Sometimes people don’t understand why street harassment is a big deal. Why catcalling matters. Why we feminists “get our panties in a bunch” about it: “but it’s harmless guys’ fun!”, “come on, it is jokingly!”, “it is just words, y’know?” or the worst of ALL, “you should be flattered!”
I want to address these and other claims one by one. Because street harassment is serious, and it should stop. And I will be talking to YOU, (straight, I guess) men who shout at us or hiss at us or whistle or honk or do any other gross signalling to a gal you do not know on public spaces. Those of you who think it is no big deal because you are a nice guy and you would not actually do anything.
1. It is not harmless. I mean, for you it is, of course. You are doing the harassment, so DUH. But it does harm us in many ways.
For one, it makes us uncomfortable. And if you were doing something that half of the world’s population considers uncomfortable and you are a decent human being, I would think that you’d stop it.
It makes us feel unsafe. Why? Because there is no guarantee (hey! we do not KNOW that you are a decent non-rapist guy because you are not doing the decent thing which is to not honk at us) that you will only attack us with words, for one. There is no guarantee that you will not follow us, or rob us, or rape us. You probably have the physical strength. You definitely have the sexism and utter distaste towards women (you are whistling at us! we are not strays you know?!) too.
It makes us doubt our sense of self and our self worth, our value as full human beings, not just bodies that walk. It makes us internalize your honking and start objectifying ourselves as well.
It makes us feel like second class citizens, since the streets and other public spaces are not so much ours as they are yours, clearly.
2. It is not fun. It shouldn’t be, at least. Do you find it fun when someone you don’t know singlehandedly makes you feel uncomfortable, objectified, humilliated, unsafe and basically ruins your day? We don’t either.
3. Guys fun? Yes, I do know that men tend to find fun in women’s bodies – heterosexual men, that is. We find fun in men’s bodies – and women’s, for sure – too. But could you find a consensual partner to have fun with, pretty please? Someone who has fun with your body too and so you have fun together 🙂 I do not consent to a gross (nothing to do with physical appearance really, to me any guy who catcalls is instantly gross) dude whistling at me and having “good ol’ guys’ fun” concerning my breasts, my thighs, my ass. I decide who gets to have fun with those. Clear?
4. The joke is on us, clearly. Thing is, you wouldn’t find a joke funny if it involved you having to watch your back on your way home, or make sure you are with someone when you walk on certain streets, or self-impose a curfew because you cannot walk alone any later than that. You wouldn’t find fun if your freedom was being messed around with because some people you don’t know feel the need to let YOU know what they think about your body and how much they’d rather have you naked.
5. Only YOU know it is just words. As I said in #1, we don’t know you are a decent guy because you are not behaving like one. We are afraid to even respond to you because you might get angry. You might get violent. You might get more crass in your comments. You might follow us home. Society teaches us to be afraid of men, because we don’t know what you might do to us if we cross a precious line that you continually cross: with your comments, your catcalling, your sexist jokes, your threats of violence, your socially-accepted outbursts (another privilege us ‘ladies’ do not enjoy). We are made to be afraid of your sense of entitlement to our bodies, to be violent if we do not comply.
We don’t want to find out if you are a rapist or “just” a guy who talks like one.
6. I am a lot of things when someone harasses me on the street, but flattered is not one of them. I am angry, I am disappointed, I am scared, I am annoyed, I am uncomfortable. NOT flattered.
The fact that you THINK it is flattering is insulting. I do not seek men’s approval. And it may sound like an angry, lonely feminist’s line, but trust me, it isn’t. (For a very long time it was, though, for sure. It took quite some time for me to value myself – everything about myself, including my body but much beyond that as well). I certainly do not seek a random dude’s approval. I know what I look like, I know I have breasts, thights, ass. I am aware of all my body parts. I feel sexy because I look myself in the mirror and I like what I see, what I am. Not because you hinted at licking my “pussy” (true story, I wish I was making this up).
A guy once told me that they were at least paying attention to me, because many girls do not get catcalled at all. At the time I was not so loud-mouthed, did not know the full extent of the sexism in his comment, and I was not as confident in regards to feminist discourse to say much, but just thinking about that comment today makes me want to cry. It makes me think that in matters of taking back the streets, the lecture halls, the world, we have very little space as long as we are trapped in the “hot or not” BS.
