Saturday, September 19, 2009

Sexist Smackdown Saturday: Catcalling (and other forms of street harassment)

Let me ask you something, dear Athenites. When you are walking down the street alone at night, what sort of thoughts tend to run through your head? This is a question I've been asking my friends all week. Most of the guys I know have never really thought about it enough to give me an answer. With my female friends, however, it's a different story. "Is my skirt so short that it will attract unwarranted attention?" "Maybe I should take the long way, avoid that street." "Just ignore that guys comments, maybe he'll leave me alone."

Lewd comments, cat calls, wolf whistles, unwanted sexual advances - it's a reality that pretty much every woman has faced at one point or another, and that almost every man is oblivious to - many didn't even know this was something that still existed. Sure enough, almost ever guy I talked to about how scary it can get when men shout sexual comments to women walking down the street had similar responses:

"Lighten up! They mean it as a compliment! It's probably just their way of trying to flirt with you!"
(Interesting. So when a guy shouts 'hey baby, suck my cock!' I'm supposed to stop what I'm doing, walk up to him, drop to my knees and blow him? Face it - it's a power trip for men to get off on, nothing more. If they really cared about "complimenting" a woman, they wouldn't use intimidation tactics.)

"Why don't you just ignore it and walk away?"
(The sad truth is, many woman are forced to try and ignore it. Confronting a man - especially when by yourself - who shows an obvious disregard for a woman's well being isn't exactly a barrel of monkeys worth of laughs. However, it is really, really hard to ignore feelings of discomfort, especially when they guy approaches you, follows you, or attempts to make physical contact with you.)

"Why don't you just stay out of sketchy neighborhoods/stop dressing a certain way/don't go out by yourself at night."
(Yeah, because this stuff doesn't ever happen in nice neighborhoods, or during the day, or when the woman is dressed in baggy jeans. This is just a way to blame the victim, when the real truth is that harassment can only go away when people STOP HARASSING. Another sad truth is that even if they have done nothing wrong, many of the women I talked to do try to avoid these conflicts as much as possible - by covering up, even when it's 100 degrees out, or taking the long way to work even if it means leaving half an hour earlier, or spending 30$ on a cab ride to get home rather than 3$ on the a bus ride, or will end up not going to that concert/play/whatever they really wanted to see because they can't find someone to go with them and it's not worth risking going alone.)

"I bet it happens to men as often as it does to women."
(Which of course explains why you didn't realize it was a problem until I brought it up just now. Because we live in a culture which encourages women to be predators while treating men as sex objects. Because when a woman goes after what she wants sexually, she is never shamed for it. Because men are constantly accused of "asking for it" if they dare to wear shorts in public. No, really. You hit the nail on the head. Pardon me while my sarcasm detector explodes.)

This isn't a problem that is going to go away over night, but it certainly won't change unless people are actually forced to become aware that it is a problem. Too often we try to sweep the issue of harassment under the rug. If anybody reading this has experiences they would like to speak of, I encourage you to do so in the blog comments.



  1. I am sending a virtual high five your way, anna. Especially for the "suck my cock" part. Because that made my day.

  2. Awesome, concise breakdown of some common-held prejudices. :) Great post, Anna!

  3. Yeah, 'cos the last guys to shout at me from their car weren't nice clean-looking white men and it so completely wasn't a busy street in a very expensive part of town or anything. It so happens to men all the time.

  4. Awesome takedown. I have had the same conversation with lots of guys. Oh but you forgot the one that always gets me sputtering with rage: "Well lots of girls like it cause they want to attract attention anyway".

    Dudebros. Ugh.

  5. This is awesome. I asked myself that inital question and was totally disturbed by the fact that, yeah, when I'm out alone (at night or otherwise), or even when I'm out with female friends, there's a vigilant inner voice trying to gauge anything I'm doing that might, in some way, accidentally invite unwanted harassment. It never occurred to me just how wrong it is that this mental process is even happening.

    The "Lighten up! They mean it as a compliment!" argument is so reflective of the way our culture confuses good sexual attention with bad sexual attention. It's like they're the same thing. It reminds me of a great entry by legendary feminist blogger Melissa McEwan Rape is Not a Compliment. It never is, and neither is this kind of harassment. It's not something people do to make the victim feel good about herself. The goal is to degrade, humiliate, dehumanize and remove power. Warm fuzzies don't come into play.