Credit: Billy Penn Illustration

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You know those times when you’re deep in thought, imagining yourself winning a fake argument that will never actually happen? The comebacks are quick, cutting and on-point.

In some ways, that’s what it’s like for women who are harassed on the street by strangers who comment on their appearance, ask them to smile or say something more sinister. Billy Penn heard from dozens of women who have been harassed on the street in Philadelphia for the first installment of our special project on street harassment, and many told us they’re often too startled to respond to a harasser on the spot, but then later come up with what they believe might have been the perfect response: a scold, a finger or a stinging comment back.

In reality, experts and advocates agree there is no perfect response for victims of street harassment or the bystanders who watch it happen. But after we published our first report on street harassment, we heard from countless readers — men and women alike — who didn’t need to know the best way to respond, but just wanted a way to respond.

After speaking with experts and advocates from across the country, we’ve come up with a list of ideas for how to respond in the event you’re the victim of street harassment or are watching it happen. The most important piece to remember for those who experience street harassment: How you respond is up to you.

“Whatever you decide to do is the right response,” said Holly Kearl, executive director of national advocacy group Stop Street Harassment. “It’s a terrible situation, and you’re doing the best you can, and I want to acknowledge that.”

Strategies for those who experience street harassment

1. If you want to verbally respond on the spot

If you feel safe enough to respond on the spot to a person who is harassing you on the street, there are ways to calmly go about that without using insults or escalating a situation. Kearl said her go-to response is often “don’t harass me,” because “I’ve clearly labeled what they just did as harassment and they can’t argue.”

Some other ideas for what you can say, courtesy of Stop Street Harassment and Martha Langelan, author of the book Back Off: How to Confront and Stop Sexual Harassment and Harassers:

  • Call out the harassment: “Do not whistle at me, that is harassment,” or “Do not touch my butt, that is sexual harassment.”
  • Tell them what you want: “Move away from me,” “stop touching me,” or “go stand over there.”
  • Short, sweet and to the point: “Show some respect!”
  • If others are around: “Man in the yellow shirt, stop touching me.”
  • Stop Street Harassment calls this the “Ms. Manners” approach: “I beg your pardon!” or “I can’t believe you said that,” or “You must have me confused with someone to whom you think you can speak that way.”

And some tips for how to speak to a harasser, courtesy of Stop Street Harassment:

  • Use strong body language, project confidence and stay calm.
  • Don’t apologize. No need to say you’re sorry for stating how you want to be treated.
  • Avoid responding to guilt-tripping by the harasser. State your piece and get out if the harassment continues.
  • As hard as it seems, try not to swear or lose your temper. This can help avoid escalation.

2. If you want to report the harasser to police

There’s plenty of debate over whether or not those who experience street harassment should report what happened to them to local authorities. Capt. Sekou Kinebrew, who leads public information for the Philadelphia Police Department, told Billy Penn that 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.”

Other advocates said they don’t encourage women to report to police one way or another — some fear women can face victim-blaming. If you want to report to police, know ahead of time that they may not be able to do anything right off the bat if the harassment was verbal. But getting a serial harasser on police’s radar could be helpful down the line should that person continue to harass.

In addition, Pennsylvania has an ethnic intimidation statute, so if a harasser is intimidating you based on race, religion or national origin, you can report that to police, as well. Here’s a full primer on which Pennsylvania laws might apply.

3. If you want to tell the harasser’s employer

Harassed by someone on the job? If they have an identifiable company they work for, call or email their company and let the higher-ups there know what happened. Advocates say even threatening to report harassers to their company bosses can help curb their behavior. Here are some examples of how that can work.

4. If you want to hand the person some helpful literature

Don’t want to speak to your harasser? We totally get it. Give ‘em one of these handy little fliers that gives them information about harassment. A group called “Cards Against Harassment” created these little printable, business-card-sized hand-outs to give to harassers. Here’s an example:

5. If you want to ignore it entirely

Ignoring street harassment is always an option. Kearl said women should never feel obligated to respond in any way at all.

Credit: Billy Penn Illustration

Strategies for bystanders

1. Ask the person being harassed if they want help

If you witness a person being harassed on the street, one of the easiest ways to get the harasser to lay off is asking the person being harassed if they are OK or if they need help. Men acting in this way can be particularly powerful, as it’s often men doing the harassing and women receiving it. If the harassment persists, try to ask the person being harassed if they would like you to contact authorities.

An important point from Stop Street Harassment: If the woman says “no,” be sure to leave. No need to be another person intruding on the person’s personal space.

2. Create a distraction

You can try to create a distraction in a non-confrontational way — the most important thing here is safety — by engaging with the person who is being harassed. Ask the person what time it is or for directions to your favorite lunch spot. Any way to converse with them might get the harasser to quit it.

Some experts have recommended using the “fake friend” tactic, meaning going up to the person being harassed, acting oblivious to what’s happening and just talking to the person.

3. Call out a supportive comment

This strategy works best in large crowds. If you see a person being harassed by a stranger and they’re clearly uncomfortable or fighting back, call out the harasser and say something like: “Whoever did that, it is not welcome,” or “We do not tolerate that behavior.”

4. Tell your friends catcalling ain’t cool

Advocacy group Men Can Stop Rape suggests that if men see their friends harassing women on the street, they should make it clear “That’s not cool” and, if it continues, by getting out of the situation and walking away. As one woman told us: “If this was an issue women could solve, we would have already solved it. We need men’s help.”

5. Ask: #YouOKSis?

Feminista Jones, a nationally-known writer and activist who lives in North Philly and blogs about black feminism, started the #YouOKSis effort, a social media campaign that aims to encourage people to check in with women who are harassed on the street.

The idea is that during or after you see a woman harassed on the street, you ask them: You OK, sis? As Jones explained: “There are ways of intervening and being a bystander without escalating a situation.”

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.