I remember it distinctly, the first time I recognized street harassment as a legitimate problem. Having grown up in a not-so-great-but-not-that-bad neighborhood in my hometown of Boston, Massachusetts, my coming of age was riddled with leers and lewd comments from the men in my city. But this experience had nothing to do with where I grew up. Rather, it had everything to do with the body (and therefore, social status) into which I was born. As a female, I was subject to this kind of aggression. Hot, wet whispers in my ear, “Hey, sexy.” Low whistles and comments in languages I couldn’t understand. Stares. Up-and-down inspections. That one guy who even chased me out of the subway station just to let me know that I had a phenomenal ass. It’s part of growing up female.
One day in particular really stands out to me. I was in the eighth grade, and my best friend and I (along with a hodgepodge of acquaintances) were walking home from the bus stop. It was mid-afternoon on a sunny day, and we had to pass a group of laborers, taking their lunch break on a stoop. I don’t remember what they said to us. I just remember the palpable, sinking feeling of being terrified. My best friend, brazen as she always was, threw her middle finger in the air, to which a gentleman responded, shouting at us as we walked away, “Shove it up your ass!” Elise* turned around, red-faced, and retorted: “Better than having your dick up there!” We ran all the way home.
My face wet with tears, I frantically picked up the phone and called my mother as soon as I walked into the apartment, knowing full-well that she was at work and, busy as she always is, probably in a meeting. But I needed help. I craved solidarity. I needed someone to tell me that it was going to be okay. And who better to kiss the boo-boo of the oppressive patriarchy than my mother?
Knowing, as is usual with these kinds of emotional pains, that she couldn’t erase the injury, she instead offered a Band-Aid. It was a cheap, knock-off brand Band-Aid though, and it stayed loose and wavering, dirty and flapping, over that particular wound for a long time. “That’s just how men are,” she told me. “I had to deal with it growing up, and now you do, too. It’s just part of being a woman.”
I was crushed. Here, I had thought that there was something I could do to stop it, and the most important woman in my life was telling me that it was hopeless. “Give up” is what I heard. And I kind of did. Until I realized that I didn’t have to.
Over the course of growing up, I eventually grew into my own, as they say. I developed into a sharp, witty woman with a devastating Save-the-World Complex, believing wholeheartedly in the ability for “the people” to affect drastic social change. And over the past couple of years, I’ve dedicated a lot of that energy to eradicating street harassment, raising awareness so that other women would, too, realizing that it does not have to be part of their everyday experience; rather, they can fight back.
“But how?” they ask me. “How can I possibly stand up at that moment, when I’m feeling scared and helpless? How do I even begin to gain that confidence?”
And so, I’m writing this article.
Only you are aware of your surroundings. Only you have the cognition to recognize a safe situation when it exists. And these suggestions are meant for those situations, not ones in which violence might easily escalate or where you’re particularly vulnerable. You need to decide what works best in which situations, to understand when it’s appropriate to walk away. Here are, simply, some ideas for how to start a conversation, for how to articulate your feelings to your harasser, in hopes that he’ll mull over your words later. Pick and choose, mix and match. Or completely ignore everything that I say. What’s most important in these situations is that you maintain your autonomy, that you minimize your feelings of vulnerability. If these ideas can help you do that, great. If they can’t, fuck ‘em.
This is by no means the be-all, end-all to how to deal with street harassment. Instead, it is a very particular approach. The suggestions provided herein are meant to start you thinking about how you can attempt to affect behavior change by way of being honest, by confronting your harasser head-on in a non-threatening manner. This approach won’t work for everyone. It’s not meant to. It’s meant to be a start.
1. Understand the Behavior. Sometimes when we’re pissed off, it’s hard for us to look at what’s happening on the other side of the situation. In the case of street harassment, most men aren’t cat-calling you because they’re actively trying to demean or degrade you (even though they undoubtedly are). Rather, they actually assume that it’s an appropriate, natural response to seeing a woman walk by. And that’s not their fault. That’s society’s fault for teaching them that it’s okay, for showing them that such offensive behavior is a good way to show off their masculinity. Most of these men (rather, most people) don’t sit at home pontificating about gender roles and socialization. And just because we (as people who are socially aware and interested in gender studies) do, doesn’t mean that we can expect that from the general population. Instead, we can take on the role of teacher helping men to relearn social norms.
Cat-calling is a learned behavior. What these men need isn’t to be yelled at for their mistakes; rather, they need to be retaught the script of how and when to effectively get a woman’s attention. One great way to affect change in this arena is to talk to your male friends about it. Make sure that they’re aware of the inappropriateness of the behavior, and that they speak up when they see other men (whether friends or strangers) do this. Check out this awesome video called “Shit Men Say to Men Who Say Shit to Women on the Street,” and share it with your male friends to inspire conversation and action. There is nothing anti-feminist about employing men for help. Because we learn a lot of our social cues from watching and modeling after others’ behavior (in this case, the “other” being akin to “those who are similar to me”), having men fighting on our side can be really useful. It’s not always that men are more likely to listen to other men because they don’t take women seriously. Sometimes it has a lot more to do with picking up behavior from someone after whom you model yourself. Gender plays a role in that.
