No 'right way' to deal with street harassment but here are tips, experts say

Do you yell back? Or just walk away? Here are some strategies to respond and deal with street harassment.

Anita Roberts, the founder of Safeteen, provides three strategies for women and girls to respond to harassment

Marie Laguerre, left, in red, reels from a slap to the face from a man she told to stop harassing her. (Marie Laguerre/Facebook)

It can be a catcall or a whistle. It can happen at the library, grocery store, park or crosswalk — street harassment is still a problem that plagues women, girls and gender non-confirming individuals.

"I think one of the most common ways that people experience it is through things like catcalling, people yelling remarks from cars, whistling, saying things about peoples' bodies," said TK Pritchard, the public education manager at the Waterloo region's sexual assault support centre.

Pritchard said harassment can also be someone following another individual home or to the place they're going to. 

"Just a lot of ways that make people uncomfortable when they're moving through public spaces," he said.

'A daily experience' for women and girls 

Anita Roberts, the founder of Safeteen — an organization focusing on violence prevention and education based in Vancouver — said harassment is "a daily experience for the vast majority of girls and women." 
Anita Roberts is the founder of SAFETEEN, a violence prevention and education organization based in Vancouver, BC. (Submitted by SAFETEEN)

"It's a daily experience of being assessed," she said.

"They're...being catcalled, being rated from one to ten, having to deal with the most gross gestures, words, sneers, approaches from men on the street to and from wherever they're going in their lives," said Roberts. 

Just recently, a 22-year-old woman was struck in the face by a man she told to stop harassing her at a coffee shop in Paris. 

Roberts said that shows the "entitlement" men can have. 

"The whole thing is extremely damaging for girls and women... there's this addiction to the male gaze," she said. 

Pritchard said street harassment is about power.

"We often see it coming from groups of people, often groups of men in vehicles, yelling from the window, using that power because they think that it's funny or it shows other men in their lives how manly they are," he said. 

"It's not a compliment, it's a use of power that often means people feel scared, uncomfortable, angry or just unsafe in their community." 

No 'right way' to respond 

Pritchard said there is no "right way" to deal with street harassment. 

"The problem happened in the first place," he said. 

TK Pritchard is the public education manager at Waterloo region's sexual assault support centre. (Submitted by TK Pritchard)
"Some people are going to yell back at a person or... continue on and pretend like it's not happening. There's a lot of different ways that people are going to, in the moment, process street harassment." 

"There's no right way to do that, people are going to think about their safety and think about the way that works best for them," Pritchard said. 

Roberts also said there is "no magic" solution that will ensure someone to not act violently, but she's been delivering workshops to women and girls across the globe to give them assertiveness skills training for nearly 40 years. 

"Violence against women is so huge and yet we continue to send our little girls out in the world every day without skills to deal with what might seem like simple harassment, to actually sexual assault," she said. 

Tips and strategies 

According to Roberts, here are a few strategies that women can use when street harassment happens to them. 

1. Give "the look." Maintain direct eye contact and a neutral face with the person or persons harassing you. "This look communicates to the person, 'hello, there's somebody home, I'm not an object, I'm not comfortable with this. I don't like it, I don't want it," Roberts said.

2. Put your hand up and raise it in front of you to signal stop and show your boundary. "Internationally — it crosses all cultures and boundaries and languages," said Roberts.

3. Use "I" statements to communicate your message across while maintaining a neutral face and tone. Examples of statements are "I want you to move away from me," or "I didn't like that comment." Repeat your message three times, be clear and be firm. Do not engage or provoke the person harassing you. 

And most of all, Roberts said women need to trust their gut instinct.

"I always say if you feel it, face it and don't ignore it. If he's sitting too close, you need to turn around, put that hand up and say, 'I don't like how close you're sitting to me," she said. 

"It sounds so simple, but it counters all of our socialization as girls and women so it can be extremely hard to do and practice," Roberts said. 

Bystanders can help 

Pritchard said there's also a role that bystanders can play to help with the situation. 

"If you're walking along and you see someone get catcalled, then maybe that's the moment where you can step in and say, 'that wasn't okay' or 'just stop,'" he said. 

Pritchard said offering support to the person who experienced street harassment can also help. 

"Being able to let them know, 'hey I saw that happen, is there anything I can do for you, I'm really sorry that happened' — recognizing that as bystanders, there are things we can do," he said. 

Pritchard said those who have experienced harassment can also call the SASC 24-hour support line to share their feelings and talk about their experiences, as well as get access to other resources.