No, I Will Not “Deal” With Street Harassment

[Content note: street harassment, gendered violence]

Doree Lewak’s recent New York Post piece, titled “Hey, ladies — catcalls are flattering! Deal with it,” could have been very poorly written satire, but whoever edited the piece clearly knew what’s up. For anyone who’s uncertain what’s under discussion here, the piece is helpfully filed under two tags: “construction workers” and “sexual harassment.”

I’m sure some will say that the piece was “clearly” satire or that Lewak is “obviously” a troll, but for what it’s worth, I’ve heard that same opinion expressed earnestly by women I know personally and am close to. Telling me what I am and am not allowed to be uncomfortable with is not the province of online trolls alone.

Lewak’s entire piece reads painfully like a child whining that nobody else wants to play with toys she likes. The thesis of the piece is essentially this: “But I like getting catcalled, why can’t you like it too? What about what I like?”

What if I like it when strangers randomly try to punch me in the face so I get to practice self-defense? What if I like it when people in need simply reach into my purse and grab a few extra bucks instead of asking me for it? What if I, personally, totally don’t mind it when people throw things at me on the street because I happen to find it fun to dodge flying objects? I don’t understand why everyone else can’t just deal with it!

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Harassment Is Not An Isolated Incident

The reason it’s so hard to get people to take harassment seriously is because it looks so different from the outside than from the inside.

Here’s an example many of us are probably viscerally familiar with.

There’s a group of kids at school who don’t like you. They try to trip you every time you walk by, and whenever you try to join their kickball game at recess they suddenly decide they don’t want to play kickball anymore. They even have a nickname for you–“Piggy,” because you’re fat–and whenever the teacher calls on you in class they laugh and make snorting noises. They find out that you have a crush on another kid in your class and they get that kid to pass you a note. You take the note; it’s folded up and has your name written on it with hearts drawn around it. You get butterflies in your stomach. But when you open it up, it’s a picture of a pig.

Imagine trying to tell your teacher (or even your parents) what’s going on. “They keep trying to trip me!” you say. “Oh, come on, I’m sure they didn’t do it on purpose. The hallway is crowded. It must’ve been an accident.”

“They always stop playing kickball right when I try to join the team!” “You’re taking it too personally. I’m sure they just got tired of playing that game.”

“They keep laughing and making snorting noises whenever I have to answer a question!” “It probably has nothing to do with you. They’re just kids having fun.”

“They got so-and-so to pass me a note with a pig drawn on it!” “So they drew you a nice picture. Why do you have to get upset by everything?”

There’s nothing you can do to explain it. You saw the look in his eyes before he tripped you. You know that she passed you that pig drawing because “Piggy” is what they call you. You know they stop playing because of you. What are the odds that almost every day at recess this school year, you just happened to try to join the game just as they got tired of playing it? When they were clearly having fun right before you showed up?

Come on.

It doesn’t make sense to look at harassment as a few isolated incidents. How hurtful is it really for someone to trip you once, maybe accidentally? So what if someone giggles when the teacher calls on you one day? Maybe you did just have the bad luck to try to join the kickball game right as everyone decided to go play something else.

But as a pattern–as a series of tiny acts and gestures that build up over time, intended to make someone feel unwanted, threatened, afraid–harassment can be devastating.

The same thing happens to us as adults, in the digital age. “So they tweeted some random insult at you, who cares?” “I’m sure they didn’t know you didn’t want to be tagged in that photo.” “Yeah, there’s a few assholes on the Internet. It’s not a big deal.”

It’s hard to get people to see that if these were really “Isolated Incidents,” you wouldn’t be so upset. It’s not about the individual little annoyances. It’s about the whole damn thing. It’s about the straw that broke the camel’s back. And while you sit there, sputtering, trying to explain why it’s so hurtful that someone tweeted at you telling you to shut up, they get to lord it over you how “overly sensitive” you are and how you’re just “looking for things to be upset about.”

Sexual harassment works the same way. So some guy on the street told me I have nice tits. Whatever. But some other guy says it when I’m on my way back. Another one says it tomorrow. Another says it on the subway. Another gets off the subway and tries to follow me down the street saying it. Another leaves it in a comment on my blog. Another sends it to me in a message on OkCupid.

And another sits there smirking and telling me it’s not such a big deal, just ignore it.

The fact that it’s so easy for outsiders to deny the painful reality of harassment is not a bug. It’s a feature. This is why harassers harass. Because they know that when you try to do something about it, people are going to throw their hands up wondering why you’re so upset over some random tweet or blog comment.

