She called 911, totally freaked, and one of the policemen said to her, as they hauled this pervert away in the ambulance, ‘You did a good thing here. Don’t feel badly, he had it coming. I’ll bet next time, he buys marshmallows!’”
There is no “best” way to deal with harassers, but too often we are told only to ignore it. While there are plenty of times when ignoring harassment may be necessary because we feel unsafe or have no time or energy to respond, I think it is essential that everyone have a repertoire of various types of responses she or he can choose from. Ultimately, whatever we choose to do is the “right” response. But first, we have to have the ability to make a choice.
I hope these stories will help readers have a choice, starting with these seven stories.
1. “Bald head!”
As Jane was leaving work in Bristol, UK, and rushing to an appointment, a man in a white van who was stuck in traffic near her, tooted his horn and then leaned out of the van window to wolf-whistle and shout “Nice bum!” at her.
Annoyed and upset that he had intruded on her space so inappropriately, she stopped, glanced back at him and shouted, “Bald head!”
He looked affronted, she said, so she quickly responded with, “What? I thought we were just exchanging observations?” and kept walking.
She said, “It’s one of the few times I’ve been pleased with my immediate response to harassment, and I hope it made him think twice about how invasive and inappropriate his cat call was.”
2. “Stop it now!”
Nour is a teenager living in Alexandria, Egypt. While she’s experienced street harassment for years, the idea of responding to a harasser had always scared her, so she kept quiet until this incident.
As she walked along a busy street, a young street vendor near her on the sidewalk said to her (in Arabic), “Hey baby, look at me. What’s up honey, you’re so pretty,” and then he followed her. That’s when she couldn’t take it anymore.
She said, “I stopped walking and I shouted (also in Arabic): ‘Stop it now!’ and looked him straight in the eyes. To my amazement, and his astonishment, he did.
“He froze and swiftly turned his head away so bystanders wouldn’t realize I was addressing him. And finally, for once, I felt vindicated…So simple and quick were the words I uttered. It took me eighteen years to summon the courage and power to yell it out, to defend myself.”
3. “You probably have a daughter older than me”
“You’ve got great legs, baby!” a forty-three-year-old man told Brittney, a fifteen-year-old girl, as she waited for the subway on her way to school in New York City.
“Excuse me, you probably have a daughter older than me,” she said.
“Sorry, you just look so sexy in that schoolgirl outfit I couldn’t help it, and you do have great legs,” he told her.
Unwilling to let him off the hook for his lewdness, Brittney said, “Sexual harassment is a crime. Leave me alone or I will report you.”
Then the harasser hurried away!
Brittney said, “I count that as a win for me because I hear things like that all the time and I finally stood up for myself and said something.”
4. “Police! Police! Help!”
Nayana was walking down a very busy road in Anand Vihar, Delhi, India, talking to her young son on the phone. Suddenly, she felt a man “feeling up her front” with his hand. She was shocked! When she saw him smirking because he felt sure he was going to get away with his crime, she said, “Something snapped in my head.”
Grabbing hold of his collar, she was able to pin him to one place. Shivering with indignation, she said she screamed at the top of her voice, “Police! Police! Help!”
People gathered around her to help. The police arrived and she reported him. He ended up spending the night in jail.
5. “You’ve been looking at us for ten minutes”
One day Irem was riding a city bus with her sister in Izmir, Turkey. A man would not stop staring at them. She stared back to try to make him feel uncomfortable and stop, but he just kept staring. So then Irem stood up and said to him, “Do you know us from somewhere else because you’ve been looking at us for ten minutes.”
She said he was very embarrassed and that the other passengers, especially the women, laughed at him. He looked down at the floor for the rest of the ride.
Irem noted, “It is a very small town that I live in so what I did was important and embarrassing for him. The one who must be embarrassed wasn’t me, it was him.”
6. “Who here respects women?”
After a group of men catcalled a man’s female friend in Washington, D.C. USA, he noticed that she felt deeply uncomfortable. He asked her if she wanted him to help. She said yes. He turned and asked the harassers, “Who here respects women?”
They looked around confused and stopped harassing his friend.
He said, “It was quite a wonderful sight to see a group of harassers vexed about the answer to an easy question of respect.”
7. “Operation Creep-Be-Gone!”
Lauren saw a woman on a busy road in London, UK, being hounded by a man. She said, “He wasn’t being outwardly aggressive, but he was sliming ‘round her like a slug in an overcoat, asking questions and ignoring all clear signals (headphones in, one-word answers, refusal to make eye contact) that she wasn’t interested.”
“Are you okay?” Lauren mouthed to the woman, to which she shook her head no.
Lauren decided to intervene by pretending to be the woman’s friend. “There you are!” she said, hugging her. The woman said, “Hi!” as Lauren led her away from the harasser. They stood together chatting while “Slug Man stared, lingered, and eventually slithered off back to his cabbage patch.”
The woman was grateful and Lauren said she then “disappeared off into the night, swishing my imaginary cape and feeling proud.”
Lauren suggests launching the “street harassment crusaders! Operation Creep-Be-Gone! Bolshy builders, drunk leerers at bus stops, creepy guys who hang around asking you your name at train stations—all beware! For before you know it, a Fake Friend might leap out of the shadows and stop you in your tracks. Who’s with me?”