Responding to Harassers

Want more information on how to respond to street harassment? Keep reading…

“So when I get street harassed, what should I do?” This is one of the most common questions we receive. The truth is, there is no right or wrong way to respond to harassment because it isn’t your fault. Your response is a matter of personal choice.

Before we launched Hollaback, we tried every strategy in the book to confront harassers directly – we yelled at them, scolded them, and educated them – but it never seemed to work.  We eventually decided that our attempts to be a “one-woman street harassment education machine” weren’t hitting this issue at its root.  To end street harassment, we had to change the culture that made it acceptable to begin with.  History shows that cultural shifts start with people coming forward to boldly share their stories, and story by story, we’ve been building the case for why street harassment matters since 2005.

According to the National Women’s Law Center, “[s]exual harassment often has a serious and negative impact on women’s physical and emotional health, and the more severe the harassment, the more severe the reaction. The reactions frequently reported by women include anxiety, depression, sleep disturbance, weight loss or gain, loss of appetite, and headaches. Researchers have also found that there is a link between sexual harassment and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Our research shows that responding to harassment reduces the emotional impact of street harassment — but how you respond is your choice.  You can decide to respond directly to street harassers or choose to respond by taking action against the culture that makes it acceptable. Examples of both are below.

But first, what is street harassment?

According to StopViolenceAgainstWomen.org street harassment is quite simply, “unwelcome or unwanted verbal, non-verbal, physical or visual conduct based on sex or of a sexual nature which occurs with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person.”

Examples of street harassment include:

·       Comments about someone’s appearance, gender, sexual orientation, etc)

·       Vulgar Gestures

·       Sexually Explicit Comments (e.g., “Hey baby, I’d like a piece of that”)

·       Leering

·       Whistling

·       Barking

·       Kissing Noises

·       Following someone

·       Flashing someone or exposing oneself

·       Blocking someone’s path

·       Sexual touching or grabbing (e.g., touching someone’s legs, breasts or butt)

·       Public masturbation

If I choose to respond directly to harassers, how should I do it?

Your safety is the first priority.  If you feel safe and choose to respond directly to harassers, here are some general guidelines designed to keep you safe:

1.     Be firm.  Look them in the eye and denounce their behavior with a strong, clear voice. Many people prefer to name the behavior, for example, “do not comment on my body, that is harassment,” “Do not stare at me like that, that is harassment,” or a similar phrase. You can also simply say “that is not OK,” or “don’t speak to me like that.” Try out different phrases to see what feels natural to you.  The important thing is that you aren’t apologetic in your response in your statement.  Skip phrases like “I’m sorry, but…,” or “excuse me sir…”
2.     Don’t engage.  Harassers may try to respond to your firm response.  They may try to engage you in further conversation or even make fun of you. As tempting as it may be get into a verbal war with them, we don’t recommend it. The attention may further feed their abusive behavior.
3.     Keep moving. Once you’ve said your piece, keep it moving. Harassers don’t deserve the pleasure of your company.


There is no “perfect” response, because every situation is different and every person is different.  Here are some examples of responses from readers on our blog:

•      Self defense skills saved Caly from getting raped in El Paso. Now she carries pepper spray wherever she goes.

•      When  a man tried to grab her phone out of her hand “to put his number in it,” C from The Twin Cities started running.  A kind construction worker walked her home.

•      Ignoring the harasser on the street of Delhi did not work for Saaniya. She threw a rock at him after he asked for a “kissie.”

•      The stalkers disappeared when Sarah, from Alberta, reached a crowded place.

How else can I respond to street harassment?

To reduce your risk of trauma, there are many other ways you can respond that are equally as powerful as a “direct response” on a personal level, and also have the power to change the culture that makes street harassment acceptable to begin with.

No one has to do everything… but, everyone has to do something. We all can do our part to end street harassment.