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Street harassment in Philly: Unsafe, uncomfortable and untracked

There’s no way to quantify what may not even be illegal: “Sometimes it’s just annoying, and sometimes it’s terrifying.”

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Billy Penn Illustration
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This is the first installment in a series examining street harassment in Philadelphia.

When Caitlin walks through Philadelphia and a stranger makes a comment about her appearance, she flashes back to the time she thought she was going to die.

In the wee hours of the morning last summer when Caitlin pulled into a 7-Eleven in South Philadelphia, a man stood next to the building staring at her — exposing himself. She drove away, and five blocks later when she parked, the same man approached her passenger side window. He’d gotten in his own car and followed her. So Caitlin put the car in drive again and started booking it through South Philly, simultaneously dialing 9-1-1, blowing full-speed through stop signs and looking in the rearview mirror to see the man driving behind her still, all the while thinking: “This is it. This is how I’m out.”

Caitlin, a 22-year-old who requested Billy Penn withhold her last name, made it to Broad and Washington and lost the guy. Police never found him. But Caitlin hasn’t forgotten him. And she hasn’t forgotten the man who reached up her skirt on Pine Street last year. Or the man running by in Fishtown just last month who slapped her on the ass.

It’s made every “Hey, sexy” since that much worse.

“Now the line between a thoughtless idiot on the street and someone pathological has become a lot thinner,” Caitlin said. “It’s very much this feeling of: Who is the next person who is going to try and hurt me?”

Street harassment is a common experience for women in Philadelphia just trying to commute to work or walk to school or run back home. It’s a pattern: Walk, get catcalled, feel uncomfortable, repeat. Some women say they’re subjected to a near-daily barrage of crude commentary from men on the street about their appearance that, at best, makes them feel annoyed. At worst, it makes them feel unsafe in their own skin. And for women like Caitlin who have been subjected to some form of groping or stalking or sexual assault before, even seemingly benign street harassment can turn traumatic.

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No one has any idea really how often it happens. Police in Philadelphia can’t say how many reports of street harassment they field. In many cases, a vulgar comment hurled at a woman — even one that can lead her to adjust her own behavior to avoid situations where catcalling might happen — isn’t a crime, anyway.

Dozens of women in Philadelphia told their stories of street harassment to Billy Penn, ranging in severity from men who leer at women as they walk by to those who physically touch women on the street when they don’t respond to advances.

The consensus was harrowing: The people, mostly women, subjected to a deluge of largely verbal attacks don’t know what to do or how to respond when they feel unsettled, powerless or violated by someone on the street. And they don’t know when that catcall is going to turn into something worse.

“I walk down the street,” Caitlin said, “and I’m reminded that I am a woman. Every day.”

An ‘invisible’ issue

“It happens far more frequently when it’s warmer. It doesn’t matter what I wear, although attention-grabbing outfits do seem to make my harassers feel encouraged. It’s happened to me all over the city regardless of neighborhood — when I walk, on my bike, and on the subway or bus. Most people just rudely comment on my appearance. A few people have stopped me or physically blocked my path to try to talk to me. Ignoring it doesn’t always help. Addressing it can make the situation worse. The way I define street harassment is when a stranger comments on my physical appearance without any introduction (e.g. saying hello) or in a manner which is socially inconsistent with the situation or both. At best, it makes me feel uncomfortable. At worst, I feel unsafe.” – Katie Pizziketti


When Stephanie Zeppenfelt was living in Center City just a few years ago, she wore a ring her mother gave to her on her left ring finger. She wasn’t engaged to be married. But she believes it might have helped deter men from accosting her on the street.

Today, Zeppenfelt, 34, lives in Mt. Airy and doesn’t wear that fake wedding ring anymore. She says the street harassment she experienced has dramatically subsided since she moved. But it’s led her to reflect on the harassment she experienced for years and the ways she changed herself in order to avoid it.

