A Biker’s Guide to Dealing With Street Harassment

Plus: 5 strategies to employ when confronted by a harasser.

(Photo by Nelson L. on flickr)

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This post is an excerpt from a new book out from Microcosm Publishing, Urban Revolutions: A Woman’s Guide to Two-Wheeled Transportation, by Emilie Bahr, an everyday cyclist and a transportation planner in New Orleans. Become a Next City member and receive a copy of the book.

It’s pretty much inevitable. Once you start riding your bike in the streets with any frequency, you will find yourself growing increasingly indignant about the poor skills and general lack of awareness and courtesy exhibited by a strikingly high proportion of drivers in your city. You will eventually get honked at, yelled at, and possibly even run off the road.

There is, I have found, a breed of driver that acts with impunity from the comfort and anonymity provided by their automobile. They believe their status aboard their two-ton steel and glass bubble renders them ruler of the roadways. It is as though in getting into the driver’s seat, they are immediately divorced from the rest of humanity.

The other day, I got flipped off by an old man who apparently didn’t believe I deserved to share the street with his Toyota Corolla. Another time, a mom with her two young kids in tow nearly plowed into me; she was so busy flailing her arms, honking her horn, and yelling at me to “get in the bike lane,” by which she ostensibly meant the sidewalk, where it is illegal to ride in my city for those of us older than fourteen.

Fortunately, as more and more people are taking to the streets by bike, I find myself confronted by this type of driver with noticeably less frequency. Most days, I make the sixteen-mile round trip between my apartment and my office without a single negative encounter. But occasionally, I’ll come across a driver whose ignorance, audacity and sheer irresponsibility makes me scream. Literally. Though often, said driver remains blithely unaware of ever being in the wrong.

Cyclists have a variety of ways of dealing with bad driver behavior. Some respond with cool indifference, carrying on as though nothing were amiss. One of my friends flashes an unexpected peace sign. Another blows kisses. I’ve known others to chase down offending drivers and let loose on them a tirade of expletives and even physical aggression. (I generally find that this latter type of response, though immediately quite gratifying, is not at all effective in changing bad behavior or in convincing an offender that they are acting inappropriately, to say nothing of the dangers entailed. Instead, responding to unseemly behavior in kind carries a high risk of proving to the driver, and anyone else who might be watching, that YOU are in fact the asshole.)

I think that one of the best ways to improve driver behavior is to simply ride a bike and encourage others to do so too. This may seem overly simplistic, with a frustratingly incremental payoff, but getting more people biking on the streets will over time make drivers more accustomed to anticipating and looking out for cyclists. It also improves the likelihood that drivers are themselves cyclists, and every cyclist I know who gets into a driver’s seat is much more understanding, aware, and patient than your average motorist.

It’s helpful to come up with a plan for handling bad driver behavior so that you’re less likely to be totally flustered — or driven to act irrationally — when you encounter it.

Lately, when I hear someone honking at me, I turn (assuming I can do this safely) and look the driver straight in the face. In looking the driver in the eye, I am better able to gauge the riskiness of the situation. Sometimes, I realize that the person was simply a friend trying to get my attention. But other times, it’s clear that the intention is to get me out of the way. If a driver is displaying reckless behavior, I move out of the
way as quickly as possible. But often, this very simple gesture has a remarkable disarming effect. I’ve seen exasperated motorists turn red and cower in embarrassment just by virtue of this very human exchange.

I find that I’m often in a position to speak with a driver who is ignorant of my rights to the road. With hilarious frequency, the driver who was so very impatient to speed past me, in the process violating all manner of road rules and common courtesy, ends up stopped by the closest traffic light. This sometimes provides for the perfect chance to glide right up to the driver’s window and engage in a brief exchange.

You might come up with a brief script that you can employ should you be afforded a similar opportunity. Here’s a sample template: Excuse me (sir/ma’am). I understand that you are frustrated, but I think it might be helpful to point out that the law gives me every right to ride here and says you are supposed to leave ample space when passing me. I know that you are in a hurry, but just keep in mind that your hurry affects my life. Thanks (BIG SMILE)!

I can’t claim that this tactic has resulted in any dramatic shifts in perspective among the motoring public. It has, however, given me the satisfaction of knowing I’ve stated my case and hopefully helped to discourage similar bad behavior in the future.

A few months ago, I was riding home when an SUV pulled up next to me and rolled down its window. I started to tense up, readying myself for a showdown. “Get on the sidewalk!” I expected to hear. “You’re slowing down traffic!” I almost didn’t believe what I heard instead. “You’re my hero!” a woman’s voice shouted through the window as she carefully accelerated past me. I smiled the rest of the way home.

