The education of street harassers

You have to wonder at the thought process (if there is one) behind catcalling. What does a guy expect is going to happen? The few times in the past that I’ve confronted people who’ve sexually harassed me, the main reaction was utter surprise that someone was responding to them at all, particularly in an angry manner. They cowered and offered apologies, but I never dug in to the question of why. 

Callie Beusman at Jezebel covers the story of a woman in Minneapolis who has been confronting harassers and taping their reactions. Their answers reveal some shockingly (or maybe sadly it shouldn’t be) retrograde thinking about women and their place in society:

“When you’re dressed the way you are…” one man says when asked why he thinks women want to hear comments on their appearances from strangers, “What’s the purpose for a woman to be on this earth [if not] for a man?” Adds his friend, “God made woman for man.” Oh, okay. Dudes can made lewd and unwelcome remarks because that’s what God would want. Got it.

In another video, a man with a visible wedding ring who faux-whispered “Minnesota chicks are HOT” at Lindsey as he walked past her justifies himself by insisting that women are flattered by unwanted attention/totally asking for it. “You don’t think women get dolled up, dressed up every day to look good?” he asks. Lindsey informs him that women do not, in fact, get dressed up every morning so that strange men can hiss at them. “I’m surprised you’re offended… It seems that [you’re] insecure if you think it’s a power dynamic,” he says. Yes, actually, being aware of the skewed gender power dynamic that continues to flourish in our great nation can make a lady feel a bit insecure! Good call, man.

In a third, her harasser says, “Where I come from, we holler at women. Sorry if that offends you, but you shouldn’t feel that way. Because, you know, women were put on this earth to satisfy a man, so if she feels offended, she shouldn’t have ever been born.” He goes on, “You don’t believe in the Bible? That’s why Eve was born.” In addition to the awful biblical justification, he goes on to utilize every sexist bro’s favorite defense of their right to make gross comments with impunity: “But, see, you’ve got the freedom of speech. That’s why you’ve got the freedom of speech, to holler if you wanna holler.” In other words: STOP CHASTISING ME FOR HARASSING YOU ON THE STREET, THOUGHT POLICE!!!!

It’s horrifying to walk down the street and look at men and think they might actually be thinking anything this inane. But that sense of ownership of women and their bodies comes through, and underlies the obnoxious habit of telling women to smile and thinking it’s completely innocuous. 

Rebecca Traister has a great piece that gets at the larger trend of evaluating and judging women that is a cathartic read after an onslaught of depressing stories about women’s rights:

I wish it were different. I wish that every woman whose actions and worth are parsed and restricted, congratulated and condemned in this country might just once get to wheel aroundon the committee that doesn’t believe their medically corroborated story of assault, or on the protesters who tell them that termination is a sin they will regret, or on the boss who tells them he doesn’t believe in their sexual choices, or on the mid-fifties man who congratulates them, or himself, on finding them appealing deep into their dotageand go black in the eyes and say, “I don’t fucking care if you like it.”

As the street harassment activist Lindsey points out, not everyone is going to feel safe or comfortable confronting harassers. But there are opportunities to educate people about this dynamic and the burden it puts on women:

In the Cards Against Harassment FAQ page, Lindsey explains why street harassment isn’t harmless: “Individual comments taken in isolation may seem like they are not inherently offensive, but considered in the cumulative, the constant barrage of such attention tells women that the moment we step outside into a public space, we are being graded for our looks… In other words, street harassment enforces the idea that women are being evaluated on their boneability any time they exist in public view.” Yep. Exactly.

Lindsey also emphasizes that confronting street harassment isn’t for everyone — many women may not feel safe doing so, after all. However, just telling people that catcalling isn’t okay goes a long way, in her opinion. “If you’re really not comfortable, just make sure to tell your friends about your experiences, particularly your male friends, so they appreciate the impact it has on women,” she advises.

Have you ever confronted a catcaller? Or had this discussion with people you know? How did it go? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

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