A homeless, schizophrenic man harassed me on the subway two weeks ago. He asked for directions while I was on the platform, then asked for my number.
I wanted to say no, but I know women have been attacked for denying potential suitors, so I gave him a fake number.
He starts asking me about my life and telling me about his. As I passively listen and spout lie after lie, I’m scanning the train for someone, anyone, to help me out.
Onlookers noticed my discomfort, noticed him telling me he’s schizophrenic as he loudly rattled his pill bottles, noticed him follow me as I transferred from car to car, train to train, but said nothing. Did nothing.
After my third transfer, I finally shook him. As soon as he walked away, and the adrenaline settled down, I vowed to never be a passive bystander. Nobody should have to go through 30 minutes of bullshit alone. But I had no idea how to help other women, so I started talking to my good friend Google.
I immediately discovered that I’m not alone. Stop Street Harassment, a nonprofit aimed at ending sexual harassment in public places, conducted the first national study on street harassment in 2014. The study shows the astonishing prevalence of this issue, revealing that 65% of women and 25% of men in the United States have experienced street harassment.
And it often occurs during puberty. Another 2008 study surveyed 811 women and discovered that 1 in 4 women experienced street harassment by age 12, increasing to nearly 90% by age 19.
It’s clear to me this is a major issue in America. So what can we as women do to help each other out? Because nobody should feel as alone and ashamed as I did on that subway platform, especially someone as young as 12 years old.
So here are 4 tips that can help you, as a bystander, fight street harassment like a girl.
It can be a daunting task to intervene because you may not want to become part of the harassment. If all you feel comfortable doing is checking in with the victim afterwards and talking to her until her adrenaline pipes down, you’ll still make a huge difference.
Ask her if she’s OK or if she needs help. But, as Brian Martin, professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia suggests, if she says no, leave her be because, “you do not want to be another person intruding on her space.”
This is especially true if she’s been verbally or physically abused.
This is the one time being fake is acceptable. If you have the time, creating a distraction or interruption may help. The “fake friend” tactic is a popular one.
It asks that you play the role of a friend to the harassed person and talk as if the harasser isn’t there. This lets the harasser know his victim is not alone and may help the harassed person feel safer.
If you feel comfortable with a more direct approach, ask her “Is someone bothering you?” Simply asking that question may scare off the harasser.
And as Martin suggests, “If she says yes and the harasser does not leave or persists harassing, tell the harasser to stop or call for assistance (from police, a transit authority worker, or other people nearby).”
Acknowledging what has happened may help. If a woman says she has been harassed in a crowd, support her. Martin suggests commenting with supportive statements like, “Whoever did that, it is not welcome,” or “We do not tolerate that behavior.”
These proclamations not only support the harassed person, but lets everyone around know that it is not socially acceptable.
For more information on how you can be an advocate for street harassed persons, check out the Stop Street Harassment organization here.
And you don’t have to be a girl to fight street harassment like one. Men can play a role in ending harassment by enacting these very same tactics and more.
This experience has taught me so much. As someone who developed at a very early age, I’m no stranger to street harassment. I recall grown-ass men verbally harassing me since age 10, if not younger.
I wish I was witty enough then to fight harassers like this girl, but with time comes wisdom. Now I have the knowledge to know this behavior is not OK.
It’s not some rite of passage women have to deal with. It’s not boys being boys. It’s not flattering. It’s wrong.
And if it does occur, it’s not something anyone should have to deal with alone.