Men Can Stop Rape…Men Can Stop Street Harassment

Joe Vess speaks at the Stop Street Harassment book event at GWU in 2010

In a way, I owe street harassment a lot. It’s never done anything personally for me, and I’d eliminate it in a second if I could, but I really should acknowledge my debt to it, in full disclosure. Here’s the story.

Seven years ago I was living in Chicago, as oblivious to harassment and other forms of violence against women as I always had been. Sure, I knew it happened, and it was bad, so I didn’t harass anyone or rape anyone. So that made me a pretty good guy.

Around that time I was dating someone, and as things got more serious and we shared more and more about our lives with each other. She started telling me about how when she would go out running in the morning, or the afternoon, or on the weekends, she would get shouted at or whistled at or guys would say something to her. And she didn’t like it; in fact it made her really angry.

I was a little puzzled when I started hearing these stories, and my confusion stemmed from a few things. One, I’d never been harassed so I didn’t have a frame of reference. I’d never experienced it and never worried about it happening to me, so it ranked somewhere around lion attacks (not a huge problem in Chicago) on my worry list. Two, it seemed isolated to me. I didn’t connect it to other forms of violence against women, so even though it happened to her regularly I didn’t think about the threat of it as yet ANOTHER thing she had to deal with on a daily basis, along with the threat of physical violence, harassment, discrimination and more.

What my 2004 self could have used was a primer on understanding harassment and why it’s a problem; I didn’t have one, but I hope these points below will help us as men understand the issue a bit more, help us better challenge harassment when they see it, and better support women in our lives who are harassed.

It’s not about you, #1: One of the most common things I hear from men when we talk about harassment is that “it wouldn’t bother me.” That’s not the point, because it’s not directed at you, it’s directed at women. Whether or not it bothers you, or even bothers all women (because the other thing I hear is “some women like it”), is irrelevant. It definitely bothers many, many women and, if it bothers a woman you care about and who matters to you, isn’t that enough? Because we don’t get to choose who it happens to; the next person could be our friend or mother, sister or girlfriend, daughter or niece.

It’s part of a bigger problem: Even if you don’t think sexual harassment is a big issue, maybe you think rape is a big issue, or stalking, or domestic violence. It’s important to remember that they’re all related. Men who degrade women and treat them like objects in one context, such as walking down the street, often degrade women and treat them like objects in other settings.

The other part of it is that for women, harassment is merely one of the most visible parts of an iceberg of violence and the threat of violence they have to deal with daily, so don’t minimize it. Sexual harassment seemed weird and isolated to me, but because I always thought about it in isolation. I didn’t think, “what if that happened to me a couple of times a day, every day, my whole life,” which is the proper context for it.

It’s not about you, #2: Another thing I hear from men is this plea: “what if we just want to talk with a woman, to ask her out, to strike up a conversation with her?” My response is to ask, “Why do we as men assume that we have the right to just go around complimenting random women or talking with them?” Maybe she doesn’t want to talk with us for any number of a million reasons, all of which are perfectly valid and none of our business.

If you want to compliment random women, sign up for speed dating. Harassment is never about complimenting women, and it never has been. You may respond, “But I’m not trying to bother her, just be complimentary.” In that case, see above; it doesn’t matter what your intent is, it matters how what you do is received by her. This can be hard for us as men to hear, but intent doesn’t matter in this case.

There are things you can and should do: Since sexual harassment is often visible and public, it’s really easy for men to challenge it and take action to end it. Some basic things you can do are:

  • Don’t do it. Simple and easy. Most guys already don’t though, so luckily there’s more we CAN do if you’ve already got this one down.
  • Don’t laugh or go along with harassment when your friends or others do it. Harassment is often just as much a demonstration for other men. If someone harasses a woman and looks to you for validation, don’t laugh or smile in support. Instead…
  • Call out and challenge others who do harass women. If it’s your friends, tell them that you’re not ok with harassing women and that it bothers you. Tell them they can’t do it if you’re around. If it’s a stranger, tell him it’s not ok and he should stop. Or call the police or report it to the proper authorities; harassment is a crime.
  • Talk with the women in your life. Ask them about their experiences with harassment and how it affects them. And ask how you can be supportive as they deal with it. Don’t joke, minimize, or tell them to ignore or get over it, but be empathetic. It can make all the difference.

Think about it this way; you’ve been handed a great opportunity to not only improve the lives of women you care about (and others you don’t even know), but you’ve also got a chance to help some other men unlearn bad habits. Take advantage of it, and see what a difference it makes.

[En español, escrito por MariaLujan Tubio]

By Joe Vess
Director of Training and Technical Assistance, Men Can Stop Rape

Men Can Stop Rape is an international organization that mobilizes men to use their strength for creating cultures free from violence, especially men’s violence against women. Since its inception in 1997, MCSR has led the call to redefine masculinity and male strength as part of preventing men’s violence against women. For more information, please see

This post is part of the weekly blog series by male allies. We need men involved in the work to end the social acceptability of street harassment and to stop the practice, period. If you’d like to contribute to this weekly series, please contact me.

5 Responses to Men Can Stop Rape…Men Can Stop Street Harassment

  1. Sue Henderson says:

    Joe, I think I love you. What a brilliant article which I will immediately be sharing with every man I know. Thank you 🙂

  2. Coral says:

    “If you want to compliment random women, sign up for speed dating.”

    Haha! I love that line.

  3. Joe, I’m staring at your body and think you’re hot. I want you to know I’m paying attention to your whereabouts as you walk down a street, so I’m doing this by whistling and yelling.

    How does any man think that’s a compliment? To me, it’s saying, “I think you’re a whoring slut and I’m going to call everyone’s attention to your body.”

    Speaking of your girlfriend going for a jog, I also get another form of harassment all the time. Cars playing chicken with me on my way to the bike/jogging trail.

    I’m not going to drive to go jogging. That would defeat the purpose, so I run a mile down a narrow street with good visibility so I can get to the carless trail. I often see people (usually a man but not always) drive in the gutter to try to scare me onto the grass. I sprained an ankle running in grass less lumpy than this and won’t do it again. I’m tempted to run with a stick so they know if they drive within a foot of me their car is getting scratched.

  4. Helen says:

    I wish we’d had groups and campaigns back in the 80s when street harassment was a problem for me! What a well-written piece, thank you.

  5. alankearl says:

    Very compelling! Thanks, Joe

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