“You get so used to it that you start to expect it,” she said. “And when it doesn’t happen anymore, you realize how you kind of changed your behavior because of it in the past.”

“Street harassment” has a loose definition. The national advocacy group Stop Street Harassment defines it as catcalls, sexually explicit comments, sexist remarks, homophobic slurs, groping, leering, stalking, flashing and assault. And the group says almost all women and some men will experience some form of gender-based street harassment at some point in their lives.

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Holly Kearl, the founder and executive director of Stop Street Harassment, said harassment, especially of strangers, often isn’t about the woman, but rather about a harasser — usually a man — exerting power or influence. She said street harassment is largely a “symptom of sexism, racism and homophobia.” But harassment that doesn’t turn especially violent doesn’t often grab headlines.

“It can feel like a lower-level issue, even though it’s a daily occurrence,” she said, “and it gets brushed down as a low priority.”

Katie Pizziketti, a 25-year-old who lives in South Philadelphia, said for her, street harassment is an “invisible issue” because usually when it happens to her, she’s alone. Some people make a crude comment about her appearance. Some have physically blocked her on the sidewalk.

“It often seems as though it’s just a fact of life for me because I am a woman,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just annoying, and sometimes it’s terrifying that this happens to me, and I worry for my own safety.”

Others have expressed similar sentiments — a feeling of inevitability. Beth Huxta, a 33-year-old mother living in Fishtown, had for a long time chalked up street harassment to just a part of life for women. After recent reflection, she became frustrated that harassment she was subjected to throughout her life was considered “normal.” She wants everyone to know that it’s not.

“A lot of women just want to go about their day,” she said. “I just want to go walk down the street and just not be bothered. I just want to be left alone.”

Lack of data = lack of understanding

There have been very few comprehensive studies that have analyzed gender-based street harassment, meaning there’s little data about its frequency. In 2014, Stop Street Harassment conducted a national survey of 2,000 people that found that two-thirds of women had experienced street harassment, and a quarter of all women had been sexually touched by a stranger on the street.

Locally, a survey conducted by a Philadelphia-based advocacy group in 2013 found that 93 percent of more than 400 respondents said they had been harassed in the past year. Almost one in five of those respondents said it happened daily.

Philadelphia Police have no way of discerning how many reports they have fielded because there’s no specific crime for “street harassment.” The Department keeps statistics using Uniform Crime Reporting codes, a federal standard, and there’s no UCR code for street harassment. Most cases would fall under harassment, assault, terroristic threats and the like. Based on what the person said, there could be no crime committed at all.

Capt. Sekou Kinebrew, who leads public information for the Philadelphia Police Department, said what a person believes might be street harassment could actually be a series of offenses — or not. Police walk a line of balancing fielding reports about offensive behavior and protecting the constitutional right to free speech. If there’s no violence, stalking or repetition involved in the harassment, it might not be actionable.

“You are allowed to say things,” Kinebrew said. “Even sometimes if they’re crude. That doesn’t mean the police can just come and arrest you.”

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When Kearl began doing research on street harassment a decade ago for her Master’s thesis, there were only a handful of academic studies. Most of them were researchers interviewing people on the street.

Today, she encourages groups to perform their own local surveys or hold public forums and story collections to get a better sense of what’s happening locally. She’s not going to count on police tracking the frequency or severity of street harassment, saying she would be “really surprised if anyone is tracking this well.”

“I don’t know why a man would be allowed to say an inappropriate thing on the street,” Kearl said. “Why does that trump my right to feel safe?”

Street harassment and an ‘unsafe’ feeling

“Last April I was walking to my home on the Fishtown/ Port Richmond border when I passed a man on a bike riding in the opposite direction as I was walking. He turned around and started biking in my direction. A few blocks later I saw him up against a wall as I was crossing the street, staring at me. After walking a few blocks I saw him in between two cars, in front of me, jacking himself off. As I made eye contact and realized what was happening he said ‘oh yeah baby.’” – Jaime


Jaime, a 25-year-old who works in marketing and requested Billy Penn withhold her last name, used to see catcalling as pretty mindless. Sometimes when a man on the street told her to smile, she’d flash one at him. Usually she’d just ignore it.

