Street Harassment in Philadelphia

What is Street Harassment?

Philadelphia takes street harassment seriously, and several forms of it are deemed illegal under the law. Acts such as verbal harassment, up-skirt photos, indecent exposure, following, wolf-whistling, catcalling, and groping are strictly prohibited and subject to legal consequences. The city is committed to creating safe and respectful environments for all its residents.

Stay empowered and aware of your rights and options when facing street harassment in Philadelphia. Understanding the laws and knowing how to report incidents can empower individuals to take action and contribute to the creation of a safer Philadelphia. Being aware of these resources can play a significant role in preventing and addressing street harassment in Philadelphia.

Street harassment in Philadelphia, and elsewhere, involves any unwelcome comments, gestures, or actions that occur in public spaces without consent. These actions are driven by the desire to assert power and intimidate others. By recognizing street harassment as a form of power play, we can collectively work towards eliminating this harmful behavior and promoting environments where everyone can move through public spaces without fear.

Here is a list of common forms of street harassment in Philadelphia, but this is by no means a complete list:
  • Unwanted comments
  • “Cat Calls”
  • Whistling
  • Invading a person’s space
  • Blocking a person’s path or movement
  • Commenting on a person’s physical appearance
  • Continuing to talk to someone after they have asked to be left alone
  • Flashing
  • Following or stalking
  • Groping
  • Public masturbation or touching
  • Showing pornographic without consent
  • Staring at people
  • Taking a photo of someone without their consent
  • Telling people they should smile more

Important Things to Know About Street Harassment in Philadelphia

The most important thing to know about street harassment is that it is not your fault. Street harassment is about intimidation and power. Every person has the right to go out in public spaces without experiencing unwanted comments, looks, advances, having their personal space invaded, or being touched without consent.

woman on her mobile phone called the police when she feels threatened on the street harassment

Nobody has the right to comment on your appearance, whistle at you, block your path, or touch you without your consent. This behavior is not acceptable, and you do not have to tolerate such acts. You should never feel that you “have done something” to cause these behaviors. Remember, street harassment is about power and intimidation.

What Can You Do About Street Harassment in Philadelphia

Prioritizing your own personal safety is the most important thing. Street harassment in Philadelphia, like other forms of sexual violence, revolves around the exertion of power and intimidation, and engaging with perpetrators could potentially escalate the situation. While you should never tolerate street violence, being mindful of your surroundings and situation is crucial to safeguarding yourself. You don’t have to put up with street harassment in Philadelphia, but you do have to keep yourself safe.

It’s Your Choice. Do The Right Thing for You.

Ultimately, what you decide to do or not do is your choice. You do not need to be a hero and risk your personal safety. Only you can decide the actions or non-actions that are best for you personally.

The power to decide rests entirely with you. Your choices are yours alone, and you should prioritize your own well-being. You don’t have to be a hero and put your personal safety at risk. Whether it involves taking action or opting not to act, trust yourself to make the decisions that are best for you.

What To Do if You Witness Street Harassment in Philadelphia

If you see street harassment in Philadelphia in progress, and you want to do something about it, here are some things you could do:

  • When in doubt, assume you should help. Ask the person if they need help. Sometimes, simply having someone else step in can put a stop to the harassment. Ask questions like, “Are you okay?” “Are they bothering you?”
  • Step in if you feel comfortable doing so. Practice bystander intervention by calling out the harasser about their behavior. You can say something like, “Hey, I saw you touch her. That’s harassment, and it is not okay. You need to stop.”
  • Never blame the victim. Nobody – absolutely nobody deserves to be a victim of street harassment. It is never the person’s fault and no one should ever be blamed for experiencing street harassment in Philadelphia. Street Harassment is about power and intimidation, not what you wore or how you dressed.
  • When someone confides in you about their experience, listen to them. Let them know they did not deserve what happened to them. Never invalidate another person’s experience and dismiss their feelings by saying it only happened because they are so beautiful. Don’t ask questions like “What were you wearing?” Instead, validate their experience by telling them that they did not deserve what happened to them, they did not ask for it, that it was not their fault, and ask if they would like any help from you (and respect their decision whatever it is).
  • Call out your friends and family. If you witness a friend engaging in street harassment by cat-calling, making sexual comments, or insulting someone, don’t hesitate to call them out on it and tell them to stop. Take the time to explain what street harassment is, why it happens, and how street harassment in Philadelphia damages people and communities, and why it’s essential to stop this behavior.

