A Guide to Fighting Street Harassment: How Bystanders Can Best Intervene on Behalf of Women Being Harassed
Street harassment in the Bay Area has gotten so bad that women are putting duct tape on their mouths, removing their clothes in public and holding silent protests with signs recounting the ugly and awful remarks male aggressors make to them on an everyday basis. Here we see a recent protest organized by Enough Is Enough, a Bay Area advocacy collective dedicated to combating street harassment. Female demonstrators took to SF streets wearing nothing but duct tape, underwear and their harrowing hand-drawn signs relaying the scary, predatory, and leering comments actually made to them by strangers—or in some cases, their best friends and lovers.
“I have had disgusting, sexual comments made to me on the street since I was pretty young,” says Ophelia Coeur de Noir, a local burlesque personality and co-organizer of Enough Is Enough. “The first incident of street harassment I remember happened when I was about eight years old living in a small town in New Jersey, delivering Girl Scout cookies around the corner from my house.”
Eight years old. Delivering Girl Scout cookies. Let that set in for a minute, people.
These women’s stories are a horrifying wake-up call to the pervasiveness of contemporary urban street harassment. The powerful anecdotes and observations compiled via the #YesAllWomen hashtag ought to be required reading for anyone with a pulse. But offline activism and fighting harassment in real life are still difficult to manage no matter how many insightful tweets or Facebook posts you’ve read.
Anybody who’s spent any period of time on Mission Street knows it’s a damned tricky challenge to determine whether and how to intervene when you see someone getting blatantly victimized. So I asked few victims and experts how we random bystanders can best intervene on behalf of women we see getting harassed.
Why Enough Is Enough
The world needs another guy telling a #YesAllWomen anecdote like Oakland mayor Jean Quan needs another cell phone in her car. So let’s hear it from the women themselves, in advance of their Enough is Enough Independence Day event on July 4 in Oakland.
Suzil von Schtupt, Enough is Enough co-organizer, recalls getting harassed by randos since she was just 14. “At first it started with a car full of men driving past me and honking,” she recalls. “I kept walking to discover that they had pulled up ahead, gotten out of their car and waited for me. As I walked by them, all of their eyes were glued to me and they shouted a lot of things and tried to get me in the car with them. I ran away as fast as I could and hid in a nearby restaurant.”
Her sign recounts the words one guy yelled to her 14-year-old self — “Hey baby, can I play with you?” The other remarks she has blacked out because the experience was so traumatic.
But why are these protestors wearing duct tape on the mouths and hardly any clothes? Why would women protesting harassment get practically naked on the street?
“We taped our mouths as a symbolic gesture of the silencing we feel in the types of situations that we presented in our signs,” Ms. von Schtupt says. And as for the semi-nudity, “Women are harassed and assaulted in a variety of outfits. I have been chased down the street in a full baggy sweatsuit with the hood pulled over my head, and also in a cute sundress and high heels. It doesn’t matter what we are wearing, or not wearing, it still happens to us.”
“It’s a symbolic gesture to show our vulnerability in these situations,” adds Ms. Coeur de Noir. “Sex is used to sell everything from shampoo to clothing to cheeseburgers. Why not turn that to our advantage? If we had stood, fully clothed, holding those signs, would anyone have paid attention? Maybe a few, but making it vulnerable and taking the stand with our bodies and owning it ourselves was much more powerful.”
How to Intervene on Street Harassment
We’ve all seen that one go down where some youngster accosts a woman he doesn’t know and starts demanding that she smile. She does not smile. So he starts having histrionics like he was Daffy Duck guest-hosting for Sean Hannity, getting increasingly riled up and aggressive in asking for a smile. He does not realize the irony of angrily shouting at someone in order to elicit a smile. Should bystanding strangers intervene on the not-smiling woman’s behalf?
There’s an outstanding set of Stop Street Harassment Bystander Tips that observes, “Over and over women who have been harassed felt shocked or betrayed when no one around stopped to help.”
So should bystanders butt right in, read that harasser a riot act and perhaps refer unflatteringly to his mother? Not necessarily. If you’re going to intervene, your first priority should be to comfort the victim.
Marcia Baczynski, relationship coach and sex educator behind AskingForWhatYouWant.com says she does prefer for strangers to intervene on harassment situations on the bus or on the street. “If nothing else, it lets me know that I’m not making it up. I’m not crazy, I’m not imagining things, this situation really is fucked,” she says.
Ophelia Coeur de Noir details a few ways that bystanders have been able to effectively serve as good Samaritans.“I have had both men and women help me out,” she says, “by moving to the seat next to me, pretending they knew me and allowing me an out, walking me home or to the bus, calling out predators in public when possible.”
