wait what is happening on tiktok?

PunchTok Rattles New York Women

Two blonde women and two brunette women speak to the camera in these four screenshots of TikTok videos.
TikTok videos of women claiming they were randomly punched on the streets of New York are going viral. Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: @halleykate, @mikaylatoninato, @jill_burke, @olivia.brand/TikTok

On March 19, Sarah Harvard was walking past a Duane Reade on the Lower East Side when she felt a blow to the back of her head. At first, she wasn’t sure what had happened. Had she been stabbed? Or worse, shot? In shock, she spun around on the corner of Ludlow and Delancey to see a man bolt away. He’d punched her. The hit left Harvard feeling nauseous and dizzy, but she didn’t want to go to the hospital. The 30-year-old was hosting a comedy show later that night, and besides, she couldn’t afford a medical bill. She walked to her apartment a few blocks away, popped some Tylenol, and made her way to the club.

Backstage, Harvard’s hands were so unsteady that she could barely pour a glass of water. Her co-producer was worried and told her to see a doctor. The comedian initially coped with humor, telling friends at the show that getting punched in the head is a New York rite of passage. Harvard assumed it was an isolated incident — until earlier this week, when she started seeing clips of other women describing similar situations on TikTok.

“I was literally just walking and a man came up and punched me in the face,” influencer Halley Kate says through tears in a TikTok video from March 25. Pointing to a goose egg forming on her right temple, she says, “It hurts so bad. I can’t even talk.” (That post racked up almost 45 million views.) Hours later, a design student tagged Kate in a post, writing, “i quite literally feel your pain this was so insane.” With a visible black eye, she recounts being punched by a man near Union Square after leaving class; in a follow-up video after visiting the ER, she talks about having a concussion and a chipped tooth. Another content creator then posted: “I just realized I was part of a group of women that got punched.” She had been picking up a “water bottle that was trending on TikTok” in Noho for her friend’s birthday when a man tried to swing at her face. “I moved away and he hit me in the arm,” she says in the video. “I scream and I say, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’” He ran away after she whipped out a taser.

These posts went viral as people speculated wildly about the seemingly random attacks, leaving comments like “WHAT IS HAPPENING IN NYC?” and “Just confirmed you’re the 4th video I’ve seen about this in the last 12 hours.” Bethenny Frankel, the Real Housewives star, commented on one TikTok video: “this happened to me a few months ago but I was embarrassed to say.” Theories about a serial puncher, or an organized group of men deliberately attacking women, began to circulate. A co-worker morbidly dubbed the incidents “PunchTok.” Even NYU’s campus-safety department sent an email blast about reports of “female-presenting individuals being assaulted in several New York City neighborhoods—mostly in lower Manhattan, including in areas near Washington Square Park—while walking on the sidewalk.”

Halley Kate says a man on the street punched her hard enough in the head to leave a goose egg.

This type of violence is not a new, or particularly surprising, phenomenon in America’s largest city — in November, a man was arrested after punching at least four women on the New York subway — but the TikTok algorithm, which serves up similar stories in rapid succession, has made it feel as though a misogynist crime wave is sweeping the city. It’s not yet clear if any of the women’s cases are connected; most of those who posted on social media said they either already have or planned to file police reports.

While street-crime cases — in which the assault is sudden, the attacker tends to run away, and authorities may not be inclined to follow up — can be hard to resolve, police have so far arrested two men in connection with the incidents. The first is a 40-year-old Brooklyn man named Skiboky Stora, who allegedly hit a 23-year-old woman on the head in Chelsea. This description matches the account Kate gave on TikTok. Then on Thursday, the design student said in a video that her assailant had been arrested. Police confirmed to the Cut that Mallik Miah, a 30-year-old living in Brooklyn, was charged with assault for allegedly punching a woman in her right eye — details that mirror her story. (Kate told the Cut she wasn’t speaking to media; the design student did not respond to requests for comment.)

