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Street Harassment, or ‘How I Learned to Stop Loving Cat Noises When They Come from Creepy Dudes’

2012 December 5

I was walking home recently, across a busy bit of central London, after dark, when some dude made kissy noises at me, like he was trying to tempt a cat. He was two feet away, staring straight at me and smirking like an icky weasel.

Without thinking, I responded in kind with a big, angry, I-will-slash-you hiss.

Hissing cat from morguefile.com


DESIST

He looked pretty taken aback.

I carried on my way and mused that I appear to speak feline like a mothertongue, but also I got to thinking: what the ever-loving crap?! Seriously, what on earth was he expecting from that encounter? What would a positive result have been? Surely that’s never worked for anyone, right?

Ah, street harassment. It’s been a few months. Usually my experience of you is relegated to when I’m wearing a summer dress (gender norms for the lose) but it sucks whenever it happens. It’s also antithetical to ever actually getting my interest because – no matter how many mad cat-lady vibes I’ve got going on – no one who thinks they can approach me like a pet is getting the time of day.

This particular encounter didn’t throw me much because I actually had a comeback – I walked away pleased with myself for thinking fast – but how you deflect it shouldn’t be the first point of call. WHY DO PEOPLE DO THIS?

Far more often it’s crap shouted from cars – which I find rubbish twice over because they’ve gone before you can say or do anything in response. (Come back right now, dudebro. I have a LOT to say about what you just did.)

A friend of mine recently had some jerk shout “nice tits!” at her from a car. She was (understandably) angry and upset for the rest of the day, but the guy shouting it might have told himself it was a compliment – some interviews with street harassers have revealed what is either complete ignorance or willing ignorance of the effect it has on women. Many of the men, when asked why they do it, say it’s a compliment and it makes women feel nice.

Maybe it is a compliment for a very small percentage of people – I cannot claim to speak for everybody – but I am yet to meet or hear of one person who’s had a catcall, wolf-whistle or similar and felt good about it. The thing about street harassment is, it’s not flirting. Street harassment doesn’t make a person feel good because it isn’t about a person: it’s boiling them down to their physical attributes (‘nice tits’, ‘nice ass’) and funnily enough that doesn’t feel great.

Annoyed cat from morguefile.com

“News of your interest in my ‘nice butt’ has not made my day in any way.”

The other thing is, it’s almost never a conversation: mostly ’cause the objects of the harassment aren’t interested and want to get on with their day, and also because often it’s at a remove – stuff shouted from cars, or (to use the cliché) from scaffolding. The people doing the shouting don’t actually expect a response. This isn’t a tool used to chat up women: it’s used to silence them. Under the guise of a compliment it’s a one-way street of objectification.

And Objectification Street is a crappy street. Seriously, I looked at a flat there once. There were rats all over the place and it smelled bad.

Of course, if people are physically closer to the harassers, it doesn’t exactly get better. The wonderful (and award-winning) Anti-Street Harassment UK campaign (ASH UK) was set up after its founder, Vicky, was harassed by a group of men who were initially shouting at her from a car, threatened to rape her, then got out of the car and followed her into a tube station where they assaulted her. The police (who did intervene) then blamed her for responding to them and said “boys will be boys.” SO. MUCH. FAIL.

Um… *cough* male readers – this is essentially Met officers saying your entire gender are all hopeless gropey asshats. Erm… *cough* I wouldn’t take that.

So, what can we do?

  • Well, the first step is breaking down the idea that it’s either normal or OK. It’s neither, and we need to spread the word. Thou shalt not take shit, and (not that our readers should need telling) thou shalt not dish it out, either.
  • Read up on it – from the likes of stopstreetharassment.org to this brilliant video on street harassment and women of colour:

    • Check out Jezebel’s ongoing street harassment category, and call catcalling out for the asshattery it is.
    • Those who want some background on why people are often hostile to approaches on the street would do very well to read this blog post ‘Schrödinger’s Rapist’. (Heavy, but a thousand times worth it.)
    • And in the meantime, don’t let that ‘compliment’ strawman argument derail you on your quest for gender justice.

On that note…

… since you’ve been such a good class of gender justice warriors today, I’m going to let you finish early with just one more video:

I absolutely love their line of questioning about “has that ever worked for you?” Also “sweetheart, please stop perpetuating the patriarchial dividend – it’s so over” should be on a t-shirt. I would buy that shirt.

And that’s a wrap. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go back to more important things – like buying cat food for my wonderful kitty – because some catcalls are nice. The ones that come from an actual cat.1

  • All images of unimpressed cats in high dudgeon from Morguefile, the free image bank!
  1. Not Schrödinger’s cat. He is a meanie. []
3 Responses leave one →
  1. Russell permalink
    December 5, 2012

    I felt that it was appropriate to comment to point out that street harassment of different kinds isn’t necessarily restricted just to women, without having any intent of derailing the discussion. I’m relatively frequently subjected to similar “drive-by shouting” when out cycling. No doubt this is sadly a more frequent experience for women, but I feel that it does reveal that what is actually under attack here is not simply the state of being female but any perceived deviation from a SWM norm, of which being a motorist is taken as being part of. Being a cyclist, walking while fat, or being female are all “deviations” from this standard which render the victim vulnerable to harassment of this kind. I said above that it wasn’t my intention to derail, and I hope this isn’t taken that way, but I wanted to speak up to show how experiences can be shared.

    (there was supposed to be something else about how feminism is wonderful because it highlights problems that affect women as well as other people but I couldn’t make it not sound massively patronising and sexist so I’ll just leave this here instead and walk off mumbling)

    • Miranda permalink*
      December 5, 2012

      I think the specific issue with gendered street harassment is that it uses gendered language in a way which also infers that the woman is there as a sexual commodity, rather than solely as a target of abuse. This is why it’s difficult to tackle and is treated on blogs like this one with a degree of specificity – it is often insidiously “appreciative”, which other forms of abuse aren’t – when you cycle people aren’t going to offer the excuse that they were “just being nice”, right?

      This is not to say that you don’t suffer, or to compare suffering levels (a waste of time for all!) but just to explain why I think the feminist reaction to ‘street harassment’ is levelled in specific terms.

      Homophobic, sexist, trans*phobic abuse etc often all come about because of the same horrible patriarchal (or kyriarchal if you prefer as this also expands it further into race and class) rule-set. It happens, as you say, because of objections to deviation from a favoured form (be it white, cis, male, straight, thin, some or all of the above), yes. And none of it is nice. I’ve had “nice tits” followed by “are you gay or something then?” which I think neatly illustrates the *interrelated* nasty power structures at play.

      But it’s not all the same thing, too. Here is Markgraf on harassment post-slutwalk – http://www.badreputation.org.uk/2011/06/21/slutwalk-where-are-we/ – this was not a “flirtatious/threatening” catcall, it was an invasive interrogation and it became full-on scary bullying.

      However, I think it’s worth saying that the gendered harassment of the sort Hannah is noting, which is different in tone to the above example, does happen, and is no less gendered and disturbing because it happens to other people in different (even more serious) forms.

      To conclude, I do agree that these forms cross over and stuff and reflect a bunch of intersecting power structures, so there’s no reason why we shouldn’t talk about that!

    • Miranda permalink*
      December 5, 2012

      So basically everyone should avoid being dickish. But I think some guys who catcall don’t even think about it, or class it as dickish. They think they’re “appreciating the goods” which is a problem because, well, I am not up for that. Nor am I goods. But when they think they’re being jokey, flirty or even friendly, it’s hard to get through.

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