I Yell Back at Street Harassers; Here’s What Happens

By: Emma Jones

I was groped when I was 11. I was walking down a busy street with my mom when an old man grabbed my ass and walked right past me, like nothing had happened.

The only thing I was carrying was an umbrella, so I used it to hit him in the back of the head and yell at him the worst word I knew at the time: “Son of a bitch!”

He turned around like he was ready to hit me, and a street food vendor stepped in. “What, are you going to hit a little girl after you touched her? I saw you,” he told him. The guy tried to deny it, but walked away when people started to circle him.

“Good for you! You should always stand up for yourself” the street food vendor told me and high-fived me. My mom, who initially had no idea why her daughter was physically fighting a grown up man, told me “You need to be careful, what you did is dangerous and you can get hurt doing that.”

Technically, they were both right; but what I learned from seeing their completely different reactions to the incident is that men stand up for themselves (and sometimes for others) and celebrate doing so. Women, on the other hand, are taught that standing up for themselves is dangerous and they should be afraid of it.

That episode pretty much determined my future approach to catcalls, which (lucky me!) I discovered just a couple of years later.

The first time it happened, I was walking home in school uniform, and some guy told me very close to my ear that he wanted to kiss a certain part of my body. Just like that, I learned about this thing called oral sex – thanks so much, random creepy dude, I couldn’t have asked for a better start to sex education.

I did not say anything to him. I was just thinking “Wait, what?!” as he walked away.

The next time it happened, I told the harasser, “You realize I am a minor, right? Why are you telling me these things?” But he kept telling me more things and I realized that he was actually enjoying seeing me angry, so it hit me: They harass to feel powerful, but I can crush that power feeling by making them feel angry instead.

Since then, my policy is to never take street harassment silently or act like it is not happening, because that is just an incentive, an invitation for them to continue doing it. Instead, I play with their insecurities.

If the guy is bald, has a beer belly, is sweaty, has yellow teeth, a scarred faced, a low-level job uniform, a bad accent – any insecurities that may be at the root of why he needs to exercise power over women to make himself feel like less of a looser – I use it against him. The more emasculating, the better.

I have told some of these guys that their bodies are so disgusting they should think about killing themselves; that they should be embarrassed of talking without having an education or a decent job; or “Sorry you’re not getting any, man, I’m sure things will get better one day or you'll get used to it.” I address them in an assertive but dispassionate way. Sometimes with a pity look on my face. Except if I am having a bad day, in which case “expletive, super expletive, expletive” may be my immediate reaction.

No, it is not polite to say mean things. I do not say them to people I know. But street harassers? These cowards are asking for it, as far as I am concerned.

What is their reaction? First surprise at being confronted, and then anger, which means I took their enjoyment of the situation, as is my number one goal. Score! It is like domesticating an animal: they need to know that certain actions will bring them negative experiences.

The most common reactions are silence or “Who do you think you are.” “Bitch,” and “whore” are not rare, which I may respond to by showing them a finger without looking back. Other times I hear their friends making fun of them.

Only in one case a man got so angry he started to aggressively walk towards me, but I showed him the mace spray I had in my hand and he walked away. Plus, I felt safe because I was very near my office, which has security staff at the door.

This may not be the most dignified or ladylike part of my personality. My parents and husband would prefer I don’t use words and gestures that are “beneath me,” but, personally, I prefer fighting in any way I can than lowering my head to sexual harassment.

Or course, I use common sense. I may not be so confrontational with someone who looks like a dangerous criminal in a lonely alley. And occasionally, a man comes up with a genuinely funny, non offensive line and I may just laugh it off.

Luckily, I now live in a city where I rarely see harassment (apparently, such cities do exist!) but, like many women, I have become very good at spotting harassers and avoiding their path. I also tend to walk like “I mean business,” as a cop once advised, and I walk around with headphones and sunglasses a lot, which I have found is less appealing to harassers because they don't know if you can see or hear them.

My hope is that more women find their own way to actively fight street harassment right when and where it happens, based on their own personalities and on what makes sense in their contexts. Because a million little cuts can bleed a giant to death. 

And I think it is happening, especially when I hear cases like this woman in China who slapped and brought to the police the guy who groped her; this American model who elbowed, chased and yelled at a prankster who grabbed her; or these girls in Mexico, who chase and publicly embarrass harassers.

Even if they often choose to hide it, women are strong. Men - and women too - need to start getting used to it.



Emma is a journalist based in Washington DC. She has worked investigating corruption, doing comparative research on anticorruption laws and practices around the world, and is currently doing a PhD focusing on journalism, accountability mechanisms and technology. @intj_jones

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