6 Ways to Help Your Daughter Deal With Sex-Based Harassment on the Street and In School

Soraya Chemaly has advice for dads who would like to talk openly with their daughters about sexual harassment.

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.

3. Let her know that if she’s groped, yelled at, whispered to, it’s not her fault; she doesn’t have to “like it.” It’s bullying. Let her know it’s doesn’t have to be this way, she’s not alone, and she doesn’t have to shamefully keep the harassment to herself. A recent article in Psychology Today“Hey Baby Hurts,” discusses some of the psychological implications for teens, which includes fear, self-objectification, and withdrawal. Often, girls don’t talk to their parents about the street harassment that they are subjected to. The study released today explains: “Nearly a third of the victims said the harassment made them feel sick to their stomach, affected their study habits or fueled reluctance to go to school at all.” Share with her the fact that there is a worldwide movement to combat street harassment. Organizations like Stop the Harassmentand Holla Back! are dedicated to empowering girls and women by teaching them assertive responses, self-defense, and easy mechanisms for reporting harassers.

4. Set an example if you’re her mom or grandmother or aunt. Stop accepting sexually-based street harassment as the price of being a woman. Men who harass often don’t know they’re being offensive. Tell them. There are places and times when even if you feel threatened you don’t have to be scared. You can look for allies, politely but firmly say, “Stop, that’s offensive,” shame the jerk, call the police. Model fearless behavior for her. If you’re a dad, it’s really important that your daughter understand you don’t think she’s “asking for it.” If she tells you it’s happening, don’t ask her what she was wearing, because she could be wearing a burka and it would happen.

5. Tell boys and men in your life what’s going on. It’s vital. Most men don’t harass women on the street, but they also don’t realize the extent to which their mothers, sisters, daughters, female friends and coworkers go out of their way to adapt to this reality. We have to stop saying street harassment is just “boys being boys.” This excuse is a reductionist and harrowing definition of masculinity that maintains essentially that all men are animals. Most men are not animals. They are capable of respecting civil boundaries and personal space in public. In particular, boys need to learn five things:

  • That they can participate in bonding experiences, but that harassing girls is an unacceptable way to do it.
  • That they need to stop looking the other way and should intervene in support if the situation warrants it.
  • How to empathize with what their mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, grandmothers, girlfriends, wives are dealing with.
  • How to speak to girls as people, with respect and decency.
  • And that all of this is hard in the media environment they’re stewing in.

The Good Men Project has an excellent article for boys and men, as well as several pieces about empathizing with what women experience. The international organization Stop Street Harassment also has a page for educating boys.

6. Remind your school that sexual harassment is bullying and that Title IX makes it illegal:

The AAUW report observes that sexual harassment and bullying can sometimes overlap, such as the taunting of youths who are perceived to be gay or lesbian, but it says there are important distinctions. For example, there are some state laws against bullying, but serious sexual harassment—at a level which interferes with a student’s education—is prohibited under the federal gender-equality legislation known as Title IX.

Too often, the more comfortable term bullying is used to describe sexual harassment, obscuring the role of gender and sex in these incidents,” the report says. “Schools are likely to promote bullying prevention while ignoring or downplaying sexual harassment.”

Fighting against street harassment isn’t silly or futile. Men who harass, who are predatory, do it because they can. For girls and women, half of all humans, there is nothing “normal” about it. It takes place in the context of cultural misogyny, disrespect, discrimination, rape, and power, keeping public places largely male-dominated and impeding equality in the most base and threatening way possible. All this for a scoop of ice cream on a sunny day.

—Photo neil conway/Flickr

About Soraya Chemaly

Soraya Chemaly is a feminist satire writer and media critic. She is also regular contributor to the Huffington Post on issues of gender and media. Email: soraya.chemaly@gmail.com twitter: @schemaly


  1. superstarjackie says:

    What a good and thoughtful father

  2. It’s also crucial that we understand this is not just happening on the streets. Girls face this daily in the halls at school. When I was in high school I had my ass and breasts grabbed, I had guys yelling things at me about my body, loudly speculating about my sex life and even hitting me. All on school property.

    • Ab-so-lutely! It has always been a problem and important, but today we are seeing a real back-slide with all the Herman Cain nonsense that is bringing to light how many people do not see this as a problem, and how, for whatever inexplicable reason, sexual harassment of women and girls is both increasing in incidence AND decreasing as a perceived problem. Infuriating.

  3. I think in general it is good advice. I have taught self-defense for over 17 years in a major city. One thing I DO disagree with is the idea that it advisable to “shame them” or correct their behavior. This can in fact, be very dangerous. They have NO idea how this person will react. They could pull out a gun a shoot you, they could follow you, and do great harm. I know a friend who has been in the military and trained in the martial arts for years. And he has a teenage daughter. And he talks about how dangerous it is to do this to other men. “Shaming” or embarrassing them can set them off. I saw a case of a woman on the street told someone to stop doing what they are doing and the person she did this too left, got a friend and they beat the crap out of her. And in fact its doubly dangerous if they do not know how to then defend themselves from a physical assault.