Ms. Baczynski adds a few good ones. “I ask, ‘What do you need?’ or ‘Can I get you something?’” she says, and also recommends offering to sit with the victim or walking her somewhere safe. “Letting her choose is really important.”
But seriously, make it a priority to not hit on the victim. Do not make attempts to impress her even the slightest flirt move will make her feel like she just acquired another harasser. As Zaron Burnett wrote in the celebrated Gentleman’s Guide to Rape Culture, “Since no woman can accurately judge you or your intentions on sight, you are assumed to be like all other men.”
Want to get some practice on what to do and say before busting out your strategies on Mission Street and beyond? The Hollaback Project is an online resource that aggregates women’s street harassment stories, and it’s updated constantly. Read a few of those and then say to yourself, “What would I do if I was there and saw this happen?”
How to Give Street Harassers Shit
I know, the temptation is to bust the harasser’s balls with some second-rate insult comedy or an Alan Alda-style empathy sermon. But you’ve really got to pick and choose your situations for those tactics, and recall that the attacker should not be your first priority.
“A lot of factors are at play [in engaging harassers]. Race, class, gender and size all play a role in how one would want to intervene,” notes Marcia Baczynski.
Consider your own personality type, strengths and weaknesses before calling out a harasser directly, and don’t jump in without first forming your exit strategy. I used to teach high school, so I have a comfortable schoolmarmy, finger-wagging formula speech that goes along the lines of “Young man, she’s not responding because you’re being rude. Now pull up those pants while I change the subject in order to de-escalate so you can save face.”
This works comfortably for me with younger harassers in their teens or 20s. But if the harasser is a crazy old insane person late night on the 14 bus, I know I don’t have a good skill set for engaging that kind of aggressor. So it’s better that I don’t.
Ms. Baczynski recommends some nice generic lines that work across many situations. “‘Guy, that’s not cool’ goes a long way,” she says.
She also recommends subtle methods of getting other bystanders involved. “You can confront [the harasser] directly, or comment to the person next to you, ‘God, isn’t that rude?’,” she notes. “Then you have someone with you.”
But do be mindful to not escalate the situation, which may traumatize the victim more. “I don’t want someone coming in and making the situation worse,” Ms. Baczynski says. “I don’t want their ego being involved, or them trying to prove something to me or something to the other person.”
“The point is not to prove yourself right, it’s to get someone in a safe position.”
Ophelia Coeur de Noir offers some preventive insights. “I noticed I don’t get bothered as much when I walk around with one of my giant dogs,” she says. “But I shouldn’t have to walk around with a 70-pound husky, shepherd or pit bull to not get bothered on the street.”
Additionally, I am told that something called reverse catcalling can be used to great and humorous effect. And some wise-aleck who goes by Sugar Tits on Twitter also observed, “’I have a boyfriend’ is more likely to get a guy to back off than ‘no’, because they respect other men more than women.”
What if the Harasser is Your Friend?
Bet I’m not alone in having guy friends who’ve had awful social media responses to #YesAllWomen posts, or worse yet, been exposed with histories of harassment now that women are speaking up about it more. Should I unfriend these guys, both online and off? Or should I go the Sister Helen Prejean route and try to empathetically reform their behavior?
Ostracizing a guy won’t necessarily teach him a lesson. “Shunning or ostracization is a very powerful tool,” Marcia Baczynski says. “One thing that gets missed when you use ostracization is that [aggressors] never find out what it was they did that was incorrect, because they never have anyone compassionately explaining to them what it is people wish this guy would stop doing.”
“The main thing is making a distinction between the human being and the behavior,” she adds. “You have to stress that the behavior is completely fucking unacceptable”
So you can offer your support and remain friends with the guy if you feel he’s reformable. But you can’t volunteer anyone’s support except your own, and he’s still going to have to sleep in that shat bed he made. Your friends, community or a certain event have no obligation to ever let him back.
Ms. Baczynski recommends a dynamite script for talking it out with a friend who has a harassment streak. “We can take time to work on this, but you may never be allowed back,” she says. “This is what you did, it’s not okay. I’m not telling you so you can come back to this event. I’m telling you this because I care about your life.”
“When somebody does something inappropriate, it’s okay to say ‘No, he can’t come back’,” she emphasizes. “Especially if there are a lot of survivors in that community.”
The Enough is Enough website has a sensational list of resources for fighting street harassment, and they’re holding another rally against street harassment on July 4 in Oakland. Stop Street Harassment has some great street harassment prevention stories that I found super-instructive. There’s plenty we broke-asses can do make women’s time on our cities’ streets and buses more peaceful, calm and happy.
But please, don’t ask them to smile.