When it comes to the issue of street harassment, you can’t really grasp what the problem is unless you’ve had to deal with it.
So for those of us who do know what being harassed is like, we often have to put up with not just the harassment, but also with dismissive attitudes doubting that it’s as bad as we say it is.
“What’s the big deal? Take it as a compliment!”
“Well, I wouldn’t mind if women were hitting on me all day.”
“Look what you’re wearing – what’d you expect?”
These comments are super frustrating. They invalidate our experiences, victim-blame us, and just plain miss the point. Plus, they have the dangerous impact of excusing the unsafe and often violent cultural norms that we’re surrounded by.
The truth is that street harassment is an even bigger problem than the mild annoyance a catcall might cause in the moment. It’s part of a culture of normalizing the idea that women exist solely for the sexual pleasure of men.
Many women and people gendered as women have to do some ridiculous things to try to avoid being harassed.
And women and non-binary people with other marginalized identities often have another layer of harassment to navigate, like how women of color deal with racialized sexism and trans women face danger of transmisogynistic violence.
Surveys show common experiences of trying to avoid harassment by changing our walking routes, avoiding walking alone, and more.
It should be enough that we are human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity, to have our boundaries respected, to say “no” without the threat of getting verbally assaulted, physically attacked, or even killed.
Unfortunately, that’s not the norm we’re living with. Instead, street harassment is so normalized that people put the blame on us as targets no matter what we do: Well, what’d you expect?
So I’d like to give you an idea of what I do to try to avoid harassment. The operative word here is “try” – because street harassment often remains a threat, even as I make an effort to avoid the daily discomfort and danger of it.
To be clear, I’m not saying that people targeted by misogyny shouldn’t do any of these things – I’m saying that we shouldn’t have to.
And in case you think we don’t really have to, that we just might be exaggerating or overthinking, I’ll include some context for why I do what I do.
These are just some of the strategies I try to avoid or safely navigate harassment. If nothing else, I hope you notice that it should be men’s responsibility to not harass me – not my responsibility to desperately try to avoid them.
1. Change My Walking Route
Ever had to factor street harassment into your travel time?
One time, I was just down the block from my office when a guy tried to convince me to get into his car. I walked past the office – I didn’t want him to see where I worked.
Nothing like taking a brisk walk around the block wondering if you’re about to get kidnapped to kick off the workday!
2. Walk with a Man
Because the only thing that can stop some men’s entitlement is the suggestion that another man has “claimed” me.
“I’m in a hurry” (so much for a leisurely stroll). “I’m going to meet my husband” (psst…I’m not married).
I have a story ready before I even leave the house.
Without a lie prepared, I might just blurt out the truth – and apparently I can’t tell a man I’m heading home without him taking it as an invitation to join me.
4. Pretend I Like the Harassment
It’s a special experience to sweetly coo “thank you!” when I’d rather say “fuck off.” But pretending I like being catcalled can sometimes appease a man enough to get him to stop – instead of following me with threats or insults.
You never know when a guy who’s never learned to handle rejection will turn violent if you don’t act flattered by his creepy behavior.
5. Look Tough
Am I scowling enough? Do I look like I know how to fight? I can only hope that I don’t look as helpless as I feel when I’m being threatened.
6. Choose a Different Mode of Transportation
The constant threat of street harassment is costing me money for more expensive modes of transportation – hopping on the bus instead of walking, or driving instead of taking public transit.
Like many of these strategies, this one doesn’t always work. Even parking half a block away from my destination leaves plenty of time for harassment.
7. Pretend to Know Strangers
If I had to name a “favorite” memory of street harassment, it would have to be the time when an old Russian woman at a bus stop told a man that I was her granddaughter, and to leave me alone.
We’ve got to look out for each other, and I’m not the only one to have a stranger instantly become a long-lost family member or friend to help fend off harassment. I’m grateful to my Russian granny for stepping up to protect me, but I wish she didn’t have to.
8. Decide If Police Will Make Things Better or Worse
I might feel better about being targeted by harassment or potential violence if I could trust a system designed to keep me safe – you know, like people say our criminal justice system is designed?
If I’m in a dangerous situation, I have to consider whether the police will help or hurt me, keep me safe or escalate the situation, protect the neighborhood or go on to profile people as criminals.
9. Wear Headphones
When a guy recently published advice on how men could get the attention of women wearing headphones, people were outraged for good reason.
He failed to realize the reason many of us wear headphones – avoiding being bothered by men.
Oftentimes, I don’t even have music playing. I just put headphones in my ears to create the appearance that I can’t hear or don’t want to listen to anyone.
10. Avoid Wearing Headphones
Welcome to the persistent theme of trying to avoid being harassed – you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. In just one of many examples, I never know if wearing headphones will help or hurt me.
Avoiding headphones can help me feel safer. Since men are constantly feeling entitled to cross my boundaries, I want to be able to hear them if they’re around me.
11. Avoid Exercising in Public
I would jog more often if it wasn’t for the men who watch me bouncing like I’m in a Baywatch scene, and treat me like I’m exercising for their own entertainment.
12. Avoid Eating or Drinking When I’m Walking Alone
When a guy asked if he could “have some” as he watched me eating grapes, I thought to myself, of course, and saved my snack until I got home.
And don’t even get me started on the comments I’ve gotten while drinking from a straw.
13. Hide the Shape of My Body
Alicia Keys has talked about adopting a “tomboy” style to avoid harassment, and I can relate.
It takes some work to hide my curves, but sometimes I try – considering that if I wear something that accentuates my hips and breasts, harassers believe I’m dressed that way for them.
So I cover up, even on hot days. It’s a sad day for a femme when I can’t wear what makes me happy – but I’m forced to consider how happy I’d really be as the target of relentless harassment.