    And whether your daughter is in a place with lots of harassment, self-defense is good for a lifetime. They are not always going to be in an insular world, will go to college etc etc. There are bad people, give your daughters skills to be safe. Don’t just “hope” it away.

  4. I have two daughters and am sensitive to anything that might negatively affect them. There is no street harassment in my community at all.  Were it to happen, passersby would stand up for whoever the victim was.  That’s just part of the culture here.    
    What do I teach my daughters?  The same thing I teach boys that I mentor:  respect yourself and others.  It’s also what I teach regarding dealing with mean girls. Carry yourself with dignity and to respect, treat others with dignity and respect and require that you be treated consistent with how you act, dress, behave, and treat others.   
    This would apply to dealing with mean girls, street harassment, or any form of bullying.  Just as they don’t allow others to be disrespected, they don’t allow themselves to be treated with disrespect.  Just like an adult who tries to avoid dangerous areas and, if they have to travel through such places, simply take precautions.  If you’re in a high crime neighborhood, use the club. Otherwise, leave it on the trunk.

  5. This is a really intelligent article with lots of sensible suggestions. I’m glad you’ve taken a nuanced approach to this and high-lighted the fact that it’s only a small percentage of men who perpetrate, but equally that doesn’t make it any more acceptable that it happens at all.

    • Not enough men are standing up to those who perpetrate. I like being in a position of management where I can bust some heads when I hear guys on my team talking about what they’d do to high school girls (we work in schools). Don’t hear much of that from the less scrupulous individuals I manage. Most of the guys are younger and more progressive in their thinking, though.

      • Jim, that’s outstanding. And it would make for a really interesting blog post. Would you be interested in submitting something for GMP? Let me know.

  6. This is a brilliant article. Thank you!!

  7. Great idea! It reminds me of the meme that’s been making its way around Facebook lately on how to “really” prevent rape: https://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=116451521711521

  8. How about an article naming six ways we can teach our boys not to act like douchenozzles?

    • LOL!!! Must steal that word. But seriously, yes, education of boys would help too. Thank you for suggesting it. I think that if men imagined to themselves how they’d feel if other men were doing to their mothers/daughters/sisters/wives what they are doing to the women walking down the street, they might think twice, but somehow that thought must not occur to them. I dunno.

      • Don’t credit me. I got “douchenozzle” from rageagainstthemanchine.com. 🙂

        I’m not “that guy” – at least not any more. I have two boys, one of whom just entered middle school and is in the early stages of puberty. He knows what sexism is and is already able to analyze messages from the media critically, so I hope he’ll be able to use the same good judgment when it comes to peer pressure. Most of his friends don’t really notice girls in the sexual or romantic capacity yet, so it’s too soon to tell. He has female friends that have been, so far, platonic. Though our generation often can’t maintain platonic friendships with potential romantic partners, there’s no reason we can’t teach the next generation that it’s possible. The main idea is that my wife and I instill respect for women in our boys. It’s sinking in so far.

        • I have two girls whom Im trying to teach to look through all the media bullshit, growing up in a society where you can buy lingere for little girls. and most men I know who have boys say “when he grows up i only have to deal with one prick, you have to deal with all of them”. To me, by saying that they are passing off all these problems as MY problem, like by having boys they don’t have to think about any of it. so I just want to thank you for doing what you’re doing and trying to raise good boys, should be more dads like yourself.

          • Keith, what an interesting point of view that really resonates. This problem needs to be tackled by and for both men and women, girls and boys. It is not one gender’s, or only certain parents’ problem. We all make up society, we all live in it, we all benefit from it, and we all share responsibility for it. Thank you!

  9. This happened to me when I was fourteen years old and was finally able to walk around town without my parents. I had to have a friend of course, but the sexual harassment was unreal to me. I honestly thought my parents were exaggerating because they wouldn’t let me wonder the town by myself until I was able to drive (mainly because a car can serve as a weapon against a potential predator is my guess). But that first day I probably had five catcalls. Even worse was in my freshman year of high school and I went around selling stuff for my band. My mother was with me for crying out loud and I was getting catcalled! Whistles, verbal harassment, you name it. Even more bizarre, if this is bizarre at all, is all the sexual harassment I ever experienced in my town came from Mexican men. I don’t know why, but if anyone can answer, by all means do so!

  10. I always wished my parents had talked to me about this and helped me know how to think about it and deal with it. It happened all through high school and well into adulthood. When I was a kid, I was often scared. But I felt so embarrassed about it I never told anyone, and I didn’t realize how common it was. I was “pretty,” I guess, but small and not particularly womanly or sexy, and I looked 12 when I was 18, and it was unreal how often men catcalled, whistled, and shouted out really inappropriate things in broad daylight. Sometimes it made me start running, or duck into places to hide. I never saw women do this to boys. I just thought it was part of what it was to be a girl.

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