On a Saturday night, Sarah Williams was walking her 9-month-old puppy around her Brooklyn neighborhood when she was approached by a man walking his dog. When the dogs became entangled and Williams attempted to extricate hers, she said the man groped her in several intimate places and pulled her toward him.
She managed to wrestle herself away and “booked it” with her dog. But shortly afterward, she saw him a second time near a police station — with no police in sight.
Earlier this month in Sacramento, Lauren Cooper wrapped up her noon workout and was waiting to cross the street.
“I began crossing, and [a car] hit the gas. I don’t know if they were trying to scare me on purpose, but it worked,” she said. “A few minutes later, they had turned around and found me. They rolled their windows down and were yelling at me.”
Cooper, 35, said it took hours to regain her composure.
Danika Jordan Alicia, a 30-year-old retail worker in eastern North Carolina, said the harassment comes at work, while walking around her neighborhood or when she’s out running errands.
Many women report feeling a familiar sense of dread as the United States eases pandemic measures and people find themselves out more. As folks shed some of their hibernating layers — including not wearing masks as often if they’re vaccinated, per guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — along goes the idea that they served as a physical or mental obstruction against harassment.
And some are trying to unshackle taboos that still exist about speaking out.
“Got to make that whisper network less of a whisper and more of a shout,” said Becky Celestina, a 27-year-old woman who lives in Brooklyn. It’s a conversation she has been seeing a lot on social media lately, she said. In the past few weeks, she said, she was followed for four blocks by a man catcalling her in her neighborhood. In another instance, a man seated in a parked car repeatedly shouted at her, asking if he could “have her.”
“Safety is an illusion,” she said.
But for many, the harassment never died down during the pandemic. Restaurant workers, for example — especially servers, bartenders and others who rely on tips — faced “maskual harassment,” in which customers insisted women pull down their masks to see their faces before tipping, becoming more aggressive with outsize leverage in tough economic times.
According to Hollaback, a global nonprofit organization that spreads awareness and techniques to fight back against harassment, street harassment didn’t die down during the pandemic. In fact, training and communications associate Gabriela Mejia said reports were up.
“We actually did see an increase in incidents of street harassment and the stories that we were receiving,” Mejia said. “Some of these stories were a little bit more threatening, because there were less people around.”
Although wearing masks may have made some women feel safer on the streets, Mejia notes that, ultimately, it doesn’t — and shouldn’t — make a difference.
“Harassment happens regardless of what you are or aren’t wearing, of how you look, of what your identity actually is, and we know that it even happens when you are all covered up,” Mejia said. “Ultimately, it’s important to remember that harassment is never your fault; it isn’t a compliment. It is about someone using their power to disrespect and dehumanize you.”
Asian and Asian American women, along with members of other marginalized groups, also reported more harassment over the past year, Mejia said.
Seventy-eight percent of women say they have experienced sexual harassment in public spaces, including catcalling, touching, stalking, flashing and assault, according to Stand Up Against Street Harassment. Someone helped in only 1 in 4 of these situations.
Hollaback has specific tips for how to handle street harassment.
“First and foremost, trust your gut,” Mejia said. Keep in mind, she added, that your instincts will call for different reactions to different situations: ignoring it, removing yourself from the situation or confronting the person.
If you do choose to reclaim your space, she suggested three potential actions: directly addressing the behavior and asking for it to stop; engaging bystanders around you by pointing or letting them know what is happening and how to help; or documenting the situation.
Mejia said to keep it short: “The harasser doesn’t deserve more of your time. That’s what they want. What they want, they shouldn’t get.”
She also said it’s important to process what happened and treat yourself properly — be it by exercising, reading a book or journaling.
“We don’t want to internalize and push down what happened to us, because that might lead us to think that it’s somehow our fault. Assault and harassment are never your fault,” she said. “If you don’t heal those wounds, if you don’t do things to take care of yourself, that’s not going to serve you. That’s not going to help you move on faster.”
Meg Stone, director of Impact, a Boston-based organization that advocates and educates for safer public spaces, said that research supports forceful resistance as an effective way to stop harassment if you feel safe enough to do so.
“Saying something that is assertive and strong, but that does not hook the other person or escalate the situation: Saying ‘stop’ or ‘leave me alone’ or ‘no’ can be a very effective way of resisting harassment,” she said.
She also recommended using a strong physical position, such as holding up your hands in front of you, keeping a neutral face and using a firm, loud voice.
For bystanders, Stone said, people should clarify their own values and assess the level of risk — for both themselves and others. They could join the targeted person in saying “stop” or “leave them alone,” or they could go a more indirect route by distracting the harasser by asking for directions, for example.
This sends a clear message that there isn’t a place for harassment, she said, adding that people with visible disabilities, LGBTQ people and transgender people also face frequent harassment.
“For a lot of people, the motivation is to take up physical space and intimidate people, and give people who are marginalized the message that physical public space doesn’t belong to them,” Stone said.