    If they are your friend, they are more likely to listen to you than someone they don’t know. As a friend, you have the power to help them avoid serious personal and professional consequences. Help them, and help put an end to street harassment.
  • Report it. “If you see something, say something”. Report what you’ve seen or experienced to public transportation personnel, law enforcement officers, or supervisors at your workplace if you witness or experience street harassment. If you are in school or college, report to teachers, the dean’s office, or the Title IX Office. If you are in the military, report to commanding officers.

Street Harassment in Philadelphia: Know Your Rights

Recognizing the seriousness of this problem, Pennsylvania enacted several laws to protect its citizens from street harassment and provide them with the means to report these incidents to the appropriate authorities.

What is Verbal Harassment?

Verbal harassment, a common type of street harassment, includes actions such as wolf whistling, catcalling, using obscene language, or engaging in violent or threatening behavior with the intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance, or alarm. This type of harassment seeks to demean, intimidate, or degrade individuals and often leaves the victims feeling unsafe and humiliated.

Pennsylvania’s Laws Against Verbal Harassment

In response to the prevalence of verbal street harassment, Pennsylvania has implemented three key laws to address these issues: Disorderly Conduct, Harassment, and Loitering and Prowling at Night Time.

1. Disorderly Conduct Title 18, Chap. 55 § 5503

Under the Disorderly Conduct statute, individuals engaging in actions that recklessly create a risk of public inconvenience, annoyance, or alarm can be held accountable for their behavior. This includes making unreasonable noise, using obscene language or gestures, or creating hazardous or offensive conditions. For victims of street harassment, such as being shouted at or followed in a threatening manner, reporting these incidents to the police can be an important step in seeking justice.

PENALTY: Disorderly conduct is a third-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 1 year in jail, “if the intent of the actor is to cause substantial harm or serious inconvenience, or if he persists in disorderly conduct after reasonable warning or request to desist.” Without this established intent, disorderly conduct is a summary offense, punishable by up to 90 days in jail.

2. Harassment Title 18, Chapter 27, § 2709

The Harassment law in Pennsylvania encompasses various actions committed with the intent to harass, annoy, or alarm another person. This includes following someone in public places, subjecting them to physical contact, or repeatedly committing acts that serve no legitimate purpose. Communicating lewd, threatening, or obscene language, drawings, or caricatures to or about someone also falls under this statute, making it applicable to instances of street harassment involving vulgar language or intimidating behavior.

PENALTY: Harassment is a summary offense in the state of Pennsylvania, punishable by up to 90 days in prison. Using lewd, lascivious, threatening, or obscene language is a third-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 1 year in prison.

3. Loitering and Prowling at Night Time Title 18, Chap. 55 §5506

To protect residents from potential harm, Pennsylvania prohibits malicious loitering or prowling near homes that do not belong to the perpetrator. This law applies to cases where a harasser lingers in residential areas and engages in behavior that is perceived as malicious or alarming, causing fear among residents.

PENALTY: Loitering and prowling at nighttime is a third-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 1 year in jail.

Addressing Unlawful Photographing, Videoing, and Filming

Apart from verbal harassment, street harassment can also manifest through unlawful photographing, videoing, filming, and indecent exposure, both of which create distressing situations for the victims. In Pennsylvania, these actions are considered invasion of privacy and indecent assault, respectively, and are subject to stringent legal consequences.

Invasion of Privacy Title 18, Chap. 75 § 7507.1

Unauthorized filming or photographing of a non-consenting person in a state of full or partial nudity, in a place where the person reasonably expects privacy, is considered an invasion of privacy. Examples of places where a person reasonably expects privacy are public restrooms, clothing store dressing rooms, locker rooms, and hotel rooms.

Additionally, capturing images of a person’s intimate parts without their consent, whether or not they are covered by clothing, with the intent to make the person’s intimate parts visible publicly also falls under this law. Examples of these kinds of images include up-skirt photos or videos and down-blouse photos or videos.

PENALTY: Invasion of privacy is a misdemeanor of the third degree, carrying a maximum penalty of up to 1 year in jail.

Indecent Exposure

Indecent exposure occurs when an individual knowingly or recklessly exposes their genitals in a public place or any location with other people present, intending to cause offense, affront, or alarm. This behavior is considered a criminal offense, and those who engage in it can be held accountable for their actions.

