💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.
Just about any woman can remember a time when a man made them uncomfortable. Maybe it was an unwanted person staring at them while they were on the subway, or maybe it was some suggestive comment they heard as they were walking to the grocery store.
Sexual harassment isn’t only experienced by women, but for most, it’s not a question of whether it has happened, but how old they were when it first did.
Enter Watch Out Philly. The Instagram account allows people throughout the city to anonymously share the sexual harassment they’ve faced in public, as a way to warn others. Over the past year and a half it’s grown to 23k followers, spotlighting harassers who range from strangers on the street to Uber drivers to people on dating apps.
To spread the word, victims direct message the account with specific details about where the offense took place and what happened. Often, if victims feel safe enough to record, they’ll send a photo or video of the suspects as a way to clearly identify them.
There isn’t any other account like this in Philly right now. Some high schools and universities have similar versions where women share information about the harassment they’ve faced, but the perpetrator is not usually identified.
On Watch Out Philly, the harasser is directly called out and identified. There’s no way to hide.
The account’s creator, who wishes to remain anonymous to avoid being targeted, started it in November 2020 after noticing how people in different neighborhood Facebook groups posted about the same person. (Police ended up arresting Steven Ditty on charges of stalking and grabbing women)
They envisioned Watch Out Philly as a “one stop shop” for people to get information about potential suspects in specific areas of the city.
“We have to look out for each other. Women need to be there for each other. We are each other’s number one supporters, because we’ve all experienced street harassment,” the account creator said. “I don’t know of one person who wants a negative incident that happened to them to happen to anyone else.”
After moving to a home in North Central a year ago from Cocoa Beach, Florida, Rose Nunes was trying to find Instagram pages to stay up to date with what was going on in the city. She started following Watch Out Philly because it was the only account she saw talking about people’s safety.
It was validating for Nunes to see people had shared some of her same troubling experiences, and were doing the best that they could to keep others throughout Philly safe.
“There’s nothing more important in a community than us keeping each other safe if that’s within our abilities,” said Nunes, 23, an intern at Drexel’s Healing Hurt People Peer Support Program. “People don’t really look out for us except for each other and to see that at such a wide scale, and on an accessible platform was really nice.”
Police may not be the answer
Eighty-one percent of women across the U.S. have reported experiencing sexual harassment, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
Verbal sexual harassment is the most common form reported, followed by physical sexual aggression, like being sexually touched in an unwelcome way, being followed, or being flashed or shown genitals against their will.
Watch Out Philly encourages victims who want to report their experience to the police to do so. Many women don’t want to, however, because apart from being forced to retell the experience over and over again, they often fear being scrutinized or doubted, said Jim Willshier, the Chief Public Affairs Officer for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape.
Alternatives for victims include reaching out to rape crisis centers to get counseling, seeking different medical options through community groups, or finding legal assistance in dealing with the situation. Sometimes people just need the ear of a friend.
“If someone comes forward to you, make sure you’re in a place to listen.” Wilshire said. “You don’t have to give solutions, you don’t have to tell them what to do. The biggest thing is to hear them and say ‘I believe you.’ ”
People can also share their story with Watch Out Philly, to help others avoid being harassed in the same way. When victims send a direct message, the account posts it as an anonymous Instagram story, so other followers have a chance to send in any additional identifying factors about the suspect. Once there’s enough information, the account makes an Instagram grid post people can share with their own followers.
The account has sometimes gotten Ring doorbell camera footage from nearby homes or security footage from local businesses that further confirm the victim’s stories.
“It’s truly a community of people helping other people,” said the Watch Out Philly creator.
Liem Ho finds it comforting to have a space where people can look out for one another. The 26-year-old recently moved from NYC to Old City, and said they never saw mutual aid like this before.
“What’s really special about a city like Philly is that for a city of it’s size there feels like a stronger sense of community,” said Ho, who said they work in nonprofit consulting. “It’s nice to see a community of people coming together to look out for one another.”
Most of Ho’s friends are women, and share information with one another through the Citizen app or with the Nextdoor app. Ho thinks Watch Out Philly is more actionable, because it empowers more people to speak up and it directly targets suspects.
The account can get upwards of a hundred direct messages a day which is hard for the creator, who is currently the only person handling them, along with having a full time job.
To keep motivated and not succumb to the pressure of keeping the account active, they keep a folder full of positive messages they get from followers, as a reminder of the work they do.
“If I can help one person,” said the Watch Out Philly creator, “that’s worth it for me,”