How are we supposed to respond to harassment?!

Lina AbiRafeh
4 min readMay 18, 2023

I’m still thinking about harassment because — dammit — the minute I stop thinking about it, I experience something or witness something and it’s right back there in my head, taking up far more space than it actually deserves.

I think of the story I wrote about recently, where the guy turned to me and said: “I wanna pin you down and fuck the shit out of you.”

And all I could think to scream in response was: “Asshole!” He had already turned away. Did he hear it? Does he care? Does being an “asshole” have any impact on him at all? Likely not. He probably thinks it’s funny. Why? He got a reaction out of me. And that’s the goal, isn’t it?!

And yet, how was I supposed to respond? What would have been effective? Realistically, what options do I have?! Let’s break them down:

  1. Ignore — and internalize that crap
  2. Respond — with or without profanity
  3. Act — punch the crap out of him

No doubt #3 is what he deserves. But that’s probably not likely. If I choose option #1 or #2 — which perhaps most of us do — will that change anything? More importantly, will that make me feel better?! I’m the one who’s been violated, after all. My body, my space, my peace — my right to be there.

I don’t know. To be honest, it seems that no matter which option we choose, we still lose. I don’t want to sound defeatist here, but I’m not sure how to make myself feel better when situations like this happen. And they happen to all of us. A lot.

I don’t expect that my comment will radically change his behavior. I don’t think there’s ever been a streetside scenario where the guy stops in his tracks and says, “You know what, you’re right! I am an asshole. I’m sorry.”

I’m choking on my laughter just writing this. Because it’s next-to impossible. If you are the exception to this, please contact me. I want some of your secret sauce.

So, what do we know?

  1. The incident has already happened — so prevention isn’t an option.
  2. We feel icky.
  3. A teaching moment is probably far-fetched.
  4. Behavior change is unlikely.

What do we do?! Oh and, when I say we feel icky, I mean we feel icky in the moment, and for a long time afterwards. At least for me — my walk is ruined and I’m angry and annoyed and all kinds of things. It doesn’t just go away on its own. And if I pass that same spot again, it’s the first thing I think of. So, that crap lingers…

I reached out to one fierce and fabulous young woman — and here is her response:

Every time I ride my bike on the road, I think about how, when I was younger, my mom insisted that it was better to ride in the shoulder on the wrong side of the road, against traffic rather than with traffic, so that men couldn’t reach out the window to grab your ass as they passed by. This happened to her and her friends when they were adolescents.

I think about how they decided it was safer to bike into oncoming traffic than risk the opportunity for men to grope them from a moving vehicle. I think about how frightening it must have been to be powerless against attention from adult men so young.

And then I remember walking down town when I was 12 and being catcalled for the first time by grown men passing by in a truck. And I remember how alarming it felt. Like a mirror had shattered. To realize that you are being watched, as a sexual body waiting to be preyed on. To no longer be protected by your innocence, but to be hunted for it.

You’re more obviously powerless as a cyclist or a pedestrian against a man in a moving vehicle. The best you can do is yell back, but this is futile, even counteractive, playing into the thrill of their game. You can call the police, enlisting another man in another vehicle to perhaps take your side instead of shrugging off the incident as boys being boys, a predictable and inescapable reality of the world. Men expect to be untouchable, because that’s the world we’ve built for them.

But what’s scarier than an untouchable man? An embarrassed man, exposed for his wrongdoing in front of his male peers. That man is a violent man, a man with too much power and will and shame to be reasoned with. An embarrassed man in a vehicle could too easily kill a pedestrian or cyclist in a moment of rage. Even unintentionally, a reflex of protecting his pride, more sacred than a human life.

So, in the case of possible outcomes, I’d rather let that man in a truck think he’s still untouchable than to teach him a lesson. Because it’s safer to feel violated, exposed, watched, leered and ogled at, on display, and vulnerable than to convince that man he’s wrong. Because, then, at least you’re just a pawn instead of a target. It’s probably safer to bike on the wrong side of the road.

Women shouldn’t have to live in a world where it’s safer to bike into oncoming traffic than to be free to move around as we wish. For now, men continue to be untouchable, yes. But we can build a different world, one where perpetrators are the ones who are shamed and held to account. And one where women are fully safe and free.

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Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights activist, author, speaker, aid worker with 3 decades of global experience - and lots to say! More on my website: www.LinaAbiRafeh.com