2. Why It Doesn’t Help to Violently Express Anger. I never understood the concept of the death penalty. It translates to me a lot like this: “You killed a man, and that was wrong. Now we will punish you – by killing you. It’s like—wait a minute, I thought we just said that that was wrong. Using verbal violence as a reaction to verbal violence is equally hypocritical. If you’re mad that someone was vulgar with you on the street, how is it appropriate to be vulgar back? I know, I know. You’re mad. And you deserve to be! But there are more productive ways to express that anger, and your concern will more likely be taken seriously if you can collect your thoughts and communicate them clearly. Now, don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of times when my go-to reaction to street harassment is a quick “fuck you” or a middle finger. Sometimes it’s knee-jerk. It’s automatic. Hell, sometimes I even yell hysterically if I’m particularly fed up. But when I recall the times when I retaliated pejoratively, I realize that it didn’t help matters. It’s not that those reactions aren’t warranted; it’s that they’re not effective. And if we really want to try to help people understand the problems with street harassment, we’ve got to do so effectively.
3. Why It Doesn’t Always Help to Walk Away and Ignore It. When in your life has ignoring a problem ever made it go away – ever improved it, ever made you feel better about it? Growing up, I was told that if I ignored someone’s bad behavior, they’d eventually stop doing it. And sure, maybe that works when people are deliberately trying to fluster you, but as previously mentioned, a lot of the time, that’s not what a street harasser is doing. It’s true that he might be trying to get a rise out of you, and it may seem sensible then to just walk away, effectively making his attempt defective. And sometimes, maybe that’s exactly what you should do, especially if the situation looks or feels like it could possibly escalate to further violence, or if, honestly, that is what would make you feel safer in the moment. But in situations where it is safe to do so, think of how many women this guy does this to, how many of them probably walk away. It hasn’t taught him yet to stop, so maybe it’s time to take a different approach.
4. Stay Calm, Cool, and Collected. This first step is undoubtedly the most difficult, but if you can make it through this one, you’ll be on your way to effective hollering back to those who sexually harass you on the street. As anger, shame, guilt, and offense bubble up in you, remind yourself that arguments aren’t won by yelling; they’re won by reasoning. Some women are afraid that if they don’t express their outright anger (which they have every right to feel in these situations), then they’re giving in to societal pressure for women to be demure, to be seen and not heard. Although that’s a valid, legitimate concern, it’s not the paradigm at work here. Rather, think of your staying calm and reasonable as a sly tactic to effectively get your point across. Take a deep breath. Fix your face. Keep your voice low and level. And confidently approach your harasser.
5. Ask the Offender to Repeat Himself. Oftentimes, when men make crass comments to women on the street, they don’t do it with the intention of being heard and responded to. They do it as a way to posture masculinity, either for themselves or for the people surrounding them (think about construction sites!). They do it as a stroke to their ego, rather than an attempted stroke to yours. They’re generally aware of what kinds of comments are appropriate and which aren’t, and they tend to use the latter on the street. So call them out on their shit! Turn around and ask them to repeat themselves – nicely, but maybe with a hint of sass. Tonality matters! “I’m sorry, what did you say?” is a good example. Generally, one of two outcomes will happen next, depending. One is that they’ll backtrack, putting their feet in their mouths, especially if they’re alone: “I didn’t—um—I wasn’t trying to—um—“ This is an indication that they know that what they did was wrong. Take this to be a good thing. The other option, particularly if other men are around, is that they’ll try to take it up a notch as a means to prove something (again, their skewed sense of masculinity): “What I said was [you’ve got a nice ass, I’d like to get that pussy, you’re fine].” Nod knowingly — again, calmly, yet with some snark – and prepare yourself for the main event: explaining why what he just did sucks.
6. Explain Why You Find His Behavior Inappropriate. Keeping your cool, give your offender a little lesson in why this kind of behavior isn’t okay. Try not to whip out your Bachelor’s in Psych when having this conversation; delving too deeply into feminist or social theory might not help your argument. If you start flexing your intellectual muscle, your words might go over his head. Also, you might seem pretentious. It’s sad that intelligence is often mistaken for pretentiousness, but again: you have to deal with situations in the ways that will affect change, not try to make a double point about how you can be a smart, sassy, angry woman, too. Take it one thing at a time. Right now, the issue is teaching someone how to act in public. So tell him. Be honest. “I feel uncomfortable when people do that to me.” “I really don’t appreciate what you said to me because it wasn’t respectful. “I would really like to be able to walk to the post office without having comments hurled at me about my body.” “Just because I am in a public space does not mean that my body is public property.” “The language that you used was vulgar, and I shouldn’t have to deal with that just because I walked by you.” Also, you can try turning it around on him: “You have every ability to practice self-control. I wish you would have done so just now.” “You made the conscious decision to say what you just said, and I really think you should reevaluate how it was productive.” Tell the truth without getting too emotional. After all, you’re in the right. Using logic to communicate that makes a stronger impression. Think of hollering back as giving your harasser food for thought, rather than expressing anger. In my experience, the effects are usually positive, or at least neutral. I’ve never had a situation get worse after voicing my opinion.
