5 Myths About Street Harassment

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Contrary to popular opinion, catcalls from strange men on the street are not complimentary. Emily Heist Moss busts this myth and more.

“It’s because you’re pretty.”

“It’s a compliment!”

“We can’t help ourselves.”

“It’s the only way to get your attention.”

“It’s harmless.”

If I had a nickel for every time I heard these excuses when I raise the omnipresent issue of street harassment, I’d start chucking nickels at the cat-callers. Maybe that would get the message across better than another essay, but hey, I’m a blogger, not a major league pitcher.

I recently walked a 10-block stretch of San Francisco to the all-too-familiar tune of hisses, whistles, “hey mama,” “can I take you out sometime?” “mmmmmhmmm, I like the way you walk,” and “smile, pretty girl!” When I posted about this experience on Facebook, friends and coworkers jumped into the comments. Most of the commenters commiserated over similar experiences, but a few raised questions that echoed the tired stereotypes of street-harassment condoners. Shall we do some mythbusting?

It’s just because you’re pretty.”

While it might be an ego boost to believe that every catcall is a product of my phenomenal good looks, that would be both false and problematic. Men don’t catcall because they think I’m pretty, they catcall because I’m female and because they think that my femaleness opens the door for commentary on my appearance. The men who whistle at me are not whistling at me, they’re whistling at the idea of a 25-year-old woman; seconds after I pass them, they’re after someone else. For them, it’s routine: See a girl, lob a “compliment.” It has very little to do with how I look.

The wardrobe corollary: “It’s because of your yoga pants/short dress/tight jeans/low-cut shirt” is equally idiotic. Ask any women in colder climates if cat-calling disappears in the winter when we look like the offspring of the Michelin Man and a quilted sleeping bag. The answer is no.

“It’s a compliment!”

It’s really not. Poll the women in your social circle and ask them if they like it when men that they don’t know approach them on the street, at the bus stop, or yell at them from car windows telling them that they look good. Or just ask W. Kamau Bell, who actually performed this exercise.

Do we want people to think we’re attractive? Sure, some people, sometimes, under some circumstances. Try this thought experiment: If you’re a straight dude, imagine that you live in a world where gay dudes yelled at you in public about what a cute butt you have. Maybe the first time you’d blush and feel like it’s a compliment, but after a while, you’d get a little tired of it, right? What if the comments are more explicit? What if the comments are made when someone is violating your personal space? What if the comments come when you’re out enjoying a walk with a friend, your sibling, or worst of all, your parent? Are these “compliments” still welcome?

“We can’t help ourselves.”

Bullshit. Huge swaths of men and virtually all of the women in the world are capable of refraining from shouting their desires into the wind. Do I walk over to you and yell in your face that I think you’re ugly? Or that your shoes don’t match your belt? Or that your haircut makes your ears stand out? No. Just as it is wildly inappropriate to comment on a stranger’s appearance that you don’t like, it is wildly inappropriate to make sure every woman passing by knows what you think of her figure. She doesn’t care and it’s presumptuous of you to think that she does.

“It’s the only way to get your attention.”

This one really gets to me, because it’s usually leveled by the Nice Guys and the actual nice guys. Most guys who cat-call are not delusional enough to think that the errant “damn girl” whistle is going to get them laid, especially the ones yelling out of cars. You really think I’m going to cross two lanes of traffic to sidle up to your window and offer you my phone number or a blow job? No, cat-calling is about exercising power, about projecting a faux-manliness to bolster low self-esteem or feelings of helplessness. It doesn’t lead to actual dates, and it’s not intended to.

What the nice guys are talking about, I think, is complimenting women in a different setting than the street corner. Telling a girl she’s pretty in a bar, where she’s out looking to meet people, might actually get you a smile. Or not, because maybe she’s mid-Trivia with her friends and you’re standing at her elbow expecting her to engage because you said something nice. We do not like to be treated like we have a price and that you’re paying it to get attention. There are a million ways to start conversations with people that you think might be interesting. Here’s a smattering of “lines” that have worked on me in the last year: “Do you know what time the train comes?” “I like your necklace,” “Cool haircut, very 1920s of you,” and, “Are you from around here?”

Lady-corollary: If we want to undermine the notion that women only respond to macho dudes who parade around pointing at girls and playing hot-or-not with their bros, we have to not respond to it. Similarly, if a guy approaches you with respect and offers a hello and an introduction, don’t be a douche. By no means are you required to devote your evening to him, but don’t roll your eyes, laugh at him, or make a face to your friend. That’s rude too, and if this poor guy gets that shit enough he’ll switch to macho-bro mode eventually, and we sure as shit don’t need any more of those.

“It’s harmless.”

If only it were. Cat-calling is one facet of the very ugly multi-faceted misogyny beast that reigns supreme in our society. It’s one way that the average man participates in the reduction of women to objects. It may seem like no big deal because it’s “just a compliment” (it’s not, see above), but it contributes to a culture that values women solely for their appearance. It flattens women into not-quite-people who are only worth what men deem them to be worth, and that not-quite-people status is where all the really dangerous stuff begins. It’s what allows teenage boys to treat a drunk girl like a sex doll, it’s what allows grown men to sexually assault their military comrades, it’s what makes husbands think it’s OK to beat their wives.

Some people will tell you to imagine it’s your daughter or sister on the other end of your “compliments,” but I don’t think that’s going far enough. Imagine that she’s a human, just like you. Her space is still her space, her privacy is still her privacy, and your desire, no matter how much you feel it is caused by her appearance, is not her problem to solve. Keep it to yourself.

Role/Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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