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: 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.
[Posted February 26, 2016]: Four years ago today, a black teenager named Trayvon Martin was murdered while he was walking home. Trayvon's murderer, informed by a lifetime of racist socialization in America, concluded in an instant based on his black skin and hoodie and surroundings that Trayvon was too dangerous not to confront, and too dangerous not to kill.
This afternoon, I am removing some of my YouTube videos. These things are related.
When I started filming my street harassment videos in 2014, I did so because I was extremely frustrated by the knee-jerk, unwavering skepticism expressed from my male friends and family members upon my describing the frequency with which I and other women are bombarded with gendered attention from strangers. "No way does it happen that often," they said. "Not in this day and age." I decided to document every instance I could capture on my phone, hoping that in doing so, I could spend more time explaining why this gendered treatment in public spaces is problematic and less time convincing people that it indeed still occurs. This was before the 10-hours-in-NY video, and before I learned that national and regional survey data and countless other activist projects documenting the issues in nuanced, effective ways were available.
In filming, I did not cherry-pick what situations I filmed, or go to new neighborhoods on sting operations, or initiate contact with anyone. I simply filmed any time a man approached me on my commute. The unedited reality for me that summer resulted in more videos that portrayed black men than ones portraying white men. I threw a disclaimer on my website insisting that my personal experiences in a small snapshot of time should not give rise to any racial generalizations, I explained my intent and my methods, and assumed that was enough. I was wrong.
As the project started to go viral, I quickly realized I needed to close and moderate the comments on my videos. The misogyny and gendered slurs were prevalent, and disgusting, but ultimately, those were not what made me close the comments: it was the frequency of racial epithets and hate speech. Racist men, gleefully eager to absolve themselves of their role in misogyny and objectification of women, swarmed to my channel to say: this is not our problem, this is THEIR problem.
Around the same time, a feminist blogger wrote about the problematic racial dynamics of my approach in documenting street harassment (available here.) I took her feedback and the racialized YouTube hate speech seriously, but I felt confident that as long as I used my platform (and my comment-moderating tool) to educate or block out people who drew the wrong conclusions from my videos, I was not doing harm.
However, I have come to appreciate that intent does not dictate, or ultimately have relevance, to impact, and that it is time to pull certain videos offline. I hope that the videos have done some good, and am happy to provide certain videos to organizations that I can trust will portray/discuss them in their appropriate context, but I cannot ignore that they have done harm and will continue to if left online.
Shortly before being suspended off Twitter this month, a SPLC-identified white supremacist named Robert Stacy McCain stumbled across my channel and started directing his followers to my videos as "proof" of his belief that black men are threats to everyone generally and to white women in particular. These attitudes, quite literally, kill. I cannot in good conscience continue to host videos that recruit or incite or confirm anti-black racism. Too much is at stake for me to accept that as an unintended consequence of my project.
I will continue to explore ways to document and challenge sexism and harassment in better, more intersectional ways, but I will be making a stronger effort to recognize how my advocacy can increase women and girls’ safety without jeopardizing others’. Social justice is a journey, and I am sorry for both any misteps I've made and those I may take going forward. I certainly hope people will continue to make time for the unique issues faced by women and hold all men accountable for their stake in it, but as the late, great Audre Lorde wrote: "There is no such thing as a single issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives."