A number of men have asked us the same question recently: if you're walking on a dark street near a lady, how can you let her know you're not a threat? So this week, we offer some tips for dudes who'd like to help women feel more comfortable in public spaces.
Neal Irvin, executive director of Men Can Stop Rape, told me the most important thing men can do to help women feel safe around them is to "be matter-of-fact and consistent in how you'd walk past a woman." Don't stare or gaze lingeringly at her — just pass on by the way you'd pass by another dude. Joanne Smith, coauthor of Hey, Shorty!: A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools and on the Streets and executive director of Girls for Gender Equity, concurs:
Treat a woman and girl like they are your equal, like you would another man and boy as he walks down the streets. You would give him his own personal space, if you wanted his attention to ask him something you would assess his non verbal cues, ask him from a comfortable distance so he doesn't feel threatened, accept his answer and move on. Do the same thing to women and girls as we walk down the street.
One way to help a lady feel safe in public space is to give her space. Says Smith,
I want to stress that men and boys should not walk too close to women and girls – it's creepy and threatening. Give us our personal space, if we want to engage in a conversation we will make that very clear. Don't touch our hair or grab us by the hand. If you say, "hello" or "can I talk to you for a minute", if we want to engage we prefer to do so willingly, not because we are threatened by you and think that we have to stop our you will be angry. That's not the way to start a relationship.
You don't have to stay a block behind her, just don't crowd her. You probably have an idea of what a non-creepy distance feels like. Emily May of Hollaback! says that "people can read intent," and if you're not trying to get too close to a woman or stare at her, she'll probably feel better.
If you're walking behind a woman and you don't want to scare her, you could try just announcing your presence. Smith tells this story of "a time when I was leisurely walking with a female friend down the street as the sun was going down, we were the only two people I could see for a few blocks":
As we were walking we could hear the distant scuff of boots quickly approaching us from behind but before we could turn our heads around to see who was coming our way we heard, "hey ladies, I just want to give you a heads up that I'm coming up behind you " when we turned around the man was about 10 feet behind us simply walking a lot faster then us and on his way to his next destination. As he passed us we said, "thank you for the heads up" he said "no problem, just didn't want to startle or scare you. Have a good night" — this was a man that understood that men approaching women on the street (for whatever the reason) will more likely than not be perceived by women as threatening and that he could help to curve that feeling and myth 'that all men are dangerous' by simply giving us a heads up. It's one example of what more men should do (especially at night) to help women feel less threatened by their presence.
Sometimes just a heads-up is enough to let a lady know you're a decent dude and not planning to attack her.
Irvin described a time when he was walking behind a woman who was becoming visibly agitated by his presence. One trick he tried to set her at ease was calling his fiancee on his cell phone. Obviously just making a phone call doesn't mean you're not a threat — but it could be a way of showing a woman that you're not focused on her. Depending on the situation, this could be enough to make her feel better.
If you're approaching a woman face-to-face, Irvin says the "matter-of-fact and consistent" rule still applies. Greet her with "a little eye contact and a hello, or even no hello." Holly Kearl, author of Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women and founder of Stop Street Harassment, says,
If they make eye contact, he could give a nice, friendly smile and nod, but if they're just passing each other on the street, I wouldn't recommend speaking, unless it's just a simple "hello" or "good evening ma'am." If they're standing somewhere, like waiting for a light to change or waiting for a bus, he should keep some distance from her and not stare and again keep any conversation limited to hello unless she initiates a conversation first.
Contrary to men's rights stereotypes, respecting a lady's personal space does not mean no one ever dates and the human race ceases to exist. It merely entails acknowledging that if you want to get to know a lady, a dark street is not the place to start. She may be scared and even resentful, and probably won't be receptive. Says Kearl,
If a man really wants to approach a woman to meet her, he should pick a populated area and preferably not do it when he is with friends but she is alone or when it's dark. He could start off with a hello and neutral small talk and if she reacts well — smiling and eye contact — then continue on to asking more about herself or asking for her phone number. But making sure it is a setting where she will hopefully feel comfortable is important or else he could make her feel unsafe from the start without meaning to.
Trust us, a lady is going to like you a lot more if she feels comfortable and safe.
The above are all situational things a guy can do when he's already on the street with a lady. But there are some general steps he can take too. May says men can help women as a whole by "asking them about their experiences and offering a safe space to talk" — she adds that many men are shocked when they find out how bad street harassment really is, and that "male outrage can be really comforting." It can be nice to know that someone gets it — and is angry on your behalf. Irvin also notes that guys can talk to other guys about appropriate boundaries with women, and let their friends know they'll be held accountable for violating those. And men can be active in anti-street-harassment campaigns or lobby their lawmakers to take the issue more seriously. Kearl says "the most important thing for men to understand is that most women perceive public places differently from most men" — but by being decent and helping other guys do the same, men can help women in public feel more like equals.
Men Can Stop Rape [Official Site]
Hey, Shorty!: A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools and on the Streets
Girls for Gender Equity [Official Site]
Hollaback! [Official Site]
Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women [Official Site]
Stop Street Harassment [Official Site]
Image by Jim Cooke, photo by Brocorwin/Shutterstock.