Last week Buzzfeed released a video, “What Men Are Really Saying When Catcalling Women,” which hilariously communicates the motives behind street harassment. As a woman living in Chicago where I have to walk around to get to most places, I have tirelessly sought an explanation for why men resort to street harassment.
According to an article about the Buzzfeed video on The Washington Post, men believe that harassing and catcalling women on the streets is:
- Something that is expected of them in order to prove their manliness
- Harmless fun that entertains or impresses their friends
- The way to actually approach a woman
- Their personal duty to put women in their “place”
While the Buzzfeed video makes an important point that men have been socialized to believe that catcalling is not only acceptable, but necessary, I do not empathize with men who harass my friends or me on the streets. Ignorance is no justification for this obnoxious act of patriarchy that causes women to feel fear and discomfort while going about their daily tasks.
A few weeks ago I was walking home from dinner with my two girlfriends when a truck full of men slowed down at the cross walk, rolled down their windows and proceeded to make vulgar comments towards us. When my friend rightfully told the men to, “fuck off,” they responded by calling her a “stupid slut.”
The grim reality is that this is a pervasive experience. According to a study by nonprofit organization Stop Street Harassment, 65% of women have experienced street harassment. Even worse, this harassment is not confined to catcalling and leering. Among all women surveyed, 23% had been sexually touched, 20% had been followed, and 9% had been forced to do something sexual.
A few days ago I was walking home in broad daylight wearing red shorts, a black crop top and a pair of Keds while shoving my face with popcorn. During my 15- minute walk I counted 6 different instances of street harassment directed towards me, and I actually considered to myself that perhaps I should have worn a different shirt. Perhaps I should have walked through the neighborhood streets rather than on the main road. Perhaps I should have spent $2.25 on the bus and forgone the walk.
It was upon having these counterintuitive thoughts that I really realized the harm that is done when men harass us on the streets. On this particularly beautiful day I found myself looking down at my feet rather than up at the remarkable city I live in, because accidentally making eye contact with a man on the street might mean that he would interpret it as an invitation for harassment. When a group of men outnumber me in a car that can move faster than I can and make kissing noises at me, my instinctual reaction is to look away, tense up and search for an escape. My heart starts beating faster, my skin gets clammy and I start to mildly sweat.
I have not been a victim of sexual abuse. I do not have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is a real, natural reaction to the presence of potential danger. This is how I have been socialized to respond to the rape-culture that we live in, where street harassment is treated as “harmless fun,” and women are not only victimized, but blamed for being victims and asked by society to adjust their behaviors to protect themselves from the patriarchy that surrounds them.
Experiences like these are why I believe street harassers are winning. Even if only for a moment, men are able to assume their power and control over the women they pass on the streets. Every time we choose a different route or a different outfit, we are awarding street harassers an awesome victory, and we absolutely must bring this victory to an end.
We need to walk tall, confident and proud on the streets in our cities. We need to show our beautiful skin and remember that it is our own. We need to stop slut shaming each other and criticizing each other for showing too much or wearing too little. We have to educate ourselves and our young sons and daughters. We have to start teaching students in schools about consent and about harassment. And most importantly, we need to be brave enough to take action.
Stop Street Harassment provides resources that empower people to take action against street harassment, including the toolkit Know Your Rights: Street Harassment and the Law, and state-by-state information and laws surrounding street harassment. Take the time to educate yourselves about the laws in your state, and remember that no form of harassment is deserved or acceptable. It is up to us to make sure street harassers do not win!