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6 Ways to Teach Girls How to Deal With Idiots That Sexually Harass Them on the Street

By age 12, 22% of girls experience street harassment. By the time they’re 19, it’s 87%.

According to Holly Kearl, author of  Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women, by age 12, 22% of girls experience street harassment. By the time they’re 19, it’s 87%. Today, a  study released by the American Association of University Women, reveals the degree to which sexual harassment occurs to girls (and boys) in 7th-12th grades: 56% of girls surveyed had experienced it in school.

If you are a man and you are not sure what street harassment is,  check here, because every woman, literally every woman, knows. Regardless of race, class, ethnicity, education, age and especially, clothes, all women are harassed on the street by men, sometimes very aggressively. It’s any public interaction that makes a girl or woman feel vulnerable, intimidated, embarrassed, attacked and almost always sexualized. As I discussed in a recent post, it’s a  gendered form of social control.

When my daughter asked me if she could go get some ice cream by herself one day, I was flooded by disturbing memories of years of street harassment. Instead of being excited for her, for her sense of independence and her eagerness to be in the world, I was deeply saddened. I wanted her to stay fearless and to explore the world, safely. So, I looked into how things may or may not have changed since I was younger and what resources might be available to young girls and women.


Here are the top six things that I came up with:

1. Review the basics with her in a “safety rule”—not “scary reality”—way:

  • Be safe and develop good habits—don’t scare her, but make sure she knows the safety rules relevant to where she’ll be.
  • Don’t engage—don’t answer questions, get into a conversation or respond in anger. But, don’t lose confidence. This is hard. Whereas you, as a an adult might be able to stare the guy down and say, “Don’t touch my arm again,” a younger girl may not be equipped to do the same. Even most adult women aren’t. In a recent survey, 69% of women said they  never make eye contact on the street to avoid harassment.
  • Be confident—if she wants the independence to walk around or has to for other reasons, like getting to school, then she needs to feel confident enough to say STOP if she has to, or ask someone for help. She has to speak loudly and clearly. Practice with her. If someone touches her without her consent, she can call 911, and she should.
  • If you and she live in a place where the harassment is really prevalent and frightening, find a self-defense class.

2. Teach her that street harassment is not a compliment and that she has to trust her instincts. Harassment can be confusing to girls and women since the line between a compliment from a well-meaning and polite man and unwanted, potentially threatening harassment from a creep can be fuzzy and often incorporates cultural differences that are hard to parse. For a lot of women, and especially teen girls trying out their newfound, more adult femininity, certain comments can seem flattering. But it’s a precariously thin line between seemingly benign behavior and the threat of something ugly. Girls and women don’t have the time or luxury of determining which is which. I asked my daughter, now 14, if she could come up with a hard and fast cross-cultural rule that all girls could apply when developing their instincts about when to feel threatened and how to respond. She came up with this simple rule to determine the difference between a compliment and harassment: If you can look the person in the eye, confidently and uncoerced, and say “thank you” (even if you don’t actually do)—then it’s not harassment.

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