If you experience a situation where someone flashes or exposes themselves to you in a public setting, such as a park, public transportation, or a store, it is crucial to take action. You have the right to report the incident as indecent exposure, helping ensure that such behavior is appropriately addressed and prevented in the future. Reporting these incidents empowers the community to stand against harassment and uphold the importance of safety and respect for all individuals in public spaces.

Indecent Exposure Title 18, Chap. 31 § 3127

Indecent exposure refers to the act of exposing or flashing one’s genitals in a public place or where others are present, intending to offend, affront, or alarm them.

PENALTY: Indecent exposure is generally classified as a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to two years in prison. However, if anyone under 16 years of age is present during the incident or if the harassment involves forcible compulsion, the penalty is elevated to a first-degree misdemeanor, carrying a sentence of up to five years in prison.

Open Lewdness Title 18, Chap. 59 § 5901
Pennsylvania has another, less specific law against lewd acts in public. It reads: “A person commits open lewdness if s/he does any lewd act which s/he knows is likely to be observed by others who would be affronted or alarmed.”

A lewd act is not defined in the statute, but you may be able to report a harasser under this law for vulgar conduct like masturbating under one’s clothes without exposing one’s genitals (indecent exposure).

PENALTY: Open lewdness is a misdemeanor of the third degree, punishable by up to 1 year in jail.


If you believe someone is following you, call 911 immediately, even if it’s the first time it happens. You don’t have to wait for the person to commit a crime before seeking help and ensuring your safety.

Harassment Title 18, Chapter 27, § 2709

As noted under the “Verbal Harassment” section, the general harassment law in Pennsylvania makes it illegal to follow someone in a public place.

Unlike other states, the harassment law in Pennsylvania does not require it to happen more than once. If someone follows you and you feel harassed, you have the right to report it.

PENALTY: Harassment is a summary offense in the state of Pennsylvania, punishable by up to 90 days in prison. Using lewd, lascivious, threatening, or obscene language is a third-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 1 year in prison.

Stalking Title 18, Chapter 27, § 2709.1
In Pennsylvania, stalking is defined as engaging in conduct that includes actions like following or communicating with someone, without the other person’s consent, with the intention of causing them reasonable fear of bodily harm or significant emotional distress.

The statutes define a “course of conduct” as “a pattern of actions composed of more than one act over a period of time, however short, evidencing a continuity of conduct,” including “lewd, lascivious, threatening or obscene words, language, drawings, caricatures or actions, either in person or anonymously.”

This means if the same person follows you or harasses you at least 2 times, and you feel scared or threatened, you can report him or her under the stalking law.

PENALTY: Stalking is a first-degree misdemeanor in Pennsylvania, punishable by up to 5 years in prison.


Groping is sexual harassment or assault that involves touching or fondling someone’s body in a sexual manner without their consent. It involves unwelcome and non-consensual physical contact, such as touching someone’s breasts, buttocks, or genital area, or making unwanted advances in a sexual manner.

Groping is a serious violation of a person’s personal boundaries and is considered a form of sexual violence. It is important to understand that any form of touching without explicit consent is not acceptable and is considered a violation of someone’s rights.

Indecent Assault Title 18, Chap. 31 § 3126

In Pennsylvania, a person is guilty of indecent assault if, without consent and for the purpose of arousing sexual desire, the person:

  • Has “indecent contact” with someone
  • Causes someone to have indecent contact with him or her
  • Intentionally causes someone to come in contact with seminal fluid, urine, or feces

Indecent contact is defined as “any touching of the sexual or other intimate parts of the person for the purpose of arousing or gratifying sexual desire, in either person.”

If a street harasser touches you in a sexual way, such as grabbing your crotch, butt, or breasts, against your will or without your consent in a public place, you can report them.

PENALTY: Indecent assault in general, against an adult, is a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 2 years in prison. Indecent assault against someone under 16 years of age OR by threat of force that would prevent a reasonable person from resisting, OR while you are unconscious (such as asleep on the subway train or after being drugged without your knowledge), OR if the harasser knows that you are unaware the indecent conduct is occurring, it becomes a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 5 years in prison.

Combating Harassment Through Reporting

Victims of street harassment should not hesitate to report incidents to the appropriate authorities. In Pennsylvania, reporting crimes is facilitated through 911 for emergencies or the local police office’s non-emergency number for incidents that have already occurred. Reporting should include relevant details, descriptions of the harasser, and the location of the incident.

