“This is happening because I am a female alone in public space in a city.”

Photo by PoPville flickr user Jim Havard

“Dear PoPville,

I really wanted to let the community, and especially other female cyclists, know about an incident that occurred on Monday, Sept. 26 at 4:45 pm.

I was biking north on 6th Street NE and followed by a gray Nissan with MD plates for many blocks. The driver kept his car at pace with me, even though that meant he was holding up rush-hour traffic.

He and his passengers, two other males who I believe were in their 40s or 50s, all were calling out to me. Eventually, the two on the passenger side of the car (the side closer to the bike lane) rolled their windows all the way down, hung out of the car from their waists up, and tried to grab me, touching me many times. Because there were parked cars to my right, I could not always swerve out of reach. Because I was scared, and just wanted to get to my destination where friends were waiting for me and I could get off the street, I kept going.

Eventually, I told the passengers closest to me that this was sexual harassment, and if they didn’t stop, I would call the police. At this, they laughed. They weren’t harassing me, they said, they were just having a little fun. I said ok, I would call the cops. I locked my bike on H Street and dialed. They parked the car and waited until I was clearly talking to someone on the other end before driving away. The cops came, I filed a report, they said they had people looking for the car, and I’m sure that will be all from that end.

But something else that I wanted to write, that I hope won’t sound preachy, that I hope you’ll share with our community:

In the past handful of days alone I’ve been yelled to by bus drivers operating metro buses, drivers and passengers in cars, pedestrians, and in one weird incident, another cyclist. In the fresh autumn dark, I have been chased by a group of high school students. I have been touched, threatened, followed, intimidated, and just in general pretty freaking scared–and I am not alone.

This isn’t new, and it isn’t happening because I am particularly young or good looking (even the bus driver told me I needed to comb my hair). This is happening because I am a female alone in public space in a city. Because under those circumstances, it is expected that I will invite and endure commentary and criticism on my body. It is presumed that I’ll remain silent or complacent as I am buffeted by insults, innuendo, and anger.

I refuse to believe that I am especially unlucky. I do not have a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I do not happen to encounter only assholes and misogynistic loud-mouths in my path.

I’m afraid that, instead, from behind the safety of a steering wheel, behind a windshield, behind the security of anonymity, and in some cases the knowledge that no one they know is watching and there’s no accountability, some (I’ll sound sexist, but yes, predominantly men) are ready and willing to treat a female stranger the way they would never dream of treating their own mother/aunt/sister/wife/daughter.

I am someone’s daughter, aunt, wife, and I do not want to be perpetually afraid. If you’re one of the good people who spills out some ugly when you’re protected by obscurity, please consider the way your actions or words may resonate with their targets.

142 Comment

  • You go girl. Thank you for sharing. I’m so sorry this has happened to you and I stand by you in your call for common human decency as a fellow female cyclist who has been harassed as well.

    • PS Today is World Habitat Day, where international development actors, multilateral development banks, bilats, NGOs, city planners, public officials, etc. are working together public space for all – through SDGs, through better urban design, and a whole host of other mechanisms. This is a reminder that cities are for all people and must be constructed and lived in way where we can feel safe. Ahhh the work that needs to be done is staggering but oh so vital.

    • +1 from another female cyclist. I have had this sort of thing happen many times while cycling alone (and while running alone).

      • So discouraging to hear–sorry this happened. Part of the response has to involve anyone witnessing such ugly (and illegal) behavior stepping up and getting involved. If creeps get called out more often then maybe the creepiness declines. It’s easy to look on and say it’s not my problem’ but in reality it is everyone’s responsibility to foster a safe place to walk, stand, ride, just be. Perhaps there wasn’t anyone around that could have helped in this particular instance, I’m just offering an opportunity next time a decent citizen sees something that doesn’t seem right. Maybe ask, “Is everything okay?” and proceed from there. The good guys could use a bit more confrontation, I think.

  • +1,000,000
    You are not alone.

  • I can relate to this so much. Mine hasn’t been as bad as this, but I’ve had some seriously disturbing things yelled at me on my daily commute through union station.

  • Emmaleigh504

    Thank you! I know it amazes people that this happens all the time, but it does, indeed, happen all the time and it is exhausting.

  • I’m so sorry this has happened to you so frequently. I’ve never experienced physical attacks like this, so I consider myself lucky, but I’ve been the victim of verbal sexual harassment in this city. I really hate the stigma that it only happens to pretty girls. It sets such a bad precedent that 1) “unattractive” women are never the victim of such abuse, and 2) “attractive” women had it coming to them. It happens to women of all colors, shapes, sizes, ages, etc., and it can be equally frustrating no matter what. I don’t have much else to offer other than my empathy.

    • Agreed. I often ask my husband how old and decrepit a woman has to become before men stop with the unwanted harassment. I was kind of looking forward to it being a perk of getting older. Recently, two young kids, I’d guess 18 or so, were on a scooter bike stopped at a light while I was walking by on the sidewalk. They were checking me out, up and down, telling me I had nice legs and making other assorted comments. I am in my 50’s for god’s sake! Men who harass don’t feel very good about their lot in life and harassing women gives them a sense of power. Best not to engage and just try to ignore the pigs. Safety first.

