You Thought You Heard It All About Catcalling. For Good Measure, Let's Hear From A Man, Too.
Women have been trying every way from Sunday to tell the world that a great deal of us find unwanted attention ... well, unwanted. I mean, that should be enough, but because in the world we live in it probably isn't, let's try filtering it through a man who gets it. The following piece is "A Gentleman's Guide to Street Harassment" by Zaron Burnett III from "Human Parts," a collection of writing about the human condition on Medium.
"A Gentleman's Guide to Street Harassment" by Zaron Burnett III
Guys, I’d like you to imagine a single drop of water, clinging to the lip of a faucet. It falls. Plink. It’s just a second in time, a natural moment playing out. Now imagine tying someone to a chair, positioning them under that same faucet, and watching as an endless stream of drops fall against their forehead—some would call that repetition torture. Something as simple as a drop of water can be cruel. Keep that in mind as you consider what it must be like to be harassed on the street.
Like tens of millions of other people, I watched the recent viral video, Ten Hours of Walking In New York City. Created by the Hollaback Project, the video was a demonstration of what it’s like to be a woman in Manhattan who chooses to enter the public space of the sidewalk. In a ten-hour stretch, a young woman by the name of Shoshana Roberts is harassed over 100 times. And that’s just one day of her life in New York. Imagine five days, two weeks, a month of days like that … the constant harassment could drive a woman mad. If not mad, it would certainly change how she interacted with dudes and her environment. How could it not?
This is what a lot of men don’t understand about street harassment. It’s not rare. It’s not harmless. It’s a willful use of social power that reduces women to a form of amusement or objects of sexual gratification. It’s predicated upon the presumption that this is a man’s world. May James Brown forgive me, but that’s just not true. It’s our world. Yours, mine, hers, theirs … it’s everybody’s world. That’s why street harassment is indefensible. It limits one’s freedom. As dudes, we generally dislike it when anyone tells us what to do — imagine if strange men were telling you what they wanted to do to you. Everyday.
If we’re speaking honestly, I saw why the men in that video wanted to say something to Shoshana Roberts. She’s an attractive woman, and I understand the instinct to want to talk to her. But that’s where the thought for me stops, just as it would if she’d walked past me in real life. At no point would I think, “You know what I should do? I should holler at her and let her know I find her aesthetically pleasing. Yeah! She would probably like if I shouted some derogatory shit at her to let her know the sight of her has made my day more pleasant.” No. Nuh-unh. Nyet. Why not?
Because that would make the moment about me. I would be using her to gratify me. I’d be stealing her dignity while disrespecting her mental space. I recognize that Shoshana Roberts is not walking the sidewalk for my pleasure (except maybe in the instance where she’s the subject of a video such as this one, which is a meta question only filmmakers and philosophers should be worried about). The reason she’s on the sidewalk is that, like me, she’s going somewhere. She’s busy. To interrupt her is to say none of that matters — that she is less important than my desire.
Even when women who are harassed on the street adopt protective measures—avoiding eye contact, listening to headphones, sticking to known routes, walking with purpose, and avoiding construction sites like joggers avoid dog shit—many straight men refuse to read their signals. Maybe they’re unaware, or in denial, that these signals exist, because society doesn’t mandate that men be hyper-conscious of their surroundings.
As a black man, I can say that we learn early on in life to be conscious of threatening signals we may send. This is mostly in regards to police. But we don’t extend the same awareness to how we may be threatening to women. That is a common oversight for straight men, regardless of ethnicity. We don’t experience limits on our freedom to move through the world the way women do, and thus, it’s difficult for us to imagine. But when women (thousands, in fact) tell us the measures they have to take to walk outside in attempted peace, the least we can do is believe them.
In reaction to the video, a lot of men have offered apologist rationales for why some of the behavior depicted is evidence of a double standard. Many men have maintained that a number of the one-sided exchanges in the video were not harassment, but simply greetings, pleasantries, a friendly hello. Doubling down, men like Rush Limbaugh blamed feminism for failing to end street harassment, and suggested that, now, radical feminists have upped the ante and are arguing that a man saying hello is street harassment. As usual, the point was missed.
Saying hello is like a single drop of water. It’s harmless, it’s natural, it’s inconsequential, and yet it can also be an implement of torture. And certainly, if a man says hello to a woman he fancies even though she’s given no sign of interest, that is a selfish act. It’s an attempt to mask his desire for her attention behind a veil of courtesy. But unless that guy says hello to everyone all the time, like a Midwesterner, it’s not about being friendly.
Another double standard I heard men quick to apply to the Ten Hours video was the Creepy Guy problem. If an attractive man said “hello” to Shoshana Roberts, she would’ve welcomed his attention because he was hot. It was only street harassment because those guys were unattractive and/or creepy. Of course, this also misses the point. The Creepy Guy argument is an oversimplification of women. It assumes all women want male attention. They don’t. First off, lesbian women probably don’t give a shit if a dude looks like Zac Efron, Brad Pitt, or Lil B the Based God. And sexual orientation is only one of a million reasons why a woman might not crave attention from a conventionally attractive man while walking down the street.
As much as men like to pretend otherwise, women are not that simple, or that similar. Women are mind-bogglingly complex and multivalent. And so, individual women will find all sorts of different men attractive—the same way men find different women attractive. (Huh, go figure.) To say “if he was a hot guy, it wouldn’t be street harassment” fails as an argument because it assumes all women are attracted to the same thing, and it conveniently overlooks the nature of harassment. “If it was a hot guy” forgets that women are human beings with shit to do—they aren’t moving through the world with the sole purpose of acquiring random male attention from you or any other dude. In fact, they’re trying to dodge it. And it’s not hard to understand why.