Many police departments offer online reporting forms, enabling victims to submit information discreetly and efficiently. The Philadelphia police department, for example, has an online form to anonymously report suspicious, nuisance, and criminal activities, making it easier for victims to come forward without fear of retaliation. By providing this platform, law enforcement agencies encourage victims to share their experiences, gather crucial information, and take appropriate actions against harassers.

When reporting street harassment, victims should be prepared to provide key details, such as the date and time of the incident, the location (including specific addresses or landmarks), their contact information, and descriptions of the harasser(s) involved. Witnesses’ names and contact information, if available, can also be valuable in the investigative process.

One important aspect to consider when reporting street harassment is the potential presence of children during the incidents. Some laws in Pennsylvania, such as indecent exposure, impose harsher penalties when minors are involved. Therefore, including this information in the report can aid in addressing the severity of the situation and ensuring appropriate legal action is taken.

In summary

Call 911 for help if:

  • The crime is in progress: If you are the victim of a crime or you witness a crime happening at the moment
  • Physical harm or threat: If you or someone else has been physically injured or threatened with physical violence
  • Information about the perpetrator: If you can provide valuable information about the person responsible for a crime it can aid in the investigation and help bring the perpetrator to justice.

Call the Philadelphia police department non-emergency number by dialing 311 to submit a report after a crime has been committed. You’ll need to tell them:

  • Date and time that it happened (date and time).
  • The street location, store location, bus line or bus stop where it happened
  • Your name and contact information
  • A description of what you witnessed
  • The name and contact information of any other people that were there if you spoke to them
  • A description of the harasser/s

In Philadelphia, you can anonymously report a non-emergency incident in 4 ways. An example of a non-emergency incident is if you see a group of people harassing passersby at the same location regularly. 4 ways to report a non-emergency incident anonymously in Philadelphia are:


The Fight Against Street Harassment in Philadelphia Starts With Community Awareness and Advocacy

Community awareness and advocacy play significant roles in combatting street harassment. Raising awareness about the issue helps to shatter the stigma associated with being a victim, empowering individuals to speak up and seek support. Schools, workplaces, and community organizations can play a pivotal role in organizing workshops, seminars, and awareness campaigns that educate people about street harassment and encourage bystander intervention.

Studies have shown that fostering a culture of respect and consent reduces the incidence of street harassment. By promoting healthy relationships and teaching individuals to recognize and respect boundaries, Philadelphia can be a safer and more inclusive environment for everyone.

The support and resources available to survivors of street harassment are essential in their healing process. Organizations like the WOAR – Philadelphia Center Against Sexual Violence (WOAR), with a focus on ending sexual violence and providing survivor support, serve as beacons of hope for those impacted by sexual assault, sexual harassment, and sexual abuse. WOAR relies on dedicated staff members and volunteers committed to making a meaningful impact on survivors’ lives.

Empowering Philadelphians to take a stand against street harassment involves advocating for social change and working towards a society where everyone can feel safe and respected. It requires addressing underlying societal norms and attitudes that perpetuate oppression, racism, homophobia, abuse, and harassment, promoting gender equality, and fostering a climate of accountability for harassers.

How You Can Help End Street Harassment in Philadelphia

There is a lot you can do to help end Street Harassment – and you should! If Street Harassment is left unchecked, it can become deeply integrated into the culture at your home, on your street, at school, on the job, in your neighborhood, and even in Philadelphia.

In some parts of the world, it has sadly become common for people to engage in street harassment, including grabbing, groping, catcalling, whistling, following, staring, and making inappropriate comments toward others in public. This is what happens if street harassment is allowed to continue for too long – it becomes a cultural issue and is very difficult to remove.

Street harassment is an issue that demands attention, awareness, and action. The laws in Pennsylvania provide a framework for addressing various forms of harassment, including verbal harassment, unlawful photographing or videoing, indecent exposure, and more. Understanding these laws empowers individuals to report incidents and seek justice when subjected to harassment.

The fight against street harassment requires collective, collaborative efforts. Community awareness, education, and advocacy are essential in creating a culture where harassment is not tolerated, and everyone can live without fear.

By working together, we can build a safer and more respectful society for all Philadelphians. Join us in supporting survivors, raising our voices against harassment, and striving towards a Philadelphia free from the shadows of street harassment.

If you have experienced street harassment and want to talk to someone who really understands, never hesitate to contact WOAR at 215-985-3333. We can help.