Why Women Don’t Stand Up to Street Harassment


While walking out of a Hasting’s store with a friend last year, I stood up to a catcaller for the first time in my life. I was holding a bag containing awesome geek paraphernalia; he was hanging out the passenger window of a car (because, of course he was.) I can’t remember what he shouted, I only remember the white hot rage that flowed through me. So, mustering up all the courage I possessed, I shouted, ”OH, GROW UP!”

Not the best comeback, I know — but not bad for a first effort.

Eight months later, while walking to my car in a grocery store parking lot, a man stopped in his tracks, looked me up and down, and asked (in quite possibly the creepiest voice I’ve ever heard), “How’s your day going?” The hair on the back of my neck stood up, alarm bells went off in my head, everything about the situation was blaring ‘DANGER, DANGER, DANGER!’ I looked away, refusing to answer, and booked it to my car.

Both of these situations happened in crowded parking lots in broad daylight, yet my reactions were completely different. Why?

Perceived danger.

The man hanging out of the car was speeding away from me, and I knew it was unlikely he’d turn around (or even hear my response).

The man in the grocery store parking lot was standing mere feet away from me and he’d very clearly sized me up. I was holding nothing but my keys and phone, and there certainly wasn’t any room in my dress for a stun gun or mace. And despite the fact there were people milling around us, I didn’t feel safe — no one had intervened up to that point, why should they intervene if he became violent. The fact is, many people witness street harassment and do nothing to stop it.


Image ©Hollaback

This is the point where many people tell me to stand up for myself rather than expecting a stranger to intervene. Such advice is insanely unhelpful when I’m painfully aware that harassment can quickly escalate into violence if I protest. The fact is, there is no guaranteed safe way for me to respond to street harassment.

You know what else is unhelpful? Anyone who says street harassment is a compliment, or I should be flattered, or that’s just the way men show appreciation. NO, NO, AND NO!

Street harassment is not a compliment. It’s a statement of power and a sexual advance. As Laura Bates, founder of The Everyday Sexism Project puts it, “Street harassment is no more about compliments than rape is about sex.”

And no, I shouldn’t be flattered, I should be scared. And I am! I don’t know what may happen to me if I don’t respond the way the harasser thinks I should. I don’t know if I’ll be followed, run over, stabbed, or shot, or raped.

Look, I know courtship has evolved over the years. I’m aware that the days of asking a young woman if she’d like to wear your letterman jacket and go steady are gone. This is the 21st century and Tinder and Grindr have changed the way we embark upon new relationships. But wolf-whistling and telling a woman walking down the sidewalk that she has a great ass is not, nor has it ever been, the way a loving partnership starts.

We should be focusing on the source of the problem, yet most people continue to criticize and mandate women’s reactions to street harassment. The fact is, we should be teaching boys from a young age that catcalling is degrading, distressing, and harmful to our society. It fuels rape culture, plain and simple.

Listen, I want to stand up for myself, I really do — but I also have to use my judgement, and assess the safety of a situation, often in a just a split second. As much as I want to crush the patriarchy, I have to make my safety the number one priority. And really, when I have to worry that every time I walk into public, someone might cause me bodily harm for spurning unwanted sexual advances, doesn’t that say more about the state of sexism in our country than anything?

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