  • Thanks to the OP for sharing this, and speaking out. I have lived in cities all over the U.S. and around the world, and nowhere else have I felt the sense of low level discomfort that I feel almost every day on the streets of DC. I wish I could diagnose the source of the problem, because without that answer it’s hard to know what to do about it. In the absence of any obvious solutions, could anyone provide an update on the ride service that was intended to serve women and LGBTQ individuals? Is it still around, and does anyone have any experience with it, good or bad? In a similar vein, maybe we need affordable accompaniment services for walkers (and bikers) like many of us had when we were in college.

    • As much as I hear my women friends describe this, unanimously, about DC, I’m a little shocked actually that there isn’t a city-wide campaign of sorts. Something along the lines of a “Rock the Vote”, or the “Read” posters at libraries and schools. I think city leadership and the community needs a sort of public statement to make both educating/reminding the people who do this that it’s not okay, and that the community is banding together to vocally oppose and stop it.
      Kudos to you for calling the police; I think a swarm of calls big enough to make the city realize what an epidemic it is here is in order. Maybe we can even get the coordination of law enforcement to enforce punishment when they hear/witness it, or to pass new laws against it if needed (and, apparently, coordinate mandated sexual harassment training for Metrobus employees, ick.)
      To be honest, it wouldn’t cost much to implement a public awareness program, and that our leaders apparently aren’t interested in the easy political points up for grabs in doing so is evidence of how much complacency there is – that needs to change.

      • And by “you” I meant the OP, sorry, I briefly forgot I was replying, it seems (and can’t edit a post, so sorry also for the multiple posts)

      • I think there’s an annual “Take Back the Night” march in DC, or just outside of DC. I think it happens in the springtime. It would be great to see more frequently-promoted campaigns, though. No time like the present to start some sort of grassroots effort!

      • There are some signs around along the lines of “if it’s unwanted it’s harrasment.” I think it should say something like, “if you catcall or touch a woman in a remotely sexual manner without her permission, you are a disgusting piece of trash with a teeny, tiny penis.”

        • Yes! I agree. And now remember seeing those.
          I like the effort, but not the choice of text on those posters, because (a) I think it should be more direct and vivid (e.g., you are being a horrible person) and (b) some idiots like the ones described will think “she wanted it” or “it was a compliment, so I assumed she’d want to hear.”

          They should just say “DON’T,” and leave it at that. Or “keep your hands to yourself – keep your words to yourself.”

          • “keep your hands to yourself – keep your words to yourself.”

            That is PERFECT, actually. There’s no way to misinterpret that statement.

          • I like the message, but it’s important to place it in context of sexual harassment. Without further context, those words on their own deliver a very different message altogether.

        • Emmaleigh504

          The wording is awful b/c “of course she wanted it, it was a compliment” reasoning. I think those signs are a huge fail.

        • Agree — I particularly think the imagery and text is far too broad and ignorable. My first impression of them is that it is a picture of someone in a crowded Metro car. I don’t want to be in a crowded car; I can’t imagine that the woman pictured wants to be in a crowded Metro car. So does that mean that it’s unwanted and thusly harassment? I think an identifiable villain would go a long way for those images.

      • There is – it’s called Collective Action for Safe Spaces. They helped craft the anti-harassment ads that are up around the metro now. They also have a bartender training program to help intervene if they see anything shady going on or if women are feeling unsafe. They also operate the safe rides program.

      • There’s a group called Men Can Stop Rape that was founded in DC and is active here and around the country. They help men learn why and how they can create a culture “free from violence, especially men’s violence against women.”

    • In reply to both the ride service and the responder’s question about a public campaign, you’re both thinking about work being done by CASS — the Collective Action for Safe Spaces. They started RightRides and are in the middle of another campaign to fund free, safe rides for women and LGBTQ folks.


      And they did the WMATA Anti-Sexual Harassment campaign. http://www.collectiveactiondc.org/programs/wmata-anti-sexual-harassment-campaign/

      They also do a lot more, like training bartenders to spot sexual harassment and assault, other training and workshops, and a lot more. CASS is where I give my money to people who are doing something about the problem.

  • Smilla

    Thank you for writing this. And good for you for calling out the harassers and for following through on contacting the police. More women (and men) should stand up to harassment. I’m so sorry you have to deal with such behavior. Women shouldn’t have to put up with this kind of garbage.

    • While I’d like to, it’s hard to “stand up” to this kind of thing because (at least in my experience) the harasser can become very aggressive or belligerent when challenged, even mildly.

      • I struggle with this big time. I totally have a temper and want to yell back, but it’s the easiest way to escalate the situation.

  • houseintherear

    Amen, indeed. As a growing teen/20-something/30-something, I always waited for when I’d finally be too old to be targeted, but sadly it doesn’t stop. I’m not even a conventionally attractive woman, not that it even matters. I have breasts and ovaries so apparently that makes me fair game for comments, staring, harassment, insults, or whatever else men are thinking when they happen to pass me. Whenever it happens, I can’t help but picture a rock in the ocean; waves can crash over it and it doesn’t move or fall apart, but every wave takes it piece and after a while it’s just a pebble. Stay strong and keep talking/writing about it, no matter how much criticism comes your way.

  • Yes! Thank you.

  • It makes me so angry that so many women have had these experiences. You shouldn’t have to be compared to someone’s mother or kid or other relative to get the basic respect of being left alone when you’re out in public. Being a fellow human ought to be enough.

  • AMEN!! Thank you for your very articulate response to your sexual harassment – you said things that were in my heart but couldn’t figure out how to get into words.

  • +1000

    This wasn’t a compliment, or a joke. I’m sorry you experienced this.