And still, even in my frumpiest outfits that cover me head to toe, I’ve been harassed.
14. Google ‘How to Avoid Street Harassment’
There’s not very much information available about how to avoid getting harassed – most resources are about how to respond. Because the truth is, there aren’t many options to actually stop it from happening.
15. Avoid Acknowledging Strangers
I felt bad for assuming that one guy was going to harass me when he asked for directions instead.
I didn’t feel bad anymore after I gave him directions and he asked if he could massage my feet, assuring me that we could take no more than two minutes to “get to know each other” if that was all the time I had.
To people waiting for a chance to harass you, any acknowledgement could mean that you’re giving them the opportunity. I shouldn’t have to avoid acknowledging people around me altogether in order to avoid getting harassed.
16. Turn Down Help
God forbid if I’m the one who needs help. Yes, I could really use a hand with these groceries, but no, I’d rather you didn’t help me, because I don’t know if you’ll use it as an excuse to make lewd comments.
17. Get a Mean-Looking Dog
I admit this one’s not only about street harassment – I also want a big dog for the cuddle perks. But a canine companion’s appearance could help fend off some unwanted attention.
When I was growing up, I had a Siberian Husky. He was the sweetest dog in the world, but people always said he looked intimidating, like a wolf.
I had this dog from the ages of ten through seventeen. I was a child – but I remember being grateful that he gave me a chance to stroll around my neighborhood without being bothered by men trying to hit on me.
18. Pretend to Be on the Phone
“What’s that, Mom? An emergency? Guess I better hurry home and I don’t have time to give for this man’s comments on my ass! That’s a shame…”
19. Avoid Being on the Phone
Fake Emergency Mom and I have lots of phone calls when I’m walking down the street, but if I’m talking to my real mom, I sometimes have to put her on hold.
I want to be vigilant about the constant threat of harassment, so while pretend calls can be helpful, real ones can feel like a dangerous distraction.
20. Say ‘I’m Taken’
I shouldn’t have to tell harassers that I have a partner, or lie and say that we’re married (because “I have a boyfriend” still isn’t enough of a hint for many guys).
But these men don’t back off out of respect for my boundaries. The ones who do back off (not all of them do!) do so only because of the idea that another man already “owns” me – and they still believe that any unclaimed woman is theirs for the taking.
I’ve also tried saying “I’m into women” – which isn’t a total lie, as I’m bisexual, attracted to people of all genders.
But that’s not guaranteed to work, either – even if they think I’m a lesbian, they fetishize the idea of two women together, and still interpret my existence as being only for their pleasure.
21. Avoid Respecting the Elderly
I don’t know about you, but I was raised to respect my elders. It’s second nature for me to exchange a smile with older folks.
I once walked by an old man who was sitting on a bench and reading a book of poetry. It was a peaceful sight amidst the bustling city around us, and I returned his smile as I passed.
That might have remained as a peaceful image in my memory, if not for the fact that he then invited me to sit on his lap.
I might have any number of reasons for not smiling on a given day. I could be in a bad mood for good reason, tired, or just want to give my face muscles a break!
But if I’m not smiling, it feels inevitable that a man’s going to tell me to. And “you’d be prettier if you smiled” is often just the start of a man’s suggestions on how I could please him.
Why should I appease him with a smile? Well, I shouldn’t have to – but there’s a chance that my smile will be the only reason I can walk away without being attacked or insulted by someone who thinks I’m a “bitch” for not smiling on his command.
23. Avoid Smiling
At other times, I have to keep my smile in check.
Reasons I might smile in public: A sweet text message from someone I love. A cute dog doing something goofy. A particularly good mood.
I mean, damn, what if a girl just wants to be joyful?
When I’m walking alone, I’ve learned that it’s not always safe to show joy. More than once, I’ve caught a man’s eye when I was smiling, and he took it as an invitation to harass me.
24. Stay Home
The only guaranteed way I’ve found to avoid street harassment? Avoid being in public at all.
25. Avoid Talking to Genuinely Nice Guys
Now imagine it’s you who wants to approach me on the street.
The way you see it, I should give you a chance. Why should I turn down your request to talk just because of all these other guys?
Well, considering these experiences I’ve had, I hope you realize it’s nothing personal if I turn down your request to talk.
I’m simply exhausted from the social norm that says men are always entitled to a woman’s time, body, and attention. I’m tired of the idea that I have to entertain your interest in me, even if I’d rather keep to myself.
You may be nice, but that doesn’t mean that I owe you a damn thing.
Another thing I shouldn’t have to do? Justify the measures I use to keep myself safe.
But I just wrote a whole article to do just that. Because so many guys – even “nice guys” – dismiss women and other people who are treated like society treats women when we talk about street harassment.
They say we just don’t know how to take a compliment. They that we’re exaggerating, that it’s no big deal, that it has nothing to do with a pervasive rape culture that says that women should simply expect to be harassed and assaulted if we’re not “responsible enough” to prevent it ourselves.
I could list many more strategies that I take to try to avoid it, but street harassment still follows me everywhere I go. This is what life is like for so many women and people gendered as women, and it’s absolutely ridiculous.
Maisha Z. Johnson is the Digital Content Associate and Staff Writer of Everyday Feminism. You can find her writing at the intersections and shamelessly indulging in her obsession with pop culture around the web. Maisha’s past work includes Community United Against Violence (CUAV), the nation’s oldest LGBTQ anti-violence organization, and Fired Up!, a program of California Coalition for Women Prisoners. Through her own project, Inkblot Arts, Maisha taps into the creative arts and digital media to amplify the voices of those often silenced. Like her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @mzjwords.
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