Fear and frenzy on TikTok after women punched in New York City: ‘I don’t want my account to be exploited’

<span>Gizem Sirmali, left, and Sarah Harvard, right, shared details of their attacks on TikTok.</span><span>Photograph: Courtesy Gizem Sirmali and Sarah Harvard</span>
Gizem Sirmali, left, and Sarah Harvard, right, shared details of their attacks on TikTok.Photograph: Courtesy Gizem Sirmali and Sarah Harvard

Sarah Harvard was doing everything right as she walked home through the Lower East Side one night earlier this month: she paid attention to her surroundings and didn’t get too close to anyone; she wasn’t listening to music or looking at her phone.

None of that protected her from the man who came up behind her and punched her in the back of the skull.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I hope no one shot me, or injected me with something, or stabbed me,’” Harvard, who is 30, said. As a spike of pain rattled her brain, she turned around to see a man running away from her.

A week later, Harvard, a comedian and writer, noticed a disturbing trend. It began after Halley Kate, a TikTok influencer with more than a million followers, posted a video on the app on 25 March. In the clip, a noticeably shaken Kate walked down a New York City street, revealing a bruised lump on her forehead.

“You guys, I was literally just walking and a man came up and punched me in the face,” she said in the video. “Oh my God, it hurts so bad.”

Another TikToker, a student at Parsons School of Design named Mikayla Toninato, said in a video that as she left class, “out of nowhere, this man just came up and hit me in the face”. Bethenny Frankel, of The Real Housewives of New York, said in a since-deleted comment on Toninato’s TikTok: “This is insane bc this happened to me a few months ago but I was embarrassed to say.” (Frankel declined a request for comment. Kate and Toninato did not respond to one.)

At least 12 more women filmed similar videos saying they had been randomly assaulted while walking in New York’s downtown or midtown neighborhoods. The deluge hit the For You pages of TikTok users based in the city, prompting many online to wonder if the attacks were the work of one or many attackers.

One day after Kate’s video went viral, the NYPD announced that they had arrested a man in connection with her assault. The alleged attacker, 40-year-old Skiboky Stora, unsuccessfully ran for city council last year, according to the New York Post. On Instagram, Stora claims to be the grandson of the Black nationalist and Pan-Africanist leader Marcus Garvey. He frequently posts videos of himself yelling at cops.

Police did not say if they suspect Stora of committing the other attacks. Some of the victims said on TikTok that he did not look like their attacker, leading them to believe there were multiple perpetrators.

The women’s stories of violent assault that have emerged in the last week are unsettling and traumatic. They also illuminate how fears of a crime wave grow online – and how social media becomes a whisper network when victims feel failed by the institutions meant to keep them safe.

The traumatic attacks remain ‘outliers’

Some have used the women’s stories of being punched to cast New York as a violent, lawless hellscape. Chris Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University who studies violence, aggression and media, finds this characterization problematic. Women experience harassment and aggressive behavior in the city every day. But though the punching videos suggest a disturbing pattern, TikTok clips alone do not make for convincing evidence of a standalone crime spree, he says. NYPD data shows the rate of felony assault was up 3% from 1 January to 24 March, the day before Kate posted her video to TikTok, compared with the same period last year.

“Anecdotes are not evidence of much of anything other than maybe one horrible thing happened to an innocent person,” he said. “But people try to look for patterns in data where the patterns don’t really exist, or the patterns might actually be in the opposite direction of what people are insinuating.”

This is a very scary pattern – but this is a unique situation

Elizabeth Mosley, University of Pittsburgh

Tabloids in New York and elsewhere have stoked fears of a “knockout game” since at least the 1980s – a phenomenon of city kids running around and punching strangers for sport. Though researchers have found it often to be the stuff of urban legend or media fearmongering, the New York Post mentioned it in its reporting on the women’s TikTok videos about being punched.

“Every five to 10 years, people start talking about the knockout game,” Ferguson said. “It taps into various fears: fear of teenage boys, and since there is often a racial element, fear of Black boys.”

