Look straight ahead. Walk quickly, and with purpose. Headphones in. Volume off. Don’t make eye contact. Phone in hand. Look behind you every few blocks to make sure you’re not being followed.
For many women and gender non-conforming individuals, this experience of fearful vigilance is the daily reality of walking down the sidewalk. A predominant cause of this fear is the normalization of street harassment.
According to a recent national survey, 65% of women have experienced street harassment. 23% have been sexually touched, 20% have been followed, and 9% have been forced to do something sexual. Among men, 25% have been street harassed. Their most common harassers are other men, a higher percentage of LGBT-identified men than heterosexual men report harassment, and the most common form of harassment men face is homophobic or transphobic slurs (9%). Especially for women of color and trans people of color, the consequences of harassment can be a matter of life or death.
Sexually explicit comments, groping, flashing, slurs, leering, stalking, and assault are a global reality for women and LGBTQI individuals, but street harassment is rarely taken seriously. A “boys will be boys” mentality deflects responsibility away from the men who exhibit this behavior, and harassment is commonly accepted as the price you pay for being a woman.
Like all forms of gender-based violence, harassers come from every racial and socio-economic background. The perpetration of harassment transcends these identity categories because gender-based violence is about more than skin color or income bracket; it is about globalized misogyny being treated as inevitable, and acceptable. Further, not all men harass—it’s just that the ones who do seem to be particularly vocal. After all, respect and self-control are not “feminine” concepts, they’re human concepts that everyone is capable of demonstrating.
Sexual harassment is not a form of flirtation. Approaching someone politely, striking up a conversation, and respecting that person’s right to reject you is perfectly fine. Street harassment occurs when words or actions are non-consensual. It’s intimidating, dehumanizing, and propelled by the notion that just because a woman had the audacity to leave her home, men are entitled to assess, comment on, and even touch her body.
The troubling thing about catcalling and other forms of harassment is that the harasser must know their target isn’t actually going to have sex with them. No one’s “how I met your mother” story begins with, “He screamed ‘Nice Legs!’ at me from the side of a van, and the rest is history!” In this scenario, even if the target was into creepy misogynists, she couldn’t give her number to someone in a car that’s speeding by. But that’s beside the point, because he wasn’t actually hitting on her. A person who shouts degrading and objectifying comments isn’t trying to find a girlfriend; he’s trying to assert dominance over someone, or impress other sexist men. He’s communicating the message, “I can say whatever I want to you, no matter how inappropriate it is or how uncomfortable it makes you feel, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Getting harassed can be scary and humiliating, and serves as a reminder that women live in a society that largely values us as sexual objects rather than people.
What’s worse is that were expected to be flattered by this degradation. When a woman doesn’t act “polite” or cheerful about being whistled at as she walks to work, she’s often called a bitch, or is threatened with violence. Innumerable women have been berated by their harassers for being “stuck up,” because they did not receive behaviors like unsolicited butt slaps with a sense of humor. Further, many women find that when they try to talk to their male peers about this experience, they’re patronized with, “it’s just a compliment,” or “I wish random women would tell me I look nice!” But this interpretation ignores the misogynistic context in which street harassment takes place.
A well-intentioned man might genuinely think there is nothing wrong with affirming a woman’s attractiveness, but he’s ignoring the fact that that woman has likely encountered other men who have done the same thing, and it has taken a nasty turn. Women’s safety in public spaces is so routinely intruded upon that it becomes difficult for us to trust that simple compliments aren’t going to end in violence. While your objective may be innocent, consider that when a woman is standoffish to your advances perhaps she is not uptight or humorless, but rather, she likely has faced a pattern of demeaning, condescending, and threatening experiences that have colored her perception of the world.
This doesn’t mean we cannot compliment one another; it just means we need to recognize the difference between compliments and harassment, and refuse to participate in the latter. It also means we need to call men out, and call men in. Call harassers out by directly intervening, and encouraging them to reflect on their behavior before harassment happens. Call men in by inviting them into conversations about why street harassment is oppressive and hurtful, and show them they can be a part of the solution. Finally, the most important component of making a positive change involves a cultural shift where we teach people to value others beyond their physical appearance, and to treat everyone with dignity and respect.