7. Make It Personal. Remember that our experiences with marginalization are just that – ours. For men (particularly cis-gendered men), their gender privilege can blind them sometimes, making them unaware of the impact that they’re having. You’re a stranger. And the other women at whom they holler are also strangers. They don’t get to see the effects of their deeds. How can we expect them to know how damaging their actions are? But what most men do have are women in their lives. And you can use this to your advantage. We tend to be protective of our loved ones (and, social learning be celebrated or damned, men tend to be extra protective of their female loved ones). Ask your harasser how he would feel to know that someone has done this to someone important to him. “Your cat-calling made me feel really unsafe; in fact, it scared me a little. How do you feel about the fact there have undoubtedly been men who have struck fear in the hearts of the women who are important to you? How do you feel to know that this kind of thing has happened to your mother, to your sister, to your girlfriend?” Advise them to go home and ask a woman in their lives how they feel about street harassment. This scene from The L Word comes to mind. In it, Jenny suggests to Mark that he ask his sisters – “and the most important thing here is that you listen to their answers” – “about the very first time that they were intruded upon by some man or a boy.” Suggest your harasser do the same thing! He might be surprised at what he discovers about the hurtfulness in his seemingly benign actions.
8. Give Him Some Pointers. “Has this ever really worked for you before?” Saying something that blatant might have the opposite effect – it might make you come off as a bitch. And although you have every right to bitch this guy out for harassing you on the street, it might be better to engage in a discussion. Give him some alternatives. Let him know that if he really is attracted to a woman that he sees walking by, and if he really wants to tell her (which is totally okay!), there are better ways to go about it. Oftentimes, men use the lame-ass “it’s just a compliment” argument to defend street harassment. The thing is: a whistle or a lewd comment isn’t a compliment. It’s a whistle or a lewd comment. There is such a thing as approaching a woman on the street respectfully and gracefully, and even – gasp! – paying her an actual compliment. There has never been one time where a man approached me on the street with a well-meaning “how are you today?” or even a “you look beautiful” or “I like your hair/glasses/shirt/backpack” when I’ve gotten mad. Because there’s nothing to be mad about! Sure, you might want to be able to walk to the corner store without being spoken to at all, but if someone is trying to be friendly and complimentary, most women I’ve spoken to agree that that’s acceptable – and even flattering! Let your harasser know that there are better, more effective ways to get a woman’s attention. And the number one rule of that is: treat her like a human being. She’ll be more likely to respond, even if she’s not interested. And hey – if someone is legitimately trying to be nice to you, is actually trying to pay you a real compliment, try to take it in stride. Say “thank you” and move on. That’s just manners.
9. Stand Up for Someone Else. Part of the reason that street harassment is so intrusive is because of how vulnerable it makes you feel. It puts you in a position where you’re left to fend for yourself in a situation where you’re already the underdog just by virtue of being a woman in our society. You have no one to stick up for you: the men around you generally consider this to be acceptable behavior, and the women around you are so used to it that they don’t bother addressing it either. At the moment when you’re thinking of confronting a harasser, it would be really great if someone was there by your side, right? So be that person! You’re allowed to say something when you see something. If you see someone else being sexually harassed on the street, toss a comment toward the situation. Acknowledge her predicament, or acknowledge his behavior. Stick up for her. Tell the offender that he’s being inappropriate, to leave her alone. Catch up with the woman and let her know that you’re sorry for what just happened, to keep her head up. Even something as small as a knowing smile her way can go a long way toward fostering camaraderie among women in this fight. And because women are so often hostile toward one another, it might catch her by surprise. And she just might remember that good deed and pay it forward to another stranger someday, perpetuating a positive cycle.
10. Advocate for Safe Public Space for Women. Raising awareness about causes in which you believe goes a long way in the fight against the world’s ills. And with the onset of social media as being widely used and recognized, it’s easier than ever to make a difference in people’s perceptions of the world around them. Don’t ever think for a second that “slacktivism” isn’t worthwhile. I can promise you the contrary. I receive e-mails weekly from family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers, letting me know that my advocacy efforts are reaching people and changing lives. So, since you use your social media outlets everyday anyway, why not use them to affect change? Encourage your friends and family to learn more about street harassment. Post articles (ahem—like, uh, this one!), videos (like the ones I linked in here), and links to awesome organizations doing their best to eradicate street harassment, like HollaBack! and Stop Street Harassment. A little bit goes a long way as far as giving people resources to start understanding issues that maybe they’ve never considered before. You have a voice. Use it!
Street harassment isn’t something that you have to sit back and deal with. It’s something that you can fight against. I can only hope that one or two of these tips can be useful for you.
But most importantly, remember this: if your daughter ever runs home to you, in tears over a verbal attack on the street, don’t tell her that it’s just part of life. Instead, give her the tools she needs to combat it.
Melissa A. Fabello — feminist evangelist, sex educator, and blogger extraordinaire — is a graduate student of Human Sexuality and the founder and editor of ToughxCookies.com. She lives in Philadelphia with her cat. Twitter: @rev_melissa.