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Catcalling Is a Problem: How to Talk to a Woman Without Being Rude, Creepy or Scary

Street harassment is not OK. Guys, if you really want to get a woman's attention, here's what you should say.

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I believe reacting online is an approach too detached to make a significant impact. The more I safely challenge my harassers -- and see how they almost always step down -- the more I realize that we can’t depend on lawmakers or our cell phones to do all of the work for us. So I have a radical idea: Instead of thinking of all street harassers solely as criminals who deserve penalization and public ridicule, we need to communicate with them about how it feels to be the target of their actions.

I know some will be angry with me (hi, Mom) for proposing what may seem like a dangerous idea. Confronting street harassers is not always possible in every situation or for everyone. To be sure, it’s a very bad idea to engage with those who have truly harmful intentions, and if even a small part of you feels threatened, you should walk away.

But (according to Hollaback!, interestingly enough) studies show that those who “respond assertively” to harassment are less vulnerable. It’s possible -- if your harasser or leerer seems more ignorant than dangerous, and you’re in a well-lit area with people nearby -- to succinctly and calmly explain why certain actions are disrespectful.

I want to challenge all good men to step up. Men, please say something when you witness street harassment, even if the harassers are your coworkers or friends. I’m not saying all men are responsible for their street harassing ilk, but they owe it to the women they respect to set an example and encourage others to do the same.


In Platus’ Mercator, written around 200 B.C., Demipho turns away the beautiful slave girl bought for his mother by his son Charinus. “She is hardly the proper sort of person,” says Demipho. “Why not?” asks Charinus (who is secretly in love with the girl, as is -- naturally -- his father). “Because it would cause scandal if such a beauty were the attendant of a wife and mother,” Demipho replies. “When she passes through the streets all the men would look at her, leer, nod and wink and whistle.”

This is the first known recording of a form of bullying that, thousands of years later, the vast majority of women experience on a regular basis. Today it has evolved into a variety of behaviors, often arranged by severity from physical contact and verbal abuse to stares and whistles. Other forms include exposing, picture-taking, groping, masturbating, threatening, intimidating, stalking, and attention-seeking behavior like flattering and honking.

As a woman, I’ve experienced almost all of these variations more than once. There’s no doubt that some street harassers are more dangerous than others; gropers, for example, trump picture-takers any day. But I’m not as interested in discussing why rapists, stalkers, or “ dick-flashers” do what they do. I’m more intrigued by the watchers and callers.


In Beth A. Quinn’s workplace-focused study, “Sexual Harassment and Masculinity: The Power and Meaning of ‘Girl Watching,’” she notes that “no man discussed girl watching in initial accounts of his workplace”:

I suspect that they did not consider it to be relevant to a discussion of their average workday, even though it became apparent that it was an integral daily activity for some groups of men.

It not only shows how second-nature street harassment is to some men -- hello, it’s been going on since at least 200 B.C. -- but how it often isn’t about the interchangeable female targets as much as it is about male bonding, defining one’s own masculinity, or collectively -- even if subconsciously -- asserting men’s inherent physical power over women.

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