How many times has this happened to you: you’re walking down the street alone and suddenly you feel like you’re being watched. From your peripheral vision, you clock a man loitering on the sidewalk who hasn’t taken his eyes off you and starts cat calling. Do you look at him? If so, then when? If its too soon, will it be even more weird as you walk past him, ignoring him? Do you say anything? Will engaging shut him up or invite violence?

THE STORY: My friend lives in NY and walks everywhere. She noticed this man leering at her and cat calling but she decided to “not engage” so she ignored him. After that, it escalated. He got bolder, more brazen. He would cat call and stare at her with what she described as “a salivating pleasure” and every time she ignored him. Eventually, she had the unfortunate timing (or so it appeared) to be walking by a store that he was coming out of. He got in her face and in a menacing tone said, “I KNOW you can see me”. My friend yelled at him, declaring her right to be in public without fear of violence and began shouting that he was sexually harassing her. Her declaration was loud and compelled a male passer by to actually step between them and ask her if she needed help.

THE FALLOUT – My friend was so unsettled by this incident, she reached out to me asking if she did the right thing and what the magic algorithm or rule is about engaging street harassers. She was asking me for the move.

THE MOVE – After a traumatic event, which 1 out of 3 women experiences, you are feeling what so many women do and the reason women are driven to self-defense classes: they want the move. Women who feel vulnerable want an infallible solution that guarantees their safety. The relentlessness of their fear is directly proportional to the relentlessness in their search for the move.

THE TRUTH – There is no move. Learning self-defense is a great confidence booster and can help keep you from becoming a target, but ultimately it will only provide an increased feeling of safety, not actually make you safer.

The moves that will minimize your risk are:

  1. Consistently being situationally aware — stay off your phone, iPod and look like you know what’s happening around you.
  2. Carrying yourself like someone who knows how to handle herself — strangers only know what YOU TELL them with your body language. You control your space.
  3. Being able to distinguish the difference between annoying attention and dangerous attention — listen to your intuition, denial is more dangerous than the man you’re afraid of.
  4. Having the courage to give a threatening person the critical feedback they need to move on — act on your intuition. It may be a quick glance, head nod, a genuine smile or a curt “how’s it going?”. Be open to the message your intuition sends you.

THE ADVICE – I told her: “There is a spectrum of responses that can minimize your risk. Eye contact and a “friendly” hello can save you a lot of grief with those your intuition tells you are more than just annoying. Think of it of acknowledging vs engaging. Engaging is a conversation. Acknowledging simply makes the person feel seen so they are no longer able to perpetrate their crimes invisibly and anonymously. It communicates, “I see you. I’m not intimidated by you. If you target me, I’m going to make a scene/embarrass you in public.” By ignoring that particular harasser, you might have unintentionally given him the idea that he was scaring you, which. He. LOVED. with “a salivating pleasure”. He got a dopamine hit every time. But he needed more each time, thus the escalation.”

THE RULING – The rule about how to handle a street harasser is there is no rule. Making rules is a bad idea when every person is different and may create a unique situation that requires a unique approach to reduce risk or prevent violence. The only rule is listen to your intuition. Stay present so you can hear the gentle nudge from your inner wisdom that leads you to best course of action in the moment.

You are not a helpless. Not even a little bit. If you knew some of the things girls and women have done while successfully defending themselves (with NO training), then you would know that you are more than strong enough to defend yourself. Remember, under different circumstances, YOU could be the predator. You are not so different, you and the people you fear.

1 Comment

  1. Dinneen on December 4, 2015 at 6:56 am

    Maura, thank you for writing this up and sharing it with the world!! So much good advice. You keep rocking this important work. Yours truly, Dinneen

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