Harassment on the street, in the workplace, or at a bar or club is more common than you might think. A 2014 Stop Street Harassment national survey found that over 65% of women and 25% of men had experienced some form of street harassment. While a Cosmopolitan survey of over 2,000 women in the workplace found over one-third had been subject to sexual harassment by a colleague or boss and 1 in 5 of employment sexual harassment claims being lodged by males.
From the street-corner cat caller to your overly-touchy boss, to the stranger who has been calling your home at all hours of the night. Harassment takes many forms and doesn’t discriminate based on gender or race. Be prepared next time you are faced with unwanted and inappropriate contact or jeers by keeping the following tips in mind.
1. Be vocal and specific
Harassers are so used to their comments and actions going unchecked, that they don’t expect most victims to respond. Catch a harasser by surprise by vocalizing what it is that you dislike about their actions. Choose your words carefully, and say exactly what you mean. The more explicitly you describe the inappropriate behavior and harassment, the more likely you will disempower and surprise the harasser.
Name the behavior outright. “Don’t grab my butt.” Identify the harasser, “Person in the blue shirt.” Both statements help draw unwanted attention to the harasser and alert others, weakening a harasser’s perceived dominance and zone of “immunity.”
2. Use strong body language
A confident and unperturbed demeanor can speak volumes. Stand tall, speak in a clear, strong voice, and look your harasser right in their eyes. Numerous studies, including a Psychology Today article, have concluded that persons who have higher-levels of eye contact with others are perceived as more confident, dominant, and powerful.
The crux of harassment hinges upon a “dominant figure,” the harasser, asserting an imposing presence over a less dominant person, the victim. Lack of eye contact can signal insecurity or lack self-assurance. With strong eye contact and a powerful, clear voice, you let your harasser know that you are on the same level and not intimidated.
3. Respond with humor
Using humor to respond to your harasser can be a non-confrontational and creative way to deflect unwanted comments or advances. Humor can embarrass your harasser or expose the sheer absurdity of their comments or actions. A humorous response allows you to redefine the situation on your own terms, showing them that with your wit and confidence, you are the one with the upper hand.
For example, if someone tells you to “smile for them,” you could respond with, “start juggling,” and when they inquisitively stutter out a “what” or “huh,” state, “Oh sorry, I must have misunderstood. I thought we were telling people to do things for no reason.”
4. Use the Socratic Method
The Socratic Method is a form of argumentative dialogue created by classical Greek Philosopher Socrates, that centers around asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thought, drawing out underlying presumptions and ideas. Harassers are so rarely confronted, that asking them the reasons for why they think it is alright to act so inappropriately will most likely leave them speechless.
For example, ask your harasser why they are doing what they are doing. “Why do you think you can touch me inappropriately?” Or, “would you want someone harassing your mother or sister the way you are harassing me?”
If you have a notepad on hand, use that to turn the tables on your harasser and tell them you are conducting a street harassment research survey or project. Take out the notepad and ask them a series of “investigative questions.” “So, how often do you harass women on the street?” “What are your criteria for determining which persons you will harass?” These are just a few examples of questions to pose to your harasser to disarm them and get them to think about their actions on a deeper level.
5. Carry a self-defense tool
At some point, you may need to combat harassment in a more serious tone, letting your harasser know that if they proceed further and violate your space, there will be consequences. Carry a whistle, pocket-knife, alarm, or pepper spray. As most harassers don’t intend to escalate the situation further, simply showing such items to your harasser could reveal to them that you view their actions as serious and warranting of self-defense measures.
6. Avoid name-calling
When confronting your harasser, avoid name-calling, put-downs, or other actions that could anger them further, causing the situation to escalate. Approach the situation in a calm and collected manner. Responding to aggressors with equal aggression can turn the tables and make your harasser feel threatened. A calm rational and respectful response can help defuse an otherwise tense situation and prevent it from getting out of hand.
7. Do not apologize
Whatever you do, do not apologize. It is not an unreasonable request to not be leered at, groped, catcalled, or harassed in other ways. Expecting decency should not warrant an apology. So remember, you have nothing to apologize for.
8. Cease and Desist Letter
Habitual harassers often have fragile egos and no foresight into consequences of their actions or words. The reality of harassment is that most instances go unreported, and continues to occur due to the alarming apprehension about confronting the source head on, reporting to higher-ups, or to the authorities. Harassers hide behind a cloak of invincibility, formed by this apprehension. Should the above tips fail to put an end to the harassment, consider a Cease and Desist Letter to formally request they immediately stop (“cease”) such behavior, and no longer continue (“desist”) from engaging in such behavior in the future.
Litigation and legal action can be time-consuming and financially draining, so next time you are subject to unwanted advances or inappropriate comments, remember these key things you can do to combat and defuse it to better protect yourself and turn the tables. Should the harassment continue or escalate, it is suggested you report it immediately to the authorities, consult a lawyer, or prepare a Cease and Desist Letter.