Another reason harassers harass is because they know microaggression works better than macroaggression. If someone attacked you physically or heaped verbal abuse on you, it would be (more) obvious to you that they’re in the wrong. It would be easy for you to write this person off as a bully.

But harassment is more insidious. It makes you ask yourself if you’re just crazy to be getting so upset over these “little things.” It makes you blame yourself for having annoyed the person to begin with. It makes it that much harder for you to get support from others. Everyone knows what a black eye looks like, and everyone (read: all reasonable people) knows that heaping verbal abuse on people is wrong.

But what about tweeting at them when they’ve asked you to leave them alone? What about making photoshopped images of them just for fun and sharing them? What about tagging them in a photo you know they’d be upset to see? What about giving them “compliments” that you really know they wouldn’t appreciate because it would make them uncomfortable? What about talking about how much you hate them where you know they’ll overhear (or oversee)?

It doesn’t make any sense to look at harassment, sexual or otherwise, as a series of isolated incidents, or else you’re bound to misunderstand it and try to minimize what the person who’s being harassed is going through. Harassment only makes sense as a pattern–a targeted campaign of bullying against a person, the point of which is not just to hurt them directly with words or actions, but also to make them feel like they’re “overreacting” and merely imagining that this is happening to them.

That’s a cruel thing to do to a person.

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*Edit* More on the street harassment bit of this. People may claim that because it’s different guys each time, it’s just “random” and “isolated incidents.” Really, though? You think it’s some huge coincidence that every time I leave my house this just happens to happen? Some might say that it’s because “that’s just how men are” (some real misandry if I ever heard it), but what’s more likely is that this stuff just doesn’t get challenged enough. Most of us learn by 5 or 6 years of age that it’s not appropriate to just shout at random strangers what we think about them.

Further, take that guy who said “nice tits” to me on the street. You really think I’m the only woman he’s ever said something like that to? Street harassment may be perpetuated on the same woman by many different men, but although they may not realize it, they’re acting collectively, taking pleasure at the thought of making a woman feel violated and afraid. That’s why it’s harassment. That’s why it’s never an “isolated incident.”

On Men Who Think Street Harassment Would Be Awesome

Whenever women are discussing street harassment and what causes it and how to prevent it, a man inevitably comes along to inform us that, actually, our feelings about harassment are Wrong because he, personally, would just love it if women catcalled him on the street or came up and slapped his ass without consent.

There are lots of things wrong here.

1. This is male privilege.

It’s a perfect example of it, in fact. Having privilege isn’t a “bad” thing, and it doesn’t mean you should have to lose that privilege–rather, it means the rest of society should gain it. In this case, that privilege is being able to walk down the street without being subjected to sexualized attention, and that privilege is one men have and women do not, in our society. (Of course, men are more likely than women to face other kinds of unwanted attention on the streets, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.)

When you say that you would “love” it if women catcalled you, you are speaking from a place of privilege because catcalling isn’t something you ever have to deal with. The only reason you are even able to imagine enjoying it because you’ve never experienced it.

Some men do experience sexual harassment from women or other men. But these generally aren’t the men butting into our conversations and telling us that we should take harassment as a compliment, because they understand what it’s actually like.

2. Harassment means you don’t want it.

Why is this so hard to understand? If you want sexual attention, then it’s not harassment or assault. It’s flirting or sex. If you want to be catcalled, then it won’t feel like harassment to you. When you make a sexual comment towards someone without their consent, you are running a huge risk of harassing them, but if it turns out that they wanted to hear that comment, they’re probably not going to complain.

But of course, none of us are mindreaders, or else men who harass women on the street would probably realize that they don’t want it in the least.

3. And anyway, your penis is not the arbiter of everyone’s sexuality.

As in, I don’t really care what you like. Just because you may like getting catcalled without your consent doesn’t mean the rest of us have to like it too, and it definitely doesn’t mean you have the right to do it to others. It’s just like I wrote about people who prefer not to be asked for consent during sex–that’s totally cool. But you cannot assume that others feel the same way you do.

If being catcalled in public is your thing (which, as I’ll explain, I kind of doubt, anyway), you’ll need to find a way to arrange that without advocating that everyone should be okay with catcalling. Just like if you get off on emulating rape, you’ll need to find a consenting partner to do that with rather than suggesting that everyone should be okay with getting raped because that’s what your penis likes.

