You Don’t Owe Politeness: How to Deal With Catcallers and Street Harassment

Some studies have shown more than 99% of women have experienced some sort of street harassment. I and most of the women I know tend to follow one of two procedures when getting catcalled or harassed.

Option One: we act like it’s not happening. We play dumb and ignore everything he yells in the hopes that, like a schoolyard bully, he’ll realize he’s not getting the attention he wanted and leave us alone.

Option Two: we politely decline his advances. We say, “No thank you,” “I have a boyfriend,” or “I’m sorry, but I don’t know you.” We refrain from getting rude or assertive because we’re uncomfortable, afraid and we don’t want to cause a scene.

Tuesday, I was at the Loyola Red Line stop to grab some pictures for my photojournalism class. It was night and I was alone. I walked down to the far end of the platform so I could capture the train as it was passing without getting in anyone’s way. There was a man there and I smiled at him as I walked by, as I often do with strangers. You never know who needs it.

After that he began badgering me, asking for my name, my number, if he could take my picture. I told him no, that I had a boyfriend — which was a lie, but that’s none of his business. He asked how long we’d been together. That’s when my irritation really kicked in.

“Sorry, but I don’t know you,” I said.

“I’m just trying to get to know you,” he insisted.

I weighed my options. I could continue saying no, I could walk away from him or I could cause a scene. Likewise, he could keep bothering me, follow me or get physical, none of which seemed particularly beneficial in my case.

Just then, the train rolled up; he got on and I stayed planted. After all, I was just there to take photos. It was over, but I was still so annoyed. This has happened to me more times than I can recall, and every time I freeze up. I give him more civility than he deserves and end up severely disappointed in myself.

Last week, a UIC student was murdered by a man after she ignored his catcalls. Her name was Ruth George. She was 19. She’s the reason I’m writing this.

Ladies: your safety is more important than his feelings. It’s more important than all the years of your youth when you were conditioned to be a good little girl. If you’re in a situation where you feel defenseless, I’m begging you, don’t let your politeness render you immobile. Say something. Get loud. Stand by another girl. Keep your pepper spray on hand. But most importantly, remember whatever happens is not your fault.

Gentlemen: no means no. It’s as simple as that. And anything other than a yes is a no. It’s not that hard to see when someone’s visibly uncomfortable. So either you don’t have the emotional maturity to tell when someone is shutting you down or you’re just willfully ignorant of it. And neither is good. Women owe you nothing. Leave her alone. Learn to deal with rejection. Get a Tinder.

I wish there were an easy way to end this, but there’s not. It can’t be wrapped up with a bow and a witty closing line. Street harassment is something we’ll have to continually address until women stop getting murdered for existing.

Until that day comes, don’t let men keep you from living the life you want. Go on road trips. Go out at night. Drink. Dance. Have a good time. But the next time a strange man decides to poke a hole in your perfectly good day, make it known like your life depends on it.

Because it does.