    You don’t have to be someone’s wife, sister, or mother. You’re a human being. All human beings should be treated with respect, regardless of their gender.

    • I am sorry the OP had this happen, and glad she spoke out. But women too often define themselves by their relationships to others (too often, men). You can be 100% alone in this world and still have just as much value as anyone else.

      • You are SO right. The only reason I went there is because I DO believe there are good people out there who unwittingly commit these offenses and maybe relating it back to someone in the harasser’s life could lessen the occurrences.

        • HaileUnlikely

          I completely agree with this, and even if it is used more frequently when speaking of women than of men, it is by no means gender-specific. Having been robbed at gunpoint twice in DC, I sometimes have difficulty not thinking nasty thoughts and wanting to act uncharitably toward people who remind me of my attackers. I am not proud of that, but I can’t help it. However, when I remind myself that the young man is somebody’s grandson, it really does change my thinking.

      • I think the point is that when you are alone men think its okay. I hate that when I am with my boyfriend the men who staired and catcalled me the day before do nothing. It is like a women is only respected by men if she is another man’s property.

  • was watching a video taken by a female kayaker two days ago. pretty funny, pretty sad, but in it, she’s on dry land and uses bear-spray to ward off a curious bear (only to have it wreak havoc on her kayak — to which the kayaker responds by melting into a pool of despair).

    anyway, can you pepper- (or bear-) spray people? please? thoughts on taking it to that level? i mean, you feel threatened, right?

    • Unfortunately, *legally*, no bear spray … pepper spray if it’s purchased and registered in DC (I think if you purchase outside of DC, you can register it on your own).

      One of my problems in DC is that I rarely feel safe walking by myself, especially after dark, and want to have my pepper spray on me. Unfortunately, if there’s ever a time or place that requires any form of security, the items are confiscated and thrown away (going to a club or even the art museum in the evening etc). I completely get why businesses and gov’t buildings don’t want the pepper spray inside, but it puts you in a lose-lose situation that either makes you dependent on men/friends or requires you to stay home in order to feel safe.

      • “I completely get why businesses and gov’t buildings don’t want the pepper spray inside, but it puts you in a lose-lose situation that either makes you dependent on men/friends or requires you to stay home in order to feel safe.” It’s not an either/or — for one thing, you can take self-defense classes. (MPinDC often recommends Impact DC.)
        I have never carried pepper spray and have been out and about on my own a lot. People have to decide for themselves what feels safe, obviously, but I don’t think it has to be a “pepper spray or stay home” binary.

      • Most bars/clubs that take pepper spray will return it to you when you leave. I know black cat does when I go there.

  • Thank you so much for this incredibly eloquent and thoughtful note. As a fellow woman who has the audacity to walk/bike around the city alone, I too am CONSTANTLY subjected to these kinds of vulgar interactions. (Although I have never been physically touched the way you were while on your bike…I am so sorry you had to go through that!) Just this past Friday evening while bundled up against the rain and trying to get home in Adams Morgan a man pulled his car over to the side of the street to tell me “how beautiful I was”. When I ignored him, he proceeded to scream out the window “what, you can’t take a compliment, you dumb b*tch?!” and then continued following me as I walked down the sidewalk. Luckily, he eventually lost interest and drove away.

    To any man (or woman) reading this who thinks it’s OK to “compliment” someone who is minding their own business in a public space and clearly uninterested in engaging in an unprovoked conversation, please think again.

  • I’m a guy and I drive around the city all day for work. I see this happening way too much. It’s disgusting.

    There is no doubt in my mind this has happened to you. I’ve offered my assistance before and once I got involved, the harassers either sped off or talked $hit to me.

    I hope people that think this kind of behavior is acceptable understand that they are scum.

    • Thank you Common Sense for intervening & speaking up (in a safe way) when you see this behavior on the streets. It takes all voices, not just women’s, to acknowledge and address this problem.

  • I’m sorry this has happened to you. I experienced a particularly ugly incident of sexual harassment last week, one that came about 2 seconds after I was nearly hit by a car that swerved into me in the bike lane. It was so jarring and horrible.

    I do generally feel that biking gives me power–moreso than walking because I have speed and agility on my side in a way that I don’t either on foot or even in a car. But there are always reminders of how limited that power actually is.

    Honestly I don’t find being alone has anything to do with it. Virtually every incident of street harassment I’ve experienced has been in the presence of 2-3 to dozens of other people.

    • I find if I’m with other women, it still happens, but if I’m with a man (or someone who appears male) it doesn’t happen at all.

      • Nothing infuriates me more than when a man happens to say something to me on the street – sees that I am with another man- and he apologizes to HIM for talking to me. It is so clear that for the men who act this way, a woman is no more than just some object – and the only thing that makes it not available to them is the possibility of another man owning it.

  • Moved here from midtown manhattan. My wife has stopped feeling safe walking around anywhere, or even taking a cab. In NY she could leverage the crowd, but DC streets are too empty. What is disgusting is that this never happens when I am near by.

  • It’s too bad you didn’t have some mace or pepper spray when they came up next to you…filling their faces and car with that would have been exactly what they deserved.

  • I Dont Get It

    I am so sorry that this happens to women in DC. As a guy I rarely get street level harassment and when it does happen it is usually just calling me the *other* F word or a cracker.

    These posts are very eye opening to me as a older white male in DC.