That changed in April 2016. She was walking on the sidewalk on a Tuesday night around 10 p.m., and a man was in an empty parking space, on his knees, masturbating in front of her, saying “oh yeah, baby.” She ran, and for months didn’t feel safe walking around at night.

“Before that particular instance happened to me, I just thought catcalling was just an annoying thing,” she said. “But when this man exposed himself to me and stalked me on my way home, it became really personal and showed me how far it can be taken.”

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For many of the women Billy Penn spoke to, there was a fear of coming across as being dramatic. Under most circumstances, the comments they say they’ve been subjected to didn’t result in immediate danger. Some women said they fear that the men in their lives simply don’t understand the culture of fear and discomfort, even in broad daylight. Huxta said she can’t walk down a dark street feeling “totally fine and comfortable.”

“There’s an inkling of feeling unsafe because you just don’t know what these people are capable of, especially in groups,” Zeppenfelt said. “They could overpower you if they get that whole group mentality going on.”

Caitlin said like many women she’s spoken with about street harassment and catcalling, she can tell when it’s about to happen — when she’s walking down the street, makes eye contact with a man, and just knows something is coming. It’s primal, she said, “almost like my cat locking onto a toy he’s about to destroy.” She briefly prepares herself. But she’s still always caught a little off-guard, even when the comment is something that could be construed by some as a compliment.

“I don’t feel great when I’m walking down the street and someone says, ‘you have a really nice ass,’” she said. “I feel horrible. And I feel like I’m being watched in a really uncomfortable way.”

Katie Chockley, a 25-year-old who lives in West Philly and works at Penn, said she feels like women’s experiences with street harassment are often dismissed or not taken seriously.

“It’s hard when people are like, ‘oh, so somebody just gave you a compliment on the street? Why are you so upset about that?’” she said. “It’s like, no. I am afraid of male violence. Like a lot.”

Street harassment of minority and trans women

When the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference was held at the Pennsylvania Convention Center last fall, the catcalling and harassment — largely of trans women and by construction workers in the area — was rampant. It ranged from “those are men!” to “hey shortie with the fat ass.” According to Celena Morrison, a community engagement specialist with the Mazzoni Center, it got so bad that some of the attendees felt threatened, and representatives had to speak with the foreman at the construction site to get it to stop.

Morrison said street harassment of trans women in Philadelphia happens “all the time.” The trauma is exacerbated, she said, because a high percentage of the trans community experiences gender dysphoria, “so the anxiety is high.”

“When it happens to a trans woman, a lot of them immediately think ‘this can become violent,’” Morrison said, citing high rates of violence against trans women, particularly trans women of color. “That’s not to say it’s not scary for a cis woman. But for a trans woman, it’s a very, very, scary situation, because it can go from bad to worse in a matter of minutes.

Studies conducted about street harassment have concluded that those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are more likely to experience street harassment than their heterosexual or cisgender counterparts. A 2015 survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality reported that half of respondents — which included both trans women and men — reported being verbally harassed in the past year because of being transgender.

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Minority status, particularly race, is an important component. Two years ago, a viral video created by anti-street harassment organization Hollaback! aimed to lay bare the frequency of street harassment in New York. Problem was: It featured a white woman walking around being catcalled almost entirely by black and brown men.

Not only is there no evidence that black and brown men harass any more frequently than white men do, but there’s plenty of evidence to support that women of color experience even higher rates of street harassment. Stop Street Harassment’s 2014 study found that both black and Hispanic respondents reported experiencing verbally and physically aggressive harassment at rates higher than white respondents.