4. Harassment is never a one-time thing, and that changes everything.

If you’ve never gotten catcalled (and likely never will), it may indeed seem like it’ll be pleasant and flattering. In fact, I distinctly remember thinking something similar when I was a teenager–old enough to want sexual attention, but too young to really get it (not to mention living in a quiet suburb rather than a big city).

The first time a man ever made a comment to me on the street, it was a bit weird but also kind of cool. I still remember it–I had just graduated from high school and was taking a trip to Chicago alone for the first time. I was in the Loop and there was a group of guys. One of them said, “Hey! You look good.” That was it. Fairly harmless as catcalling goes.

The second or third time, which I don’t remember, probably went much the same way, and I didn’t mind it much. But it’s never just a few times. It’s dozens, hundreds of times over a lifetime. It’s when you wear a cute dress. It’s when you wear sweats. It’s when you’re excitedly on your way to a date. it’s when you’re dragging yourself home after an exhausting day at work. It’s when you’re taking a run. It’s when you’re carrying groceries. It’s all. The. Fucking. Time.

And that, as this blogger explains beautifully, makes all the difference.

5. It’s also different when you’ve been a victim of sexual violence.

My guess is that men who say these things have not, and this is another type of privilege at play. If you’ve never experienced sexual violence, unwanted come-ons will feel different to you than they will to someone who has. To survivors of sexual violence, street harassment can be anything from a mildly uncomfortable reminder of a past experience to an actual trigger for a panic attack, depressive episode, or flashback.

And here’s the thing–if you haven’t had that experience, you cannot know what it’s like to be triggered or reminded of it. You just can’t. But luckily, you don’t need to understand it to respect those who do know. You just have to shut up for a change, and listen.

6. Who, exactly, would you want to be catcalled by?

My guess is that when you imagine getting catcalled, you’re imagining a gorgeous woman doing it. What about an ugly woman? A fat woman? A gay man? In my experience, the men who go around whining that nobody ever catcalls them on the street are the same ones who get horrified when someone they don’t find desirable pays them any attention.

Also, men who are perceived as gay are often bullied or assaulted for even seeming like they’re coming on to straight men. Apparently it’s not such a “compliment” anymore when it’s coming from someone you’re prejudiced against.

And remember that the whole problem with non-consensual interaction is that you don’t get to choose who interacts with you.

7. Gender matters.

Although men are not immune to violence (sexual or otherwise, from women or from other men), the dynamics are demonstrably different because most men are stronger than most women. If you’re a man walking down the street and a woman starts harassing you, you generally don’t have to worry that she’ll brutally rape and attack you if you try to get her to stop (TW for that link).

For women, the awfulness of street harassment isn’t just what it actually is, but also in what it could become. It could just be an offhand comment, or it could lead to stalking, groping, assault, mugging, or murder. You may think that you’re a perfectly nice guy who’d never actually hurt anyone as you stand there and whistle at a woman, but she doesn’t know that, and therein lies the horror of it.

The humiliation makes it even worse. When a man catcalls me, I can feel the eyes of the passerby on me and I know what they’re thinking: She shouldn’t have dressed like a slut. She shouldn’t be here alone this late at night. I wonder what she did to get his attention. 

When women come on to men, on the other hand, this generally reflects well on the men because getting attention from women is seen as an accomplishment, not a failure to stay modest and unobtrusive enough.

On the other hand, though, this mindset also contributes to the huge problem of sexual assault not being taken seriously when men are the victims, which brings me right to my final point.

8. Comments like these erase male victims.

This is perhaps the most important point I’ll make in this entire piece: men who say things like this are effectively erasing the experiences of male victims of sexual harassment and assault. Believe it or not, many (if not most) men don’t actually enjoy it when women pay them unwanted sexual attention, “unwanted” being the key word.

A male friend of mine mentioned that whenever a guy points out that, no, he does not want to be harassed by women on the street, he gets ridiculed by other men. That, right there, is why it’s so difficult for men to admit being harassed or assaulted, and why male victims are marginalized. Male rape is still largely considered either impossible, “not a big deal,” or, as I’m discussing in an upcoming post, simply hilarious. I don’t know how else to say it: this is a fucking problem.

Anyway, I’m at 1,400 words now, so this seems as good a time as any to stop. Here’s the tl;dr version for people who minimize the problem of street harassment: check your privilege, put yourself into someone else’s shoes, and consider the fact that the world doesn’t fucking revolve around you.