  • Just this morning I was followed from my front gate to the metro. This city is worse than most places I’ve been, or maybe it’s that I spend more time walking around without a male companion here than I have elsewhere. Thank you for sharing your experience, and when the haters (you know, the “asking for it” / “it’s a compliment” crowd) try and say otherwise, keep speaking up. We have to keep speaking up.
    It has nothing to do with that we might be someone’s wife / sister/ daughter / aunt / etc. It’s that we’re humans and we deserve to be treated as humans. We do not at any time have to justify or legitimize the respect we deserve to our fellow human beings.
    That being said, I need a shorter way to tell the harassers that they’re perpetuating misogyny and established power structures. Anyone have a suggestion?

    • Sadly, the kind of people who say stuff like this are probably not in a place where they’d understand misogyny and the concept of established power structures. I don’t know how you get through to someone like that.

    • I have had couple of interactions with harassers, where they have apologized about their behavior. One time, it was a couple of teenagers who seemed to just be acting a fool – saying something about my ass under their breath. I stopped, turn around and ask them if they meant to say something to me. They were caught off guard, apologized and kept going.
      Another time, was a group of maybe 3-4 latinos going on and on with obscenities behind me for couple of blocks. I had enough, so I turned around (I am latina) and in Spanish, told them that if they want to talk to me. That is not how they would achieve it. They apologized, said they didnt mean it. I told them that if they want to talk to somebody, they could just say hello.
      Both times, I did not act angry. They gave me slight satisfaction, though I honestly dont think it would work with most catcallers out there.

  • I’m so sorry this has been such a frequent occurence for you – I get the occasional cat-call but nothing quite so terrifying. Thank you for sharing this, it’s an incredibly well-written, emotional, and important piece that I will share.

  • Does anyone have a witty/angry comeback they’ve used in situations where they’ve been harassed? I’ve had several groups of men in cars yell at me recently from across several lanes of traffic, so I don’t feel like yelling back will escalate the situation (this always seems to happen while I’m walking along NY Avenue, and cars are entering 395). I know better than to yell back and potentially increase the guy’s anger, but if there’s no chance of that, has anyone ever had a particularly satisfying comeback? Most of the time, I just have to stand there and gape in silence. At least yelling would help me express some frustration.

    • I would be interested to know both the “witty/angry comeback” as well as whether using pepper spray would make the harassment situations better/worse. Is “Anon MPD” out there?

    • Blithe

      This isn’t a “witty comeback”, although I do have some. Several years ago, a guy came up in my face with: “Smile baby! Why don’t you smile!” I stopped. Looked him in the eye, and told him truthfully that my father was in the hospital, in intensive care, and smiling at a stranger was not on my list of things to do that day. He quickly, and sincerely apologized. And I’m sure that he checked himself before demanding that another stranger ‘smile!” for his entertainment.

    • houseintherear

      I used to yell and scream, but after some time it felt like that only hurt/exhausted me and did nothing to deter them. My person belief now is to ignore ignore ignore. Don’t give it any power. I also shield my face a lot, like I’m in direct sunlight. It makes me feel like I’m saying, “You don’t exist to me.” But to each her own!

    • pcat

      Try “Sorry honey, you couldn’t afford it.” It’s always worked for me.

      • That implies that someone COULD; that you are an object for purchase. Nice going.

      • Baby steps; When harassers already think you’re an object, it’s hard to get them out of that mindset. Plus, there’s always the “it’s just a matter of price” philosophy.
        Would like another option though!

    • If you are in a public space near potential bystanders, then always escalate. You have to train yourself to do it on instinct. Force the crowd to take your side. Loud cursing works best. If you can’t summon hateful remarks instantaneously, then just repeat the vulgar thing he said to you back at him.
      If you are not in a public space near bystanders, then move towards one.

    • Not my own witty comeback, and it only works in limited situations, but when my mom, who is 5’10”, was studying abroad in Paris in college, she had a short French guy following her and catcalling her. She finally spun around, looked down at him, and said (in French), “And if you got me, what would you do with me?” He scuttled off.
      I’ve had some success with, “Do you *really* think that’s how to pick up women? That’s so sad.” Or a good ol’ “F off” while walking right past. That one doesn’t accomplish anything, but it does feel pretty good.

    • I usually just say “please” and give them a look but definitely be careful when giving any response. Some of the street harassers are more obtuse than others, some angrier, some crazy – but basically you never know how they’ll react. The satisfying comeback isn’t worth jeopardizing your own safety.

    • The smiling birds flipped in Broad City is a pretty good response

    • Honestly, I wouldn’t yell back unless you’re in a group. I’ve done it a few times and the anxiety that comes out of the interaction just isn’t worth it. It can also get scary because men who harass women do not take rejection well. If you really want to do something, make a super ugly face at the harasser. It always throws them off. (I never do this, but a good friend of mine does.)

    • I have to walk through the home depot parking lot every morning to get to the metro/on my way home and the crowd of 20 – 30 men standing around waiting for work are awful, it’s mind blowing. I’ve had everything from men making kissing noises after I walk past them, why don’t you smiles, lewd comments, lewd gestures, and even ones lifting up their shirts asking if I wanted a piece of them. I do! Just not in the way they’d like. Sometimes when I would ignore them I would be informed of my privileged white b*tch status. Thanks?

