How 17 women respond to sexual harassment on the street vs. how they wish they could respond


The other morning I was walking to work and a man told me, in passing, to "take my pant[ies] off". This was, to me, perhaps the worst comment ever received from a catcaller. Stunned into silence, I just kept walking. And the disgusting comment wasn't delivered from far away, he was but half a metre from me.

In the past when I have complained about street harassment to men the response is often something along the lines of "You should be flattered” or “It’s just harmless - horny guys, man”.

Read: 5 things "modern-men" still don't get about women

But as you’ll discover below, women are never flattered by this everyday (every, single, day) behaviour. This is what I have always believed a lot of men don’t get: It’s not to be disregarded as “harmless”, it’s frightening. 


"I usually get flustered and walk away or tell them to fuck off if I’m feeling particularly brave that day. I wish I could respond like this girl I once heard about, though.

She had a guy cat call her from a car and she turned around and went “huh?” and when the guy repeated it she went “huh?”again over and over until he realised how ridiculous it was. I wish I could do that, but I don’t know if I could pull it off."


"Generally, I ignore them and keep walking. But yes, there are times I would like to use every possible curse on them and really tell them where to get off, but I do fear for my safety, especially since I’m a small person.

Nine out of ten times that this has happened to me, the man doing it would be part of a group, so me against a group of men makes me fear for my life, so I just keep walking. I have on the odd occasion flipped them the bird, though. I cannot tell you just how much this annoys and disgusts me."


"The other day as I was crossing the road, a man handing out pamphlets at the robot grabbed a woman's ass who was standing in front of me. She was quite shocked but just looked at him and walked on. I confronted him and told him to respect women and that it was totally unacceptable.

A female friend of his then chipped in and told me it was none of my business and he was just being friendly. So sometimes women are women's biggest enemy."


“I usually swear or scowl at them or ignore and walk on confidently. The swearing is not on purpose, sometimes I just can’t help myself and I often find myself saying “fuck off” before I know it.”


"Whenever I’m catcalled while walking on the streets, I simply walk on without giving the guy(s) any response. I cuss them in my head but I won’t do so vocally, mainly due to fear. I remember telling one guy to “fuck off” but then I felt like running for my life."


"I used to get angry in the past but now it doesn’t bother me anymore. I refuse to accept his gift of negativity and ignorance, it doesn’t belong to me. What I enjoy doing is stare blankly at that person, engage, make eye contact, make a connection, even stop walking, I have smiled back and acknowledged their existence.

I find he never expected me to look up or ‘confront’ him. Sometimes I also just ignore it, depending on my mood. Generally I really don’t care – screaming in the streets after women is sign of someone that needs love and attention, shame, we cannot judge, we can only love."


"I’ve been more harassed on the trains by guys. Especially when I’m about to leave, then I’ll be standing at the door to disembark and then they’ll want to start a conversation with me and then one guy actually asked if I didn’t want to stay longer on the train so he can take me home!

But nowadays I don’t make any eye contact with anyone especially at night. It’s hard especially if they ‘psst’ you or say ‘lady, lady’! But I’m just so over it"


"Sjoe, the other day I was waiting alongside a MyCiti bus stop for my lift (In Milnerton and not even the flats where most would stereotype this sort of behaviour) and the number of guys shouting weird stuff at me or cars flashing lights was horrifying. I just don’t see what sort of pleasure or satisfaction these individuals can get out of it?!"


"I almost always end up smiling awkwardly (and immediately regret having any facial expression) because what follows is a “pretty smile” and if you don’t smile then they say “suurgesig” or something along those lines.

I wish I could say something so powerful that it would make them stop and think before they open their mouths again. I don’t say anything because it seems like a bigger issue that I can’t tackle on my own with one guy on the street."


"I ignore them, because I don’t like to give them the satisfaction of having any effect on me. If I ignore them, I would think they know that they are being purposefully ignored, so I would hope if they think that they have no impact, they would eventually stop doing this to all women.

I wish I could scare them physically so they run away screaming. Like if I had something to klap them with! But never actually klap them. Just a good fright! So that they get the fucking message!

Obviously this isn’t possible… The catcaller is usually with a group of men, so it’s safer to just walk on by and ignore. I don’t ever feel threatened though, it’s more just degrading and humiliating."


"It honestly depends on my mood.

If I’m in a good mood, I will definitely have something to say. Swear at them and walk past.

If I’m in a bad mood, chances are I will keep quiet but maybe still pull a zap sign at the person but still carry on walking.

I wish men would just greet and move right along. If they have a question, just ask politely and lets end it right there. Mutual respect."


"I usually keep quiet for fear of my safety."


"I usually take my phone out and take a picture of them (or pretend to) and then carry on walking with a deadpan face. They usually get quite taken aback and it shuts them up pretty quickly.

I like to think it makes them feel a bit worried or uncomfortable. Like 'what is she going to do with that photo???'

What I would like to say is 'do you have a few hours to talk about how damaging your actions are to the women around you' but more realistically, 'I've yet to give this pepper spray a go and your face looks like a place to start'. But I don't engage either way for safety reasons."


"I don’t like confrontation or worrying about how it could escalate. But I think it’s disgusting when men do that."


"I often walk around with my earphones in, so luckily most of the catcalling is muted, but sometimes in between songs it so happens that I hear a catcall. I usually just keep walking and ignore. I remember one guy tried to caress my shoulder once and I loudly said “fuck off!” He didn’t expect that.

"I wish I could say “fuck off” more often, but you never know when the next F-off may be the last time you ever say it. Sometimes when the catcaller does it in Xhosa I can also find the courage to say “sundiqhela, bhuti,” which pretty much means don’t even try it, sir."


"Felt like flipping the bird most of the time but also felt really vulnerable to be honest and just tried really hard to ignore and not make eye contact. Yuck!

"I really wish I could come up with something witty, savage and biting to get them to back off and leave me alone."


"I usually ignore the catcalling and just continue walking. I wish I could turn around and tell them to stop treating me like an object and belittle them in much the same way as they’ve belittled me."

First prize is to get away so, Run. Run. Run. Attract attention in public spaces.
Fight for all you're worth if it comes to that, with whatever is at hand. Bricks, knives, biting, pinching, spitting. Whatever it takes.

We also asked Twitter how they respond:

5 brilliant comebacks to try next time:

1. Huffington Post notes that one should 'Point out a certain anatomical dilemma', for example:

2. Or try to put your own spin on his 'advice' for you as a woman:

3. Bustle recommends returning the 'compliment', thus diminishing the impact of their comment:

Image: Giphy

4. Remind them of the women in their life by saying something like: "Go say that to your mother" or ask him "Would you say that to your sister?"

5. Shame them in public - We love Carmen and Kelly's suggestions above. Question them or opt for the photo taking strategy, but for safety reasons just be sure you are in a space where there are lots of other people around.

We spoke to Kenneth Petersen, Cape Town Self Defence Institute, who advised the following in the event that the catcaller chose to respond with intimidation, "First prize is to get away so, Run. Run. Run. Attract attention in public spaces. Fight for all you're worth if it comes to that, with whatever is at hand. Bricks, knives, biting, pinching, spitting. Whatever it takes."

He also noted that one needs to refresh one's self defence training regularly as it's a skill that deteriorates if you don't train.


Disclaimer: W24 would not encourage confrontation if you feel a situation could escalate.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Yes, I believed it was authentic
7% - 393 votes
Yes, I didn't want to spend that much money on the original item
20% - 1124 votes
No, I always shop at reputable stores
13% - 748 votes
No, I don't wear designer clothing
60% - 3369 votes