Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What's the big deal with catcalling? It's just a compliment.
Please note: I started this as a personal project for myself and a few like-minded friends. I do not purport to speak for all women. However, the supportive emails I've received since the project went viral in 2014 confirms that there is a large number of people who feel as I do that street harassment makes people feel less safe in their own communities. Not all. But many. Now, on to your question!
First, it's important to remember: not all street harassment is "positive." For every woman who gets commented upon by men who find her attractive, there are countless women (and men) who get harassed with threats of sexual violence, or harassed for their race, their weight, their alleged unattractiveness, their gender identity, their real or perceived sexual orientation, or a combination of those features. For just a few perspectives on this point, check out these links:
- 2014 National Street Harassment Report
- As a Fattie, My Street Harassment Isn't Your Street Harassment
- Walking While Fat and Female – Or, Why I Don’t Care Not All Men are Like That
- I was the Victim of Street Harassment at Eight Months Pregnant
- Harassing Men on the Street.
So, right off the bat the problem with street harassment is that it reflects a spectrum of unwelcome behavior: when people feel entitled to comment on a stranger's appearance, that often doesn't limit itself to "complimentary" comments.
But let's talk about the kind of harassment you may think is benign or complimentary, i.e. your Hey Prettys or your Damn Girls or the You are Beautifuls. If a woman is supposed to consider it a compliment that a stranger on the street finds her attractive and vocalizes about it, that requires that we all accept, as a basic premise, that women should care about what every stranger on the street thinks about her appearance, and whether she's "hot enough." Individual comments taken in isolation may not be inherently offensive, but considered in the cumulative, a constant barrage of such attention tells women that the moment we step outside into a public space, we are being graded for our looks, and not just silently graded, but graded in a way we are supposed to find complimentary when expressed by total strangers. In other words, street harassment enforces the idea that women are being evaluated on their boneability any time they exist in public view: when they go to the grocery store, go to the gym, go for walks, go to work, etc. When you comment on a strange woman walking by, it's your way of telling her, "You are constantly being judged by how you look and reduced to a walking group of body parts. This time, you passed my subjective personal criteria of attractive. I don't know anything about your personality, your intelligence, your humanity, but I like looking at you so that should make you feel better about yourself because obviously your self-worth is dictated by whether or not randoms on the street look at you with sexual desire."
At best, it's annoying. At worst, it can be incredibly threatening, particularly for women who have experienced sexual violence. Having strange men comment on their appearance can lead women to wonder: if this man feels entitled to comment on my appearance, what's to stop him from trying to touch me, or follow me? (The 2014 National Street Harassment Report reflects data that in fact, stalking and touching are a part of many people's street harassment experience.) So no, for many women, it's not a compliment. If a woman tells you it's not a compliment and you persist in doing it you are being intentionally intimidating.
Q: So, what, I'm just not allowed to talk to women I find attractive, or tell someone I think they're pretty ever again??
Oh you poor dears. This question comes up all the time, as if by my saying many women feel uncomfortable when they are commented on by strangers on the street, all courtship practices have gone out the window and you are never allowed to hit on someone ever again.
Of course there are ways to approach women you're attracted to that aren't harassment, and ways to tell a woman that you think she's gorgeous that aren't chauvanistic. Initiating a conversation with someone you don't know and blurting out comments about their face or body isn't one of them. As one of my friends recently put it, when a conversation with an unknown guy centers on a woman's appearance, the conversation has become one that is "about my body parts and that is such a minuscule part of the whole person that it makes me feel like there is a different intention in this conversation and one that I don't want to be a part of."
Q: What about "Nice shoes" or "Nice Dress"?? Your cards imply that every single comment about someone's appearance is harassment. Why do you hate me being nice to women??
Again. Calm down. Nobody died and appointed me Emily Post of Public Spaces, and nobody is here to tell you compliments are all bad. Women, like men, are all unique individuals with varying comfort levels and experiences. Remember: the cards are written in broad language with the presupposition that they are only being handed out when a person has already been made to feel uncomfortable. These are not slogans meant to be taken as dogma for every social situation. They are simply tools for those who found your comments rude, demeaning, sexist, or uncomfortable, and want to express that discomfort.