      I used to ignore them but after a few months of frustration started to look at any man who would say something to me, ask him either to repeat himself or say something along the lines of ‘Excuse me, did you just say XYZ to me?’ Then I ask the surrounding men if the man that made the comment was succeeding in looking like hot sh*t in front of his friends. This ALWAYS results in either the man that made the comments looking away like he didn’t hear me/replying that he didn’t say anything and then all of the other men laughing at him. Now THAT is satisfying. I can yell at them until I’m blue in the face but embarrassing them in front of their buddies completely reverses any anger I had from the comment. They deserve it.

      After a month or so of this the cat calling almost completely stopped, and when it does happen it is infrequent. Granted I’m walking past more or less the same group of men everyday so they probably recognize me and know I’ll react this way, but one can dream that I’m actually making some sort of difference in how they act towards other women who have to walk through that parking lot.

      I am still careful to watch my back around them in case there’s ever any retaliation for the comments that I’ve made back to them. Unfortunate, but reality.

    • Limited situations, but I’ve been found of (excuse spelling) “como se dice ‘f$&@ you’ in espanol?” Usually at least creates moment of pause.

  • It sucks.
    But I think you are overly optimistic about the way these men treat the women in their families.

  • It’s really awful how unsurprised I am by these kinds of incidents at this point. I’ve lived in DC for eight years, in the heart of downtown (Penn Quarter) for four of those so far. I either experience this or witness it on a pretty much daily basis. The number of times I have felt physically unsafe are too many to count. Including once recently on a Metro train where a man who was clearly experiencing either mental disorder or some other cause screamed at me for two stops, while the men around me averted their eyes. This was the middle of a weekday. Another time two men followed me down the block having a loud debate about how I “rated” to them, then laughed when I shot them a furious look. Early evening on a weekday that time. I feel for you for having been physically touched. That has happened to me, too, and is a whole other level of fear.

    • The same thing happened to me on Metro a while back–a mentally unstable man harassed and screamed at me while a dozen or so other passengers (including several large men who were easily twice the size of the harasser) stared at the floor.

      • I am a woman, who has been screamed at in similar situations, but I really question what you expect men standing around to do in that situation. Usually if the abuse is just verbal, and the person seems crazy, it is best for all around to just ignore it, rather than perhaps exacerbate the situation by responding somehow.

        • It was more of a coincidence that all of the other people in the train car at that time were men. Basically I would hope not that someone would confront the harasser but that anyone might do something to try to help with finding a way out of the situation. For example, once I was shopping with a female friend in Turkey, when a couple of shopkeepers started following us and grabbing at us, actually putting an arm around my friend at one point. An older couple was nearby, and upon seeing us they immediately pretended that they knew us and had been waiting for us. The shopkeepers took one look at the older man and stopped. It was epic, and it in no way involved the man confronting those two guys directly. Maybe wouldn’t work on the Metro, but that’s the general idea.

          • Just a month or two ago, my wife and I (we are two women) used this same ploy to help a woman who was being harassed as she walked down 14th in Col Hts. As this drunk dude trailed her saying whatever bs he was spewing, we approached and pretended to know her. She didn’t speak much English, but she understood enough and played along. We went into a shop together until he got tired and moved down the street. We then walked her most of the way home, including past the previous offender. Fortunately, he chose not to engage the second time around.

          • I always wonder if this is a good tactic. I would absolutely want someone to do this for me but I also don’t want to push the poor woman even further by then having to deal with another stranger. I’ll resolve to step in and pretend like I know her when I see this in the future and just hope she plays along and lets me help her out of the situation.

          • That’s exactly what I was going to suggest until I read your post. One of those dudes could have just approached her as if they hadn’t seen for forever totally ignoring the screamer.

        • I am always ready to step in, but aggressive male harassment is far different from crazy person screaming. Aside from better treatment or locking ill people in institutions (like was done in generations past) there is not much that can be done when dealing with the mentally ill on the street.

  • It also happens as your walking down the street with your 2-year old daughter….I love DC, but I hate those moments so much.

  • Blithe

    This is awful. Please resist the temptation to turn this into a “DC problem”, because it’s not. I’ve been harassed in multiple cities, most violently in NYC — where someone once threw a bottle at me because I didn’t speak to him. From the “why don’t you smile”, to vile, graphic propositions; to racially tinged threats of violence, as the OP points out, this isn’t new. It’s about daring to be a female, unaccompanied by a male, in public.

    OP, I’m sorry that this happened to you. Thank you for the post — which may bring the issue, and the possibility of solutions, to a wider audience.

    • Yeah, I’ve lived in Chicago and St. Louis. This sort of thing happened with about the same (disturbing) frequency in those places.

    • I agree with your point about not making it only a DC problem but at the same time it would be great if the community would step up and at least work towards solving the problem for DC residents.

  • OP here.

    Thank you for your support, and for coming forward with your own stories and examples. I think this is something that many can relate to and there’s strength there in those numbers.

    I have lived in DC (on and off) for nearly 10 years, and I love it here. I will continue to love living here and biking here, as long as I can remember and be reminded that we have a community like this one.

    Thanks for joining the conversation! We might have to get loud to be heard.

  • Very eloquently put. With all of the strides made in the rights and opportunities available to women, it is clear that a significant portion of the male population thinks that we are up for grabs (often literally), especially we we don’t have a man with us. On a macro level, we as a culture need to stop raising men to believe that they have the right to catcall, grope, harass, rape, etc. We are not here to serve as objects of entertainment or pleasure for men. (I’m tired of putting stopping harassment or rape on women – it’s men who are the perpetrators nearly every time in nearly every circumstance, and it happens all the time.)