A key point made time and time again by women I spoke with is how they were afraid of angering a man who was harassing them. This is a sort of double imprisonment. First, she gets harassed and demeaned or whathaveyou, and then, she has to manage her harassment so that the man doesn’t get angry and kill her for rejecting him. What? Do you think I exaggerate?
They go under-reported, yet there are countless stories in the news about women being beaten, set on fire, and murdered by men who either catcalled them or wanted to exert their power over a stranger. Pause. Think about that. In an attempt to free herself from the unwanted attention of a stranger, a woman loses her life because she misjudges the stranger. Yet, you expect her to be flattered by your attention, to welcome you with open arms? Ha! Don’t be ignorant.
Street harassment is so much more than just hollerin’ at a girl, or being nice, or saying hello, or letting a woman know she looks good. It could also be the first words of a death sentence.
You may have expected that I’d guilt you into taking street harassment seriously with that momentarily effective, classic line:
Imagine if she was your daughter, or your sister, your girlfriend, or wife, or mother…
The reason I’d never say that to you: that line of thinking is fucked up. No, it is. Why? Because it doesn’t matter what a woman’s relationship is to you. She deserves respect for being her.
A woman’s value does not rest on the fact she means something to you.
Guys, instead of appealing to your emotions, I’d rather equip you with ways to quit perpetuating street harassment.
1. Don’t dismiss the fears of women
To anyone who thinks it’s ridiculous to tell men to leave women alone in public, and specifically to not start conversations with women, it’s quite simple: that’s not your call to make. Women are speaking up. They’re saying they often feel threatened or intimidated in public spaces. The only way to counter this reasonable fear is to listen to them explain why they feel that way. Why dismiss the fear? Why minimize their experiences and opinions and tell them why they shouldn’t be afraid? And please, we certainly shouldn’t accuse women of being over-dramatic. Imagine if you had Deebo pushing up on you asking how he could get in them jeans. Fear, like pain, is relative.
2. Respect women as individuals (and not as someone who services men)
You can’t tell someone else they shouldn’t hurt that much. You can’t tell someone they should feel safer. Those kind of “shoulds” help no one. Rather than qualify the fear women often feel in the streets, let’s listen to what they’re saying. Then we can engineer new ways to interact so that women don’t have to live in fear of strange men. Every woman has the right to be left alone. She should not expect to be harassed just because she leaves her home. The same is true for every man. Street harassment isn’t about gender. It’s about power.
3. Recognize that all women are different
They will react differently, hold vastly different opinions, and be contradictory of other women, sometimes even themselves. If a woman smiles at a man on the street, it could be construed as an invitation for the man to engage her in conversation, or to flirt. Yet, for another woman, a smile is a social deflection, a way of smoothing the awkwardness of being strangers—in which case, it’s not an invitation to talk to them. How do you know which is which? You can’t know. That’s why it’s best for you to smile and move on. Of course, you’ll wanna avoid any ogling. No long stares. No lecherous grins.
4. Confront the subtle effects of toxic masculinity
One aspect we should consider is how our culture of toxic masculinity leaves men unable to emotionally support one another, to be there for each other, to listen to one another. Consequently, (straight) men typically turn to women for intimacy. Unfortunately, we wrongly presume women should deal with our emotional needs just because they’re women. This imposition and cultural bias motivates some men to speak to women in public. Sexual or not, to ask a stranger to succor you emotionally just because she’s a woman is a selfish act and based on the idea women should happily service men.
5. Don’t initiate conversations with women on the street
For guys who want to argue they should be able to say hello to a woman without being labeled a street harasser, the writer Elon James White invented a new game just for you. It starts with the same rule we’ve already established: when you’re in public, leave women alone.
But he adds an option for those of you who are dying to talk: If you still want to say hello to people, well, greet dudes.
White suggested that men can give their social niceties to other men. Just leave women out of it. Check #dudesgreetingdudes to see a few funny examples.
6. Don’t excuse yourself because you’re white
Returning to the Ten Hours video, the fact that filmmakers edited out the majority of white men who were on camera would suggest that street harassment is a cultural behavior, mainly attributable to men of color. As women have been quick to point out: that’s not true. All men are equal offenders. In fact, women of color report that white men often harass and exoticize them, which adds an extra load of abuse.
If all this leaves you utterly confused about when and how to speak to a woman in public, use this simple guideline:
7. Don’t speak to a woman in public … unless she speaks to you
Otherwise, if you misread her body language, say, misinterpreting a smile for an invitation to speak to her, you run the chance of harassing her by mistake. Even a hello—whether it’s partnered with a sleazy, creepy smile or not — can ruin a woman’s enjoyment of public space and constrain her freedom of movement. And, guys, if you see street harassment, step in and do what you can — this doesn’t mean you need to be violent or threatening, but do something.
We need to update the social code for guys. We’ve outgrown chivalry. We’ve evolved past political correctness. We need to establish a new code of common dignity and gender equality. Remember, it’s not a man’s world. It’s everyone’s. Walking a sidewalk shouldn’t be torturous for anyone, since they’re everyone’s streets. Plus, as it is now, women live longer than men. That means over their lifetime, women will pay more in taxes to maintain those streets. Financially speaking, the streets belong more to women than men. Least we could do is be respectful.