If we are “lucky enough” to be considered beautiful in today’s mainstream standards then we are constantly harassed, objectified. People are surprised when we are smart or when we are feminists. We are held to low standards, socialized to low standards. We are told that all we have is beauty, and that beauty is the thing that will grant us power in this men’s world. We are also told that we must hate other women and make sure we are the prettiest ones, make sure we get men to listen to us and see us.
If we are “lucky enough” to not be harrassed in the streets on a daily basis and objectified and not taken seriously or held to low standards then we are constantly ridiculed, named names, put aside. We are made to feel worthless (because a woman’s worth is in our beauty). We are made to think that we will never get married (which is just such a catastrophe!) or have anything going for us at all.
All in all, we are made to constantly doubt ourselves. We are never beautiful enough, and we think we gain power if we are. We could get more jobs, we could get more friends, we could get more men, we could get more money. We could ‘choose’ the man we want. But magazines and catcalling and pornography make us think that we are not that pretty, and so we devour every single product that is thrown at us, in the hopes of being better as women. We are either too pretty for our own good or too unpretty for our own good. We cannot win.
Moreover, there are many things that I might find flattering. But reducing me to a dettached body which you feel entitled to ‘critique’ at will is not flattering. If you are a guy on a date with me and you tell me I look good, I do find it flattering – it is not that we are against or impervious to compliments or against making ourselves and others feel beautiful, obviously. But there, there is consent to a certain closeness and intimacy, to a reduced personal space from that of a sidewalk. There is the implication that there is more to the interaction than separate body parts to whistle at.
On the street, I expect to feel safe, to be respected, to be left to myself. I certainly do not expect to be made feel like the street is a men’s playground in which they can and will shoot slurs at me. And then being told to give them a lil’ smile. Because while a guy is honking at me, I am supposed to feel flattered and to smile pretty, letting him know I am more than okay with his advances. Who in her right mind wouldn’t, right?
I was made to feel afraid of my streets, of my hometown, of my own body and femininity all my life. Growing up I did not even question that I should never walk alone, or late, or wearing anything other than sweatpants and a hoodie. I was made to feel the need to dress as close as possible to a man, because showing I was a girl was showing that I was weak, that I could be fooled or tricked or attacked, that they had nothing to be afraid of in me, and that I was “open” to harrassment. I was taught that walking alone in my city, as a woman, was letting guys do whatever they wanted, basically. I grew up fearful of getting in a guy’s way, provoking him, making him get out of the car from where he was honking and actually doing something. THAT IS WHAT STREET HARASSMENT IS.
Street harassment is a way of policing our bodies and our sexuality, the times of the day that we go out, how unsupervised we are, policing that we are not wondering about (vagrancy laws working against street sex workers, anyone?) and when & where we go, what we do. It is literally making sure we are never left unsupervised, but “for our own good”. It is making sure we stay home. And we might not all conciously put it or do it that way, but it is what it effectively does to women. If we are walking around alone at night, we must be bad girls, we must be up to no good. So we get what we deserve: paranoia, harassment, or who knows what else. If we want to not be subject to those things, or the shame of being called a promiscuous or “bad” woman, we better stay home, we better walk with a man on our side. We better not be seen where we shouldn’t be.
I refuse to accept this. We are entitled to our streets, we are entitled to our bodies, we are entitled to our self-confidence, to wearing what we like, when we like, where we like. We are entitled to the same safe environment as any man in the world. We are entitled to stop restraining our sexuality for the sake of men who cannot keep their mouth shut. We are entitled to not be judged, shamed. We are entitled to decide what our bodies, our clothes, our time, says about us, and not having men decide that for us.
Join Hollaback! To end street harassment. We all can do this together.
– Intervene when someone is doing the cat-calling. Man up and tell them what they did is not okay and why.
– Calmly approach them and tell them why this hurt you. This takes a lot of courage, but try to do it (when and where you feel safe doing so, of course!)
– Take pictures of the agressors and post them in the street: “Disrespected women while at work” “Beware of this car, they will disrespect you”.
– Talk to the victims on the street. Make them feel safe and accompany them when possible.
– Tell your story and read the stories in Hollaback.