    Having said that, I recognize that we need tools to address this behavior. I’ve heard of some guidelines for handling street harassment, such as calmly and loudly identifying and calling out the perpetrator, and telling him to stop or get away. These published on the Association of Women in Science website look good: http://www.awisdc.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/What-to-Do-If-You-Are-the-Target-of-Harassment.pdf.

  • http://www.collectiveactiondc.org/

    That website is a great resource for this kind of issue.

  • I’m very sorry that you experienced this, OP. Because it’s difficult to carry pepper spray and work in a federal building, I have resorted to mounting a camera on my handlebars and emphatically gesturing at it when I’m harassed. I don’t know if it makes me any safer but I feel safer with it on. Some cyclists with cameras loudly repeat the license plate and driver descriptions of harassers which may be a signal to drivers that you have their information on record and you will be able to identify them.

    • Sabre sells a slim pepperspray that has an elastic holster designed to be strapped to a bike frame. I keep in on the bike all the time and its tucked away enough on the top tube that no one has ever stolen it.

      • Remember that pepper spray is considered a FIREARM in the District of Columbia and as such your weapon must be registered with the DC Police. You need to be sure to purchase from a dealer who will give you a registration form to fill out which they will forward to the DC Police. The final piece is that the spray must conform to the proper ingredient requirements. Please be careful about advising people to purchase this weapon without knowing the regulations. I would hate for someone to end up in trouble with the law for not properly purchasing, owning, and using their weapon. All info is on the DC Police website. Just do a google search for “pepper spray in Washington DC”.

        • Accountering

          You aren’t going to wind up in actual trouble for this. There is not a jury in the city that would ever convict someone for using pepper spray. Worst case scenario, you defend yourself, some rogue cop gives you a ticket.

        • considering the ineptness of law enforcement and comically light punishments sought by prosecutors in this city, the chance of you legitimately getting into trouble for defending yourself with pepper spray are infinitesimally small.

  • Thank you for sharing your experience. As a 20-something female in DC I share your frustration and concern. I utilize most forms of transportation here in the city: walking, metrobus, biking, CaBi, driving, Metro, and Uber. Especially at night or even in the rain, this can be really scary. I don’t know whether this is a “DC-thing” or not, but I went to college in Boston and rarely if ever experience that kind of outward harassment that is almost commonplace here. I feel like a wimp each time I opt for an uber or drive instead of walking or biking, because I don’t feel safe on the route between Points A and B. Stories like this make me feel more confident in my decisions, but overall more concerned.

  • I recommend anyone who witnesses this type of behavior show their support by first calling the police and secondly recording the incident on your phone if possible. In this sense if it provokes the response of a crowd and not just the individual being harassed or a single bystander, then it may help dissuade the assholes who are doing this, and they may even see that it is completely unacceptable. I’m really sorry this happened to you.

    • I’ve called police but they won’t send anyone unless you stay there to wait for a responder. I tell them I’m not staying in the vicinity of a street harasser who is threatening me and they say they can’t send anyone. It’s useless.

  • I know it’s oft repeated, but I hate the idea that we have to explain to men that we are a mother/daughter/sister, as if we as women shouldn’t be respected in our own right, and that it has to relate to potential relationships they have have with their mother/daughter/sister to humanize us.

    It sounds like you’re young and new to this – your narrative is very familiar to me and to many women who contend with this daily. If I’m catcalled when walking with a male friend (which is rare – if I’m with a man, then i’m ‘taken’in a catcaller’s eyes – it’s usually when said friend is a pace or two behind me), I always say “welcome to a day in the life of a woman” to the man I’m walking with. It’s imperative that men also stand with us and tell their friends that comments like these are not acceptable. That women deserve safe spaces.

    You did one little thing that made me cringe and I know it’s not at all intentional but it’s important that we use the right words. This is more written to anyone who generally notices this – I don’t mean to turn the next couple of sentences into a lecture. Referring to women as ‘females’ is something that is rampant with misogynists – it devalues women and brings us down to a biological descriptor that’s not unique to humans. Think anytime Chris Brown tweets about women, he refers to them as ‘females.’ While you did the same when referencing the men in your story, it’s a particularly loaded term for women to be referred to as ‘females’. I think we need to be sure that we refer to ourselves as women (or female doctor, or female athlete, or female friend), and not ‘female’ alone.

    Anyway, I’m very sorry for your experience – it’s something that angers me every single day and it’s traumatic and colors my mood for the entire day (or entire week, depending on how bad an interaction with a street harasser turns). If I’m in a safe space, I will calmly but very directly turn to them and tell them “Do not harass me” and continue on my way – it’s not true that ignoring will save you. Sometimes it can, sometimes it can embolden them – and you can’t tell until their reaction is over – I’ve been called a stupid c*nt for ignoring a catcaller on a dark street when I was walking home, and I was frightened that he’d double back on me after I had the gall to not entertain his comments.

    It takes a community to turn the tide on this – I was relieved to hear that Tenleytown Trash WILL investigate any driver who catcalls you – they told me they fired someone not long ago for inappropriate comments. I had called them and another garbage company (the harassers were garbage truck drivers in an orange truck – only two kinds of that sort in DC) to see if the time and location could place which company’s truck was responsible for intimidating me. I expected a nothing response from Tenleytown (and it ended up not being their truck) but he told me if it ever happens with one of his trucks, to let him know immediately.