Feminista Jones, a nationally-known writer and activist who lives in North Philly and blogs about black feminism, said “there is nothing in our socialization that says ‘protect black girls and women,’ whereas white women are portrayed as damsels in need of saving.” She said black women who are harassed on the street oftentimes remain silent, because “black women exist outside of the beauty standard.”

“If they are larger or have darker skin they feel like, ‘who’s going to believe me?’” Jones said. “They don’t think anybody would care. But harassment is not about attraction or desirability. It’s about exerting control over people whenever you can.”

How to respond is up to you

“I have been catcalled and had lewd comments made to me at all times of year, no matter what I’m wearing, and how friendly I have been or not….Recently, at my first Phillies game, I was waiting at the entrance gate to meet a friend a few innings into the game, so there was hardly anyone else around. Two guys who had just come through the gate mistook me for a staff person, and asked where the bathrooms were. I laughed, said I had no idea because it was my first time at the park, and pointed them back to the staff at the gate. We had a good laugh in that moment, and then one of the guys turned back and walked right up to me, leaned in and whispered in my ear, ‘damn you look sexy,’ and then turned and walked away. I was stunned that so quickly we had gone from fellow baseball fans sharing a funny moment to being objectified and made to feel icky and super uncomfortable. I was really glad that my friend showed up at that moment, so that I didn’t have to walk back to my seat alone. There is a general sense that men are allowed to say whatever they want, and if I have an issue with it, somehow my response to them is the offensive and uncalled for part of the interaction, not their unsolicited critique of my body.” – Bethany


Some women have a go-to response to cat-callers. They flick them off. They return the “fuck you.” They make a joke about it. They tell them to stop. They say “thank you.” Others vary how they respond. Many ignore it entirely, or bury themselves in their headphones and hope it goes away.

A man recently said “Hey, sexy” to Chockley, to which she responded with the middle finger. She said she’s become so frustrated with the idea of street harassment that she’s now more likely to be assertive back, so as to not “feel shitty for having not done something.”

“It makes me feel more empowered to say, ‘no, I’m going to keep walking and flick you off and just ignore you,’” she said.

Kinebrew, of the Philadelphia Police Department, said in general, “people can handle it how they want.” For a person who appears to be aggressive, “don’t confront them, but find a safe place and call us.”

He said anyone who feels uncomfortable after experiencing any type of harassment should err on the side of contacting police, particularly if it’s recurring, there’s physical contact involved or someone is blocking a path of travel. He said no one has the right to find a way to stop a person while saying “offensive” things.

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Kearl, of Stop Street Harassment, said she doesn’t advocate for or against contacting police. She said sexism is present in police stations across the country, and she worries that sometimes working with officers can prove “problematic.” She doesn’t want women to face victim-blaming.

As for what women should do if they want to confront a harasser on the street, Kearl said something assertive like “back off” or “leave me alone” can surprise the person, leaving them too flustered to respond. A simple example is asking the person to repeat themselves, or loudly announce what they said or did so others around can hear it. Kearl’s go-to response tends to be “don’t harass me,” because “I’ve clearly labeled what they just did as harassment and they can’t argue.”

In addition, Stop Street Harassment has partnered with the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network to establish a street harassment hotline available by phone and secure chat.

But Kearl emphasized there’s no “right” way to handle harassment by a stranger.

“It’s such a tricky line to walk because you never know which harasser is going to escalate,” Kearl said. “Sometimes it feels like it’s a lose-lose situation. I recognize that, and whatever you decide to do is the right response.”