Despite the fevered Reddit theories, no one person has been linked to multiple attacks, and the women’s descriptions of their perpetrators differ. Some say they were punched by a man with roughly shoulder-length dreadlocks who looked unhoused. Others say their perpetrator had short hair or was walking a dog. Many of the TikTokers describe a Black man, but one person tells me their attacker was white. “From listening to a lot of those girls’ videos, it didn’t really sound like it was the same person,” Kate says in another video.

Olivia Brand tells me a stranger approached her in Nolita on March 17 while she was walking her chihuahua, Tuna. The 25-year-old thought nothing of it until the man said “Sorry” and punched her on the left side of her face. Brand was stunned. She says a woman who saw the incident offered to call the cops, but she felt physically fine and told the bystander not to bother. Brand later filed a police report on the advice of some friends and recorded a TikTok video while she was still running on adrenaline. Since that post went viral, she recorded a follow-up to address accusations that she’s jumping on a twisted trend. “I’m not lying,” she says, “and I posted it before Halley’s video ever became a thing.” A detective called her Tuesday to say that police are investigating her harassment claim since they’ve been “getting a bunch of similar reports.” (An NYPD spokesperson confirmed that the investigation into Brand’s case is ongoing, but did not say whether it was connected to other complaints.)

Brand says her attacker’s hair was longer than Stora’s; Harvard says she doesn’t think he’s the man who punched her, either. At first, she was reluctant to get the police involved in her case. “I don’t want to contact a group that’s known for deadly force and put someone’s life in danger,” she says. This was especially true “knowing how they treat people who look like my attacker,” whom she describes as a six-foot-tall Black man with dreadlocks. Harvard is also wary of the “really racist, anti-Black narrative” gaining steam on social media that a Black assailant or assailants have been targeting white women. “I’m not white,” she points out. Still, she planned to file a police report Wednesday knowing that sidewalk footage of her incident could help to keep others safe.

Olivia Brand wonders "what the hell just happened" after being randomly punched on the street.

Back on TikTok, Kate reassured viewers that New York is not a danger zone. “I don’t want it to seem like 13 girls got punched in the face yesterday and if you come to New York City, you’re for sure going to get punched in the face,” she says in one video while applying blush to her cheeks. “I personally am not going to revolve my life around that one incident and be afraid to walk around the streets and go to restaurants.” She quickly went back to making content, turning her punch into a punchline: “Eating sweetgreen to make myself feel better for getting a$$saulted,” she wrote.

Others are more spooked. Sara, who asked me to withhold her last name to protect her privacy, says she was in the West Village on March 20 when a man blocked her path, asked for change, and swung at her. The 23-year-old, who works in marketing, managed to duck and run into a nearby coffee shop. “I actually just moved here three weeks ago” from Ohio, she says. “So that was a fun welcome.” She now wants to sign up for jiujitsu classes, and her sister suggested she buy a ring with a hidden blade. Lara Del Castillo was walking out of the Whole Foods on 14th Street on Monday when a man wearing jeans and no shirt came toward her. The 29-year-old Spanish teacher couldn’t hear what he said since she was wearing AirPods. But Castillo tells me he threw a punch at her face, which she dodged, and “kept walking like nothing happened.” She searched the crowded area for any witnesses but says nobody stopped to see if she was all right. At the time, she only texted her friends freaking out about what happened. Now, after hearing about other similar incidents, Castillo plans to file a police report. In the days since, she’s constantly looking over her shoulder to the point where she feels “kinda paranoid.”

Harvard tells me she’s started carrying around pepper spray and is looking to get a taser. She’s had some panic attacks before leaving the house and is asking friends to accompany her on walks. The comedian is still making jokes to cope; she’s flattered that her attacker seems to have targeted “hot and beautiful women.” But she also just canceled a few shows at which she was supposed to perform. “I just didn’t feel safe,” Harvard says. “All of a sudden I have to give up on opportunities or be afraid to walk outside my home.”

This post has been updated.

Random Punching Attacks Rattle New York City Women