There’s a conversation that’s been brewing lately. I’m not sure if it’s a conversation that’s been been getting louder and reaching a tipping point, or if I’m just getting better at listening and being more aware. The conversation is about street harassment.
On a near daily basis, I hear stories from friends about inappropriate comments and catcalls from passersby. These friends are invariably angry, upset, scared, or fed up with this perpetual demeaning treatment. These friends are exclusively women. The cat-callers are exclusively men.
When these stories come up, in the ensuing discussions, women share their similar experiences, show empathy, and discuss potential strategies for combating street harassment and improving their general safety.
Then the inevitable happens:
“Just take it as a compliment.”
“It’s only harmless flirting.”
“You should be grateful for the attention.”
Yes. These are things that actual real people say. Almost exclusively guys. And it enrages me every time I see it. I can only imagine how women who are victimized by street harassment must feel when they are told that the abusive comments that made them sick to their stomach or fear for their life should be taken as a compliment. This needs to stop.
If you’re unclear as to why street harassment is a problem or why it’s not harmless flirting, I’d direct you to read the somewhat notorious Schrodinger’s Rapist column which does a good job of dissecting why women are right not to trust strangers. Another good read is “Hey Baby, How Much?” which examines how soliciting sex from a prostitute bares little resemblance to cat calls and why the two should not be conflated. tl;dr: Somebody shouting “Hey Baby, how much?” out the window of a moving vehicle, even at a prostitute, is not soliciting sex but rather engaging in street harassment.
So if you weren’t up to speed by now, after having read those articles, we’re probably at least on the same page regarding definitions. This leaves us with the ensuing question, how do we put a stop to it?
One approach has been Holla Back which documents disseminates examples of street harassment. I’ve seen suggestions of yelling back what is said to you in a snarky voice, commenting on the size of the harassers junk, ignoring it, talking about it, and all sorts of other serious (and some not so serious) suggestions.
I can’t say I have any solid answers as to what will end street harassment, but I do have one solid answer as to how to stop promoting it.
STOP DEFENDING IT.
When somebody shares an experience ranging from frustrating to traumatic, don’t dismiss it. Don’t call it flirting. Don’t say it was justifying. Just shut up and listen and say “Mmmhmm” if you can’t think of any words that aren’t insulting to the person sharing this experience with you. Don’t derail the discussion into treaties on Men’s rights (we have plenty), don’t rationalize it as something positive, and don’t tell this person that they are wrong for feeling bad about something. I have even seen defenders of street harassment go so far as to cite freedom of speech as justification, while entirely ignoring the women’s rights to be treated as equals and not be harassed in the street.
I can only guess that the guys who say things like this are truly unaware of what kind of assholes they’re being. So guys, if you’re one of these assholes, STOP IT. When you were a kid and got picked on for wearing glasses, did the teachers tell you it was your fault for wearing glasses? This is exactly what is happening when women are told that they should expect to be harassed if they dress provocatively. Newsflash: Stranger in the street, they are NOT dressing for you.
Amid the suggestions and conversations regarding what women can do to combat street harassment, there is always a subtext that I don’t see addressed often. The subtext is that street harassment is not a problem that can be solved by women. Women are not the ones perpetrating street harassment, but are rather being subjected to and victimized by it. The only viable solution is for men to stop harassing women, and the best that women could hope to achieve is to communicate to men why harassment is wrong. Understanding this and doing something about it is exclusively men’s responsibility.
So if you’re a man who doesn’t engage in street harassment, congratulations: you’ve accomplished step one of not being a total asshole. Step two is to stop justifying other men who do, and insulting women who are talking about it.
Once you get that far, maybe we can start to talk about step 3.