What Not to Say When Someone Experiences Street Harassment

This article was originally posted in August of 2016. 

For most people street harassment will merely be an annoyance, but it can also turn deadly when men become violent after rejection. Yet culturally, we still treat street harassment as something women should be proud to go through instead of something that’s obnoxious, threatening and demeaning.

Internationally, 70-99 percent of women have experienced street harassment. In the United States, at least 65 percent of women and 25 percent of men have experienced it in some form. People of color and LGBTQ people are disproportionately affected and often face more frequent and more aggressive incidents.

While on my way into work over the last few weeks I’ve been catcalled, leered at, asked out, followed, prevented from leaving an elevator and repeatedly asked where I live and work, all by strange men. I felt far more terrified and aggravated than proud or flattered.

When I told people what had happened, I did hear some supportive responses. Often, though, the reactions were victim blaming and only made the experience worse.

If a friend or loved one shares an experience of street harassment with you, here are some responses you’ll want to avoid.

What were you wearing?

You already know the answer: Clothes. There’s no reason to mention your friend’s wardrobe choices while she’s discussing street harassment. Her outfit doesn’t change anything and asking about it suggests that a different set of clothes could have prevented the harassment, which is totally unrealistic.

Don’t take it so seriously

Studies have found street harassment is closely linked to self-objectification, which is a predictor of depression, eating disorders and poorer school performance. Research also shows street harassment makes women fear for their physical safety, while catcalling can lead to decreased sexual assertiveness which can also place women at greater risk of sexual assault.

Telling women to brush off these side effects and lighten up significantly minimizes the effects of street harassment.

Take it as a compliment

No.

Just ignore it

Street harassment is not a rare occurrence, and for a lot of women it’s an everyday experience. Plus, it’s not only wolf whistles and catcalls. Street harassment could include homophobic or racist slurs, flashing of genitals, following someone home, groping or any number of unwanted interactions. It’s pretty hard to ignore this kind of behavior—particularly when it happens regularly—and no one should have to.

Try wearing a…

Recently, someone actually suggested I wear a burqa to prevent street harassment. Um, no. I’m not going to appropriate someone’s religion in hopes of avoiding harassment.

Other suggestions I’ve received include hats, sunglasses, headphones and baggy or “less-flattering” clothing. Every one of these suggestions implies that women are responsible for preventing street harassment and if they don’t make changes to their own appearance, they’re asking for it.

Women are harassed no matter what they’re wearing. Short of an invisibility cloak, there’s nothing we could wear to make it stop.

You’re too nice

Women are murdered for rejecting men. Being nice to creepy dudes on the street is a survival strategy, not a weakness.

You should have done ‘x’ instead

Most of the time, when people say this, they’re genuinely trying to help. Their friend is upset and they want to provide suggestions to help prevent the same thing from happening. Unfortunately, this line is likely to make the victim feel worse and like it was her own fault.

Instead of making suggestions that come out as victim blaming, just try empathy. Tell your friend you’re so sorry about what they’ve gone through and you’re there for them. Additionally, share resources to help them combat street harassment.

Photo Credit: Tim Gouw.

174 comments

Marie W
Marie W5 months ago

thanks

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Paulo R
Paulo R10 months ago

ty

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Paulo R
Paulo R10 months ago

ty

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Louise R
Louise R10 months ago

thank you

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Mike R
Mike R10 months ago

Thanks

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Jan S
Past Member 10 months ago

tyfs

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Caitlin B
Past Member 10 months ago

Thank you

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Jim V
Jim V10 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Jim V
Jim V10 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Anna R
Past Member 10 months ago

thanks for sharing

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