Right To Be
Responding to Public Harassment
The truth is that there’s no right or wrong way...

to respond to public harassment because harassment directed at you IS NOT YOUR FAULT. There’s no “right response” to something you never asked for in the first place. So it’s up to you how – and if – you respond. 

Before launching Right To Be in 2005 (back then known as Hollaback!), our founders tried every strategy in the book to directly confront those who sexually harassed them in public. They tried yelling at them, scolding them, educating them…but none of that seemed to work. Eventually, they decided that being “one-woman street harassment education machines” didn’t work because it didn’t hit the root causes of public harassment. Ending public harassment would require changing the culture that made it acceptable to begin with. Cultural change starts with people coming forward and boldly sharing their stories. And story by story, since 2005, we’ve been building the case for why public harassment is a big deal.

Why is it a big deal? Community organizer and activist Jessica Raven puts it best: 

Our Research on Public Harassment

In 2014, we joined forces with Cornell University to study street harassment and its effects in 42 cities all over the world. Our research showed that street harassment has both short- and long-term effects on those who experience it. In the short term, people who are harassed tend to experience feelings of anger, fear, and anxiety. In the long term, street harassment can contribute to depression and low self-esteem. 

That’s a pretty grim fact to face. But our research also showed that having some response to public harassment reduces its emotional impact. How you respond is up to you – but if you’re looking for ideas, we’re here to help you out. You can decide to respond directly to people who harass you. You can also choose to respond by taking action against the culture that makes harassment seem acceptable. Below we’ll share some examples of both approaches.

What Can Public Harassment Look Like?

INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence defines street harassment as “An interaction in a public space that makes you feel sexualized, intimidated, embarrassed, objectified, violated, attacked, or unsafe.”

Public harassment can be based on your race, whether you have a disability, your class, gender identity, or other social identities. It’s about power, and it serves to remind marginalized groups of their vulnerability to assault in public spaces.

Here are some examples of what public harassment can look like:

If you choose to respond, do it for you – and as long as you feel safe doing so.

If you feel safe responding...
Step 1: Trust Your Instincts

Trust Your Instincts. Listen to your gut. 

Remember: there is no “right” or “perfect” response to harassment, because there’s no “right” way to respond to something you didn’t want in the first place. 

Remember, too, that having some kind of response (either in the moment or later) can reduce the trauma associated with harassment. If you decide to respond, do it for you. 

It’s okay to do nothing. It’s okay to flip them off. It’s even okay to smile and keep walking. You get to decide what’s best for you.

Step 2: Reclaim Your Space

This one is optional. Your safety is the first priority. If you choose to respond in the moment, and feel safe doing so, keep reading for three ways you can reclaim your space: 

Reclaim Your Space by...
5d
Setting the Boundary.

Tell the person harassing you exactly what you want them to do and why. Look them in the eye and denounce their behavior with a strong, clear voice. Many people prefer to name the behavior. For example, you can say, “Do not [whatever they’re doing]; that’s harassment.” You can also simply say “that is not okay” or “don’t speak to me like that.” Say what feels natural to you. The key to setting your boundary is not so much the words you say–it’s how you say them. Our tips are: Don’t be apologetic in your response–because you don’t need to apologize to anyone for existing in public space–and don’t engage with them after you set the boundary. 

 

Oftentimes, people who harass may try to argue with you or dismiss you by trying to have further conversation or by making fun of you. It may feel tempting to get into a verbal back-and-forth with them, but we don’t recommend it. Here’s why: giving them any more attention may further feed their abusive behavior and cause the situation to escalate. Once you’ve said your piece, don’t give them any more of your precious time or energy.

5d
Engaging Bystanders.

Tell bystanders what’s going on and what they can do to help. Not all bystanders have been trained to respond, but typically people do understand that harassment is not okay, and do want to help you. What can you do to engage their instinct to help? One way is to loudly announce to people around you what the person harassing you just said or did, and identify them. For example, you might shout: “That man in the red shirt is following me. I need help!” Then tell people what you want them to do: for instance, “Can you wait here with me? Can you walk me to the corner? Can you call that security guard over to help me?” 

 

Remember that it’s okay to ask for help. It doesn’t mean you’re weak or can’t take care of yourself. In fact, it actually means you’re strong enough to recognize when someone is crossing your boundaries. You’re powerful for acknowledging that public harassment isn’t okay, and that it hurts.

5d
Documenting the Situation.

If you feel safe, consider taking a picture or video of your experience. You could ask a bystander to do this for you, too. Your documentation might include the person harassing you, their license plate if they have one, or the scene. Some people use photos or videos to report an incident. Others use it to share their story on social media or anonymously on righttobe.org. 

 

Whether they use the documentation or not, many people find it empowering to switch the lens from themselves onto the person harassing them. Being harassed in public can make us feel like we’re being scrutinized with a microscope. So turning that attention onto the inappropriate behavior of the other person can often feel hugely transformative. That said, it doesn’t always feel that way for everyone, so check in with yourself and do only what feels right for you. 

Step 3: Practice Resilience

First, three reminders. There’s no such thing as a perfect response. Harassment you received is not your fault. You are not alone. 

Give yourself some time to recover and use strategies to take care of yourself. Here are some ideas:

Resilience is any tool that helps you get back up when you’re knocked down–to get back out there and keep being you in the world. There’s no one like you–and just as you are unique, so is your practice of resilience. Make it your own.

How Do We Prevent Harassment?

Responding to harassment can be helpful for the sake of our own mental health. But with this movement, we’re ultimately building a world where no one will even need to come up with a response – because harassment will be a thing of the past. To build that world, we need to change the culture we live in right now, which is one that tells us harassment is “just a part of everyday life.” Well, it doesn’t have to be.

Building a world where everyone has the Right To Be
Join the movement by...
5d
Sharing your story...

…of harassment on our website. Once you’ve told your story, share it with your friends via social media or email and ask them to click the “I’ve Got Your Back” button to show their support.

5d
Making a personal pledge to help others...

…if you witness them being harassed. What’s worse than experiencing harassment? Being harassed while all the strangers surrounding you choose to remain passive instead of taking action. We’ve got a wealth of resources to help you become an effective, active bystander.

5d
Educating your networks...

…about how to respond, and how to be an active bystander! Share this page and our other resources with your friends. You can find us on social media @righttobeorg on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and LinkedIn. 

5d
Keeping the movement moving...

by supporting our work financially. Our resources and educational offerings are powered by your donations and continued support. 

Finally, remember you have the right to be...

…whoever you are, wherever you are. No amount of harmful words or actions can take away your worth as a human being. If it ever feels that way, just lean on us. We’ve got your back.

OUR UPCOMING TRAININGS

Right To Be

Upcoming training

How to Respond to Harassment for People Experiencing Anti-Asian/American Harassment

June 2, 2022

12:00 pm - 1:00 pm EST

Right To Be

Upcoming training

How to Respond to Harassment for People Experiencing Anti-Asian/American Harassment

June 2, 2022

12:00 pm - 1:00 pm EST

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YOU ARE POWERFUL

Remember, everyone can do something. At this time in our history, it is even more important that we show up for one another as active bystanders. Research shows that even a knowing glance can significantly reduce trauma for the person who is targeted. One of the most important things we can do is to let the person who is targeted know, in some way, however big or small, that they are not alone.

Experiencing harassment or want

to support those who are?

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read and support others.