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Street Harassment: Fight Back
Margaret Rose Heftler

Author Holly Kearl had a suggestion for young women being harassed. Do “anything you can do to surprise them [because] they won’t know how to react. They are taking power away from you so do whatever you can to take that power back. For me it works to have a go-to phrase.... I say, ‘Hey, don’t harass women,’ and keep walking.”

Maybe the go-to phrase works for some girls, but I feel uncomfortable speaking up. I’m afraid I will escalate the situation. And because I am younger than most of the harassers, I feel like I don’t have the power to say anything. It is easier for me to ignore the comments.

What Can We Do?

So what else can we do to stop this problem? And by we, I don’t just mean women. I think that men need to imagine this happening to the women they care about, and think about how this affects the women in their lives.

Kearl talked about a workshop at Girls for Gender Equity, a Brooklyn-based youth organization that works to improve gender and race relations through community organizing and girl’s empowerment programs. The workshop is called “Bring Your Brother Day.”

“All these teen girls who were part of the program brought their brothers and had discussions about street harassment with them…. I thought that was a great way to let men know that, hey, this is happening to your sister....”

Though the boys who were willing to attend this program probably weren’t the ones doing much street harassment, I do think getting men to talk about masculinity and respect for women is a big step toward changing cultural attitudes. How can we reach a wider audience, though?


I also spoke with Emily May, the co-founder and executive director of Hollaback!, an organization dedicated to end street harassment through “online digital storytelling.” If you have been affected by street harassment, you can go to or use their app to share your experience with harassment and read the stories of other women.

May said her organization is trying to change the conversation around street harassment. “First, get people to acknowledge that behavior’s not OK and to share their story,” she said. “Don’t keep it to yourself. The worst thing you can do is pretend it doesn’t hurt. I felt like I wasn’t a strong woman because it hurt me, but I know that’s not true.”

I read a few of the stories posted on Hollaback! and was amazed at how familiar they were. It made me feel like I was less alone. In particular, one New York City middle school student described how her cheerleading squad was practicing in Central Park one day when a group of young men started shouting sexual comments and eventually started masturbating in front of her and her friends.

“Some women say that the first time they felt like they were a woman was the first time they were harassed. When this happened, I didn’t feel and still don’t feel like a woman,” she wrote. “If anything, I feel more like a girl than ever. Because I felt small and young and a little defenseless, a little powerless. What I hate most is that the boys who were harassing us got away with it and will continue to get away with it.”

There were also inspiring stories of bystanders taking action to help women being harassed. One anonymous poster wrote, “I was with some friends walking along the street and this truck of guys slows down and they start whistling and making noises. This nice man came to our rescue and told them to ‘f-off’ and they drove away, but he got their license number and called the cops.”

Changing the Conversation

The movement to combat street harassment is growing. New York City Council Member Julissa Ferreras of Queens, who chaired the Committee on Women’s Issues, held the first City Council hearing on street harassment in 2010. Kearl, who spoke at the hearing, said it brought “a lot of visibility to the issue.… Men on the Council didn’t understand, didn’t think it was a big deal, but it was standing room only and people gave testimony for two hours. That made a statement for the whole City Council to see that street harassment is a big issue; it really does matter.”

In August 2013, Hollaback! connected the Hollaback! app to the New York City Council, allowing witnesses or harassees to send photos, reports, and locations of the incidents to City Council members.

Also, since the City Council hearing, the city placed anti-street-harassment public service announcements in the subway system informing people that they can report harassment to the police, and warning that sexual harassment is a crime in the subway system. These are steps in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go.

People need to stop viewing harassment of women on the street as complimentary or, at worst, a minor nuisance, and start seeing it for what it is: disrespectful, belittling, objectifying, scary, and sometimes illegal.

We need to create a public conversation about it and demand change. So, girls, if you have been harassed, even if it’s just a catcall that made you uncomfortable, talk about your experiences with your family and friends. You don’t have to stand up to the anonymous harasser directly if you’re uncomfortable, but just discussing how it makes you feel with your male friends might make them think twice about doing it, and it will help get
the message out that harassment is unwelcome.

And boys, if you participate in street harassment, recognize that it hurts girls. If you’re not a harasser, speak up against it. Together, we can create a more respectful society.

This article originally ran in YCteen.

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