So, there isn't a universal rule. If you genuinely want to compliment a total stranger you see on the street, you just have to use your judgment and question: why do you think they want to hear what you have to say and what do you hope to get out of the interaction? Is there a chance you approaching them in this context will make them uncomfortable? Is your desire to be heard really more important than their freedom to use that space unbothered? If you are looking for a real conversation, why not start with an actual conversation? As for whether there are certain compliments that are less likely to make someone uncomfortable than others, I can only speak to my experience, but I am not personally offended when someone compliments a piece of jewelry or my clothing (it's rare, because I'm not a terribly snazzy dresser, but that's besides the point). Other women may feel differently. The important thing to remember is that context and delivery is everything. If you follow a woman for 30 feet just to sneer "I like your shoes" in a tone that might as well be, "I want to eat your used underwear," it is probably not going to brighten her day.
Q: Isn't this just something men are wired to do? Or cultural?
I for one have a much higher opinion of men than those who think rude bullying behavior can be shrugged off as a "boys will be boys" inevitability. The fact that a large majority of men go through life without street harassing women should in and of itself be enough to assure you that no, this is not something men just do. Nor is it appropriate to say that a certain class or race of men do this because it's "cultural." Street harassement happens in cities across the world and comes from people of all races, socioeconomic classes, and regions. To the extent it is cultural, it's fostered by a culture that places too high an emphasis on women's role as sexual objects and not enough on their right to equality and safety.
Q: Why are you targeting certain men more than others with your videos?
The short answer is: I'm not targeting anyone. When I am able, I film my daily commute: from my home to my bus stop, from my bus stop to my office, and back at the end of the day. I do not go into particular areas of the city on a "sting" operation and I do not selectively film some people more than others. For purposes of my documentation, I have been filming my commutes to and from work, and if street harassment happens it results in a video that gets shared. I have not initiated contact with any of the people in my videos, or sought them out in any way, nor do I let certain people off the hook more than others based on their appearance or race.
That said, I am cognizant that we live in a world that is extremely hostile towards black men and a culture that is hell bent on painting them as threats to safety. The continuing evil of racism and white supremacy is that if I had a dozen videos of white men catcalling, it would just be considered a "male" (#notallmen) problem, but if people see a dozen videos of black men catcalling, they somehow think it depicts a "black male" problem. It doesn't. I have received hundreds of emails from women in different cities and different countries describing a wide array of harassers. Just because I do not have videos of those interactions does not mean my videos define the universe of harassment. In fact, the data we have available on street harassment makes clear that there is only ONE appropriate racial generalization that can ever be made, and it's that women of color, and especially black women, experience street harassment far more (and more severely) than anyone, from men of all races. In fact, Rosa Parks and other black women civil rights activists started some of our country's earliest conversations on street harassment because of sexual violence and harassment they experienced from white men. I cannot make videos that tell other peoples' stories but I am always looking for ways to share/promote other women's voices to help broaden the pool of experiences shown.
Q: Is it your goal to criminalize street harassment?
No. To the extent a man touches a woman without her consent, follows/stalks her, or threatens her safety, that's already illegal and with good reason. But beyond that, no: my goal is not to criminalize verbal street harassment, for a few reasons. First, the long history of institutionalized racism in our criminal justice system has not made me confident that laws against street harassment would be applied uniformly or fairly. But more importantly, I believe street harassment is fundamentally rooted in belief systems about women, which are more meaningfully eradicated and improved through social change, education, and advocacy. I would rather have men on the street who are learning how to be better people to their communities than men in jail getting their bad attitudes about women reinforced. For more perspectives on why criminalizing street harassment is not the answer, click here.
Q: But not all men--
I'm going to stop you right there, partner because you are about to make a parody of yourself. Go read this article explaining why "not all men" is a completely unproductive derailment of the conversation. No one is saying all men harass, so if you aren't part of the problem, you have nothing to be defensive about.
Q: Shouldn't we just ignore it? Aren't these guys just looking for a reaction?
As I have tried to say from day one of this going viral: if you do not feel safe confronting street harassment, you should not put yourself at risk. However, for many women, silence is frustrating and its own form of victimization. Hence Cards Against Harassment. Again: there is no right way to respond to street harassment and for many women, particularly those who are already at heightened risks of violence like women of color and trans women (and LGBT men and women, for that matter), ignoring and getting to safety may be the best option. These cards were simply a tool that helped me feel a bit more in control of my response. Even if the cards aren't right for you, make sure to tell your friends about your experiences, particularly your male friends, so they appreciate the impact systemic harassment of women has on the people they care about.