How to Handle Gender-Based Street Harassment

For many women, jeers, unsolicited reviews of body parts, and sexual advances from strangers are a regular (and dreaded) part of stepping out of the door. For some, just the anticipation of this type of street harassment is enough to cause a reconfiguring of day-to-day routines, whether it means avoiding a particular road or intersection, pulling an otherwise unnecessary skirt over a favorite pair of yoga pants, or driving the two blocks to the store.

The group Stop Street Harassment estimates that two-thirds of all women in the U.S. have dealt with some form of sexual harassment on the street. This includes a range of experiences, from getting whistled or honked at to even being grabbed or followed. “A lot of times it’s honking, guys sticking their head out the window and staring at you as they drive by,” said Vanessa Smith, a New Orleans bike commuter.

Smith works with the New Orleans chapter of the anti-street-harassment organization Hollaback!, a group now in operation in cities around the globe that has as its mission combatting the catcalls, vulgar commentary, and related activity that many women contend with simply by virtue of their presence in the public sphere. (Women are not alone in being confronted with this behavior, say the experts, but along with gay and transgendered people, bear the disproportionate brunt of it.)

For some of us, the bike can function as a sort of street harassment escape valve, providing for a measure of detachment and a means of escape from potentially uncomfortable and even dangerous situations. If nothing else, the speed advantage afforded by a bike relative to walking minimizes the chances of overhearing unwelcomed editorializing — and makes it easier to get away from it.

“If someone decides to yell something at me, I feel a lot less vulnerable on a bike,” said Katie Monroe, who works for the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. Monroe founded the group Women Bike PHL and has testified before the Philadelphia City Council on the subject of street harassment and bike harassment more generally, arguing that the phenomena make our streets less hospitable places for certain groups of people. “Sometimes,” she added, “I even feel safe enough to yell something back at them, which I never do when I’m walking.”

There are, of course, innumerable ways to react should you be confronted by a harasser. Stop Street Harassment’s website offers a host of information on the subject, including a breakdown of pertinent laws by state and tips for responding to perpetrators. (Maintain eye contact. Exude calm and confidence. Don’t swear or lose your temper.)

As someone who always comes up with the witty retort five minutes too late, I think it’s useful to have a repertoire of responses in mind for the next time a guy you don’t know lobs a “Nice ass, baby” or “I wish I was that saddle” your way.

My friend Jessie once sobbed “My dad just died!” to a fellow pedestrian after he instructed her to “Smile, beautiful” as she passed him in the street. The perpetrator apologized immediately and effusively. Her father, it should be said, was very much alive.

(A Note of Caution: Smith stresses that your safety should always be paramount in determining how best handle a harasser, so be sure to follow your gut and remove yourself from any situation in which you feel as though you may be in danger.)

For times when the perfect rejoinder doesn’t roll smoothly off your tongue — or should you feel uncomfortable faking the death of a loved one as part of a comeback — you might deploy one of the following five strategies, which may be applied alone or in combination:

1. Ignore him. I imagine your typical street harasser is looking to get some type of response from his target. After all, this type of situation probably presents him with a rare chance for female attention and interaction. So try not giving it to him.

2. Raise your pinky. If the tried and true middle finger extension seems too vulgar or trite, try waving your pinky finger in the direction of your harasser. Even if he doesn’t get it right away, it may just leave him so confused as to shut him up. This move is inspired by an Australian ad campaign designed to teach young men that women don’t like guys who speed. Although the pinky wave may not be fully understood by the U.S. populace, I think it’s high time the gesture took hold here. (Note: I have not done exhaustive research into what connotations this move may hold in some other cultures, so use your discretion and/or local expertise.)

3. Report it. If the harassment occurs in or near a business, public facility, or transit vehicle, let the business owner or relevant public agency know.

4. Let a card do the talking. Some advocacy groups have started propagating what Hollaback! dubs “creeper cards,” which a woman can hand over to her harasser to let him know his behavior is unacceptable. You can download these cards from various websites or make some of your own and, when harassment strikes, dole them out silently, then walk or bike away.

5 . Document it. If you can do so safely, you might try taking a picture or a video of your harasser and/or uploading your harassment story to your social media outlet of choice. Hollaback! has a smart phone app available in a number of cities that allows users to log the location and type of street harassment encountered, and the group’s website invites visitors to share their experiences. If the harassment is especially egregious, you may also be able to use this as evidence to hand over to the police.

Monroe, for her part, tends to take a more zen-like approach lately when confronted with street harassment. “Engaging,” she said, “usually makes me angrier.”

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Emilie Bahr is a writer and urban planner living in New Orleans, where she first rediscovered the joys of getting around by bike. Her writing has appeared in the books New Orleans: Days and Nights in the Dreamy City and Louisiana in Words, and also in RV LifeNext City and Metropolis magazines. When she’s not biking, she’s often running, canoeing, or curled up in her favorite chair with a good book.

Tags: bikingbike safety

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