Harvard said she had noticed racist comments on social media posts about her assault. “I’ve seen comments from white supremacists who are trying to push for a ‘Black man versus white woman’ narrative, putting out the agenda that there are all these Black men out there attacking white women,” she said. “First of all, I’m half-Asian and half-north African. What’s happening here is misogyny, and that’s rampant in all cultures. I don’t want my account to be exploited.”

Statistically, women are more likely to be attacked by someone they know than a stranger; women between the ages of 18 and 24 are most commonly abused by an intimate partner.

“These attacks are an outlier in that regard,” said Elizabeth Mosley, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh who studies gender-based violence. “This kind of stranger violence feels like the rape myth of a boogeyman who jumps out and assaults you. This is a very scary pattern, and these survivors have to deal with the physical and emotional ramifications of it, but this is a unique situation.”

What would it take to feel safe?

Gizem Sirmali, a 27-year-old content creator who lives in Germany, says she was punched on the streets of SoHo while in New York last month for a job. She didn’t get a good look at her attacker. “I felt a big slap on my face, especially in the eye area, and I was wearing sunglasses, so the first thing I thought of was my nose,” she said. “I immediately wanted to check whether or not it was broken.” (It wasn’t.)

Sirmali says she “ran away from the scene” and felt shock until she got back to her office, where she started crying. “At first I thought maybe I was flying [so high] living my dream in New York that I needed to come back to reality,” she said. “I kind of normalized it and just got over it. Now I’m just angry, because it’s happening to other women. I deserve to feel safe.”

“Feeling safe” means different things to different people.

The days of coffee shop community boards or real-life whisper networks are long gone. For better or worse, young people pass along safety tips on TikTok. Women, in particular, use the app to raise awareness of predators – as Jessica Valenti reported in 2020, teens have used it to out their rapists.

In cases of violent crime, most survivors disclose their assault to someone else before reporting it to the police, says Kimberlina Kavern, senior director of the non-profit Safe Horizon’s Crime Victim Assistance Program in New York. In a way, she thinks that posting about an attack on TikTok is akin to speaking to a friend about it. “You can feel a kind of community with the other people who have experienced the same thing,” she said.

And while some victims might believe justice means going to the police, others want to avoid such escalation. “The act of recounting what happened can be retraumatizing, and a lot of folks just want to get along with healing and focusing on how to make themselves feel safe and secure again,” Mosley said.

At first, Harvard did not feel it necessary to report her assault to the NYPD, thinking it was an isolated event. “I thought it was probably someone who’s mentally unwell, and I really don’t trust the police department that much,” she said. “It was violent, and I’m traumatized by it, but knowing the history of the NYPD and their use of excessive and deadly force, I didn’t want anyone to be lost over this.”

Harvard’s attack took place the same month the New York governor, Kathy Hochul, deployed 1,000 national guard troops and state police to the city’s subways in hopes of deterring violent crime. “I got attacked right outside the subway,” Harvard said. “I’m frustrated [with the police].”

But she changed her mind and filed a police report after learning she was one of many, in the hopes it would help prevent further attacks on women.

Related: New York is expanding bag checks on the subway. How is this legal?

Stora does not match the description of Harvard’s attacker, but she believes she has a photo of the man who did punch her, based on a picture someone sent to her on Instagram. “It’s interesting to me how young women are better at being detectives than the actual police,” she said. “I think that says something about how women are kind of always unsafe, or they’re conditioned to always be super aware and do their own research and act on their own for their own survival.”

Harvard believes that her attack is a symptom of a larger issue. Last year, the New York Times found that though the city has spent more than $1bn on mental health shelters, the labyrinthian social services network fails to “reliably place mentally ill people in them”.

“The city’s priority should be fixing inequality, fixing mental health issues and drug addiction,” Harvard said. “I’m more frustrated with our city and with our governor than I am for the man who punched me.” Since the attack, she’s had headaches, dizziness and nausea, as well as chest pains, trouble breathing and trouble sleeping – signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.

Some New Yorkers are looking to community-based solutions for safety. After a series of subway attacks near his Brooklyn home in 2021, Peter Kerre founded Safe Walks, a group that chaperones anyone who feels unsafe walking to and from the train. After the women’s TikTok videos went viral this week, Kerre says his group got a “flood” of messages. He expects more to pour in.