    • Indeed, I am aware of the problematic use of “females” and constantly advocate against it. In this case, it was a conscious choice but perhaps not explicit enough. I am not new to this, nor very young. I tried to make that clear in the content, perhaps not enough. As you said “It takes a community to turn the tide,” so even though I am not green to this kind of experience, I think it is worth writing about in this context.

    • I was groped by a school age boy, maybe 12-13 years old, and the only thing I could think to do was yell at him “WHAT WOULD YOUR MOTHER THINK OF YOU?!?!?!” as he scrambled away.

  • Preach! This city is a scary place for a woman alone. I’m newly single and also the new owner of one of those cat self-defense keychains. I know it probably won’t actually even make me safer, but I need something to clutch while I endure this kind of bullshit to give me at least some sense of security and control. It sucks.

  • Thank you for sharing your story, because we all know we need to step up and speak out in the silence.

    You should never have to qualify your right to safety by stating that you are a “daughter, aunt, wife”. Even that perpetuates the concept that our worth as women is granted by a relationship to men. The first time someone told me this, it kind of blew my mind. The reason that type of individual treats women the way they do is because they do not value us as human beings.

    We are PEOPLE and we do not want to be perpetually afraid. I am glad you were not physically harmed for standing up for yourself, and am proud you took a stand.

  • at the CASS street harassment workshop, we learned a few things:

    1.) Put your hand out like a stop sign. Say in a loud and authoritative voice “Stop harassing people. I don’t like it. Nobody likes it. Show some respect!”
    2.) Be a good bystander. Say things like “that’s gross!” or “cut it out!” or if you don’t feel comfortable with that, something simple like asking the harasser for the time or for directions.
    3.) Check in with the victim. A simple “are you ok?” goes a long ways.

    And SHARE YOUR STORIES! You can use #EndSH or #respectNOW to connect with CASS

  • You can report any harassment incident here:

    And if you are harassed by a bus driver, make your complaint directly to WMATA or the applicable regional transportation agency. I’ve gotten pretty good at memorizing bus numbers (not the license plate but the number on the back and sides of the bus), and I’ve gotten a response every time I’ve reported bad driver behavior. That includes being flipped off, yelled at, and nearly hit a couple of times. Another option for WMATA is http://www.wmata.com/harassment or 202-962-2121. They do take seem to take complaints seriously.

  • Thank you so much for posting this! Very sorry to the OP for this harassment that she experienced. It is so completely frustrating to have these sorts of experiences that are way too familiar to all of us women. I love my house, I love my block and my neighbors, but as soon as I turn the corner onto 14th Street to walk to the metro, store, bus stop, a bar, WHEREVER, it is constant. And it is exhausting. I get to the point where I don’t want to be out and about by myself, because when I’m walking around with my husband, I don’t get bothered at all. I’m just chiming in because I get it, I go through it, and juding from these comments, so many other women do as well. I am so over it and it needs to stop.

  • That One Guy

    All I can say is that some guys didn’t learn respect for women (mothers, sisters, daughters, wives or girlfriends). Where is this type of behavior even picked up?

  • I stopped making eye contact with groups of males b/c of this. It gets old having someone yell prices and sexual comments across the street to you.

  • Sorry to hear this happened to you. Last week, I was walking to work and the gym before daybreak in Adams Morgan and was aggressively catcalled from across the street by 2 women. I’m a 6 ft 1 man in his 40s. Their aggression made me really uneasy so I ignored and kept walking. It made me realize what women experience regularly. The sad part is that when I tell the story, people find it funny! Maybe some men would find that funny, but I didn’t.

    • Maybe if women started doing this aggressively all over the place, backed up with the threat of violence (which is often behind what women face, and why they find the verbal abuse so scary), men would stop doing this.
      Just a random thought. Sorry this happened to you, though.

  • I’m a woman – and I ride a bike around time. While I get occasional harassment, it doesn’t last long because I won’t take it and I don’t ignore it. So that’s my advice: Don’t take it. Don’t be scared. You shouldn’t ignore that sort of harassment. Fight back. If they were blocking traffic, there were other people in cars around to witness it – and they’re not going to run you down. Next time, stop in the middle of the road and take a picture of the people and a picture of the car/license plate. Or get a go pro. While we shouldn’t have to do that, we do – and it is the best option. Photo evidence is the best way to fight back – and then when you call the cops – they have something to work with. Post it on twitter and facebook.

  • Yes, yes please. Please share with the news, with the city council, the mayor, with anyone who will listen. This affects women of all colors, languages, and a wide age range of women. What will it take to make women feel safer? OP, thank you for sharing this. I’m sorry this happened to you. It sounded very frightening.

  • jessicaraven


    I am so sorry to hear what you’ve experienced and echo you in saying that you deserve to occupy public spaces without feeling unsafe or afraid, and you are not alone.

    Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS) is working closely with WMATA and local policy makers to improve safety on public transit and to equip our community to respond to sexual harassment, recognizing that the onus is not on the victim to prevent harassment and that we must also work to change the culture that allows public sexual harassment and assault to continue. In the meantime, as some commenters have noted, we’re working to launch our free, safe rides program for people at greatest risk of sexual harassment – women, LGBTQ and gender nonconforming folks – on a monthly basis starting this fall.

    Please contact me at [email protected] so we can talk about other ways to support you!