The bystander effect

“I have gotten harassed, followed, shouted at, and threatened by men in Philly my whole life. I’ve found that men usually yell at me if they are in a situation where I can’t respond, like driving by in a car, or waiting until the light is about to turn green when I’m on my bike next to them. They don’t want to give me a compliment or have a conversation, it’s all about throwing some verbal harassment at women and then getting to slink away without repercussions. One incident was particularly scary where two men followed me down into the BSL station and were making comments about my body and when I told them to ‘fuck off’ one of them said he should push me on the train tracks for being an ungrateful bitch. The three of us were alone in the station at night and I became aware of just how little power I had: I couldn’t even show that I was angry without potentially putting my life in danger.” – Anonymous


When Chockley was jogging along the Schuylkill River Trail two summers ago, a group of kids on bikes rode by her. One slapped her butt while riding by, and she broke out into a full sprint to try to chase them down. She couldn’t catch up to them, and immediately burst into tears.

That’s when another woman approached her.

“This nice woman came up to me and was like, ‘are you OK, I saw what happened and you should call the police,’” Chockley recalled. “That’s just not a thing I’m going to do, but I appreciated she came up and checked in.”

That’s the crux of Jones’ #YouOKSis effort, a social media campaign that aims to encourage people to check in with women who are harassed on the street. It started in 2014 when Jones took to Twitter to describe intervening in a street harassment incident in New York. When Jones walked by a woman she saw being harassed, she asked, “You OK, sis?” The man launched into a tirade directed at Jones, and the situation eventually cooled.

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But women responded to “You OK, sis?” suggesting that it become a hashtag and a movement of sorts to encourage women to look out for each other.

“There are ways of intervening and being a bystander,” Jones said, “without escalating a situation.”

Kearl said it’s ultimately up to men to be better bystanders and call out friends who harass on the street. For men, Kearl said, harassment often isn’t about the woman, but it’s about a man’s friends who are around him. She said she hopes if a man sees a friend harassing someone, they’d say, “hey, that’s not cool.” If a man isn’t getting a positive response from his friends, he might stop.

“The most powerful thing is guys checking other guys with this,” Chockley said, “because so often catcalling happens not just one man on his own, but it’s a group of men.”

How to end it? Start young

Huxta was admittedly a little scared when she found out she was pregnant with a boy. She didn’t want him to grow up and continue a cycle of gender-based harassment. Today, her son is 3. And she’s trying as hard as she can to teach him about respecting everyone, regardless of gender.

“I’m just trying to do my best to make sure he does not do that,” she said. “And if he does see someone do that, that he stands up against it.”

The general consensus among activists is that the best way to slow the rampant nature of gender-based street harassment is to start by educating children about respect. Jones said her 10-year-old son has witnessed her being harassed, so she tells him to never be like those men.

“It’s about teaching our young people how to handle rejection, and it’s teaching them about consent and hoping they change the culture,” Jones said, adding: “We need to start thinking about how we as a community can condemn this. If we come together and let people know this is some bullshit… if we could find a way to shame people as a community, then maybe people would think twice.”

The City of Philadelphia has attempted to address this issue before. In 2013, City Council held the country’s second-ever municipal hearing on street harassment at the request of then-City Councilman (now-mayor) Jim Kenney. It came about after Kenney fielded tweets from the former group Hollaback! Philly, which requested a Council hearing on the matter.

Nine people testified, and a video of other women describing their experiences was played. Activists urged the city to fund a local survey to collect data on the severity and frequency of street harassment in Philadelphia. A survey never happened.

Kearl said it often feels like there’s little that can be done to govern street harassment, but she said cities can provide funding or support to help advocates conduct studies themselves and continue regular data collection. She also recommended cities work with high schools and middle schools, as teenage girls in particular are often the target of street harassment from adult men.

“If more people recognize that, it would become more of a priority,” she said, “because adults who aren’t harassers are going to be horrified.”

Beyond inspiring grassroots activism and aiming to better educate young people, there are few prescriptions for how to address street harassment in a comprehensive, meaningful way. But most women agree: It can’t be just them.

“If this was an issue women could solve, we would have already solved it,” Pizziketti, of South Philly, said. “We need men’s help.”


Billy Penn is going to continue covering street harassment in Philadelphia. Tell us what you want to read about next.