    In solidarity,
    Jessica Raven
    Interim Executive Director, CASS

  • I hate it but what I found is most men that continue to harass feed off you being scared. I remember being 16 walking down the street with 2 gal friends and we had a car full of guys follow us. We freaked out and started to run. The guys followed us.

    What I’ve seen that has worked is to look them straight in the eyes and tell them off that way. Another time I was at a stop light in my car alone and a car full of guys next to me were trying to annoyingly get my attention. I knew if I tried to ignore them, they would continue to try to pester me. So I turned my head toward them, looked straight at them and simply shook my head. They stopped immediately after that, and just stayed at the light in silence.

    Another reason I think this works is that with the action to stare them straight in the eyes, in a confident, unforgiving way, it can make the guys self-conscious themselves. And they’ll think like “Oh, someone’s actually paying direct attention to me.” You know like those people who work so hard to get attention, and then when they finally do, they don’t know what to do with themselves?

    I’m sorry that had to happen to you with men groping you while riding a bike and that is definitely scary. I don’t know if you could have stopped your bike since they were driving in their car and they wouldn’t really be able to stop and hold up traffic for long. Maybe next time this situation occurs (hoping it doesn’t), you can stop your bike and let the harassing guys roll on through.

  • Keep phones in pockets and start taking pictures and videos of these goons every single time something happens. Also keep pepper spray — and even Mace if you can get it, but keep in mind there are rules about use of self-defense sprays, so read this link: http://mpdc.dc.gov/page/mace-pepper-spray-and-self-defense-sprays

    • After doing some research myself on how and where to buy the sprays I learned that Mace is just a brand of pepper spray. I’ve always heard people talk about Mace as if it were a separate thing, but it’s not. Anyway, the key to make sure to purchase your pepper spray from an authorized seller who will give you the form to fill out along with the spray, and also to be sure the spray meets the regulations for permissible ingredients.

  • If you see something, say something. Bystanders, we have all been one, often feel threatened themselves or do not want to get involved. But clearly, this is everyone’s problem. It is also about power, like many forms of assault. Relying on community resources is important, but in the moment, you feel minimized, subverted and small (whatever your gender). This type of harassment exists to make the victim feel that way, and the perpetrator to feel aggrandizement, dominant, authoritative. Also, this frequently happens when the perpetrator is in a group- bystanders witness and the perp is awarded dominant status in the presence of peers. I took a street harassment course and reframing the interaction in my mind had helped when it is “me against them”. It also has put me on alert to look out for this type of behavior, and prepare for intervening as a bystander (assessing for safety and making the harassment public). Repeating loudly and as if it is hilarious what was said to you is one strategy, while continuing to move towards other people in the space… your own witnesses. Pepper spray does not de escalate the situation, you are looking to simultaneously de escalate and flee/ gain allies in public during the interaction. You aren’t alone. I (and this community) are looking for you and ready to intervene… Right? Maybe? See something, say something. As I have to sadly say almost every other day “I don’t like that, STOP saying XYZ to me”. (Naming the behavior and then getting the hell out of wherever it is happening as fast as possible). Time working in trauma services taught me so much about escalation, unless you have to, don’t go that route. Ride safely, walk proudly… Yes all women.

  • There are so many comments on this thread – maybe we need a make DC safe for it’s women campaign…so that all of us who feel silent have a place to speak? I used to walk to metro with my husband, but in the last month we no longer work in the same direction and I have been struck with the difference in my treatment. The “good morning” to us or “ignore and walk past us” has turned into “heeey maamaa,” “mornin’ baby,” low whistle, “heey snow mama,” upon looking at my left hand – “did he tell you he loved you this morning?,” “do you need a boyfriend,” and I kid you not a guttural “rawrr” yesterday morning (in case you wonder I was wearing pants and a sweater and carrying a diaper bag…). I refuse to believe that I should have to deal with these comments and take these as “compliments,” which some men seem to insist they are. I keep my head down, put in headphones, and wear a coat if I dare to wear a skirt or dress, or wear pants and nothing showy, but the reality is that I have to get to work and spend more time and thought than I would like being pulled out of my train of thought by these invasive feeling comments and actions. I was not put on this earth to be an object, I just want to walk to work in peace, thinking about my to-do list or my baby’s sweet smile this morning, and enjoy my mug of coffee in the bright autumn sun… What can we do?

  • I hear you. A panhandler in front of Whole Foods threatened to rape me as I struggled to unlock my bike. It was ~4:00pm on a weekday and there were people EVERYWHERE and NO one would even MAKE EYE CONTACT with me, let alone intervene. There were probably 10 people within 20 feet of me, and all of them pretended they couldn’t hear my increasingly loud and urgent voice as I told him to get away from me, that I was feeling threatened.

  • I’m sure many others have already said this, but thank you for your eloquent post.

  • what i’ve learned to say, when i remember to, is “nobody asked you about my looks. nobody freaking asked you.” it makes me feel a tiny bit better to remind them that, and sometimes it surprises them into silence for a minute.

    brandishing a ulock is also quite empowering, but escalation is not recommended.

  • Time for a Russian tactic, the dash cam. Upload all incidents of harassments to publicly shame these fools.

  • Men who do this to women are just cowards. They’re somehow feeling insecure and/or threatened by women and this is their silly way of acting out. It’s shameful. Keep being the strong woman that you are!

  • Seems we all need body cams, not just the police. Time to record such behavior and out the perps.

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