“Guys, catcalls are never cool”

March 19, 2010

Micah Toub wrote a thoughtful, great article on street harassment for Toronto’s The Globe and Mail called “Guys, catcalls are never cool.” He discusses how women feel about street harassment and some of the reasons why men do it. His conclusion for how men can flirt without being a harasser:

“The thing I was thinking after these conversations, is that a smile – even if underneath it lies a more carnivorous urge – can at least be interpreted by its receiver any way she wants. Or ignored. So in the same way that women have attempted to take back the street, I’d suggest that the good men out there take back the street flirt, by starting again from square one.

When it comes to expressing springtime desires, less is definitely more.”

Image from Globe & Mail

I chatted with Micah last week and was very pleased by the quotes he included from me. A few times in the past I’ve been misquoted in articles and was not in this one. I also love the quotes from Dr. Michael Kimmel. I find that he always has interesting information on masculinity issues.

What are your thoughts? What constitutes acceptable flirting and unacceptable harassment?

Women Drivers Mean More Harassment?

July 13, 2009
the car I often drove in high school

the car I often drove in high school

I love the freedom driving provides. As soon as I got my driver license at age 16, I was on the road a lot. Gas was cheap and it was a good way to have some alone time for thinking and it also improved my social life as I no longer had to rely on my parents to drive me places, especially once my family moved to a suburb without public transportation. Also, anecdotally, I’ve found that many women in the U.S. feel that being able to drive rather than being reliant on public transportation or walking cuts down on harassment from men in public.

So today when I read an article in the Miami Herald about how some of Saudi Arabia’s restrictive policies are slowly changing, the following part of the article touched a nerve for me, not only because it reflects an antiquated attitude that it is better to cloister women than to teach men not to harass them, but also because I feel outraged that so many women will never know the freedom and power of getting in a car and driving wherever they want, whenever they want, just because they are female.

An excerpt from the Miami Herald:

“Like many fathers with teenage daughters, the time finally came for Abdel Mohsen Gifari to have an awkward talk.

The 44-year-old researcher for Saudi Arabia’s feared religious police sat one of his girls down to discuss an uncomfortable topic: She wanted to drive.

In a country where women are barred from getting behind the wheel, his daughter’s desire is not only forbidden, it’s also a touchy subject for Gifari, who’s spent nearly half his life working for the government body charged with enforcing the law.

“‘I told her that driving is allowed in Islam,’ Gifari said in a rare interview with a Western reporter. ‘But it is more of a cultural thing. We already have a lot of problems on the road when it comes to sexual harassment, with guys flirting with girls in the car. If a woman drives, it’s only going to bring more problems.’

Change is seeping slowly into Saudi Arabia, a Persian Gulf nation of 28 million residents – half of whom are under age 25 – and nowhere is the social friction more apparent than inside the religious police force that imposes the Kingdom’s conservative interpretation of Islam…

As for his own daughter’s desire to drive a car, Gifari said, after a half-hour chat, she agreed with her dad that the timing wasn’t right.

‘Maybe in a few years traditions will change,” Gifari said. “But right now it’s only going to bring problems – and it’s not one of the government priorities.'”

I hope that one day she and other women who want to will be able to drive, and I feel humbled that it took reading her story for me to remember not to take for granted the privilege I enjoy every day of being able to drive.

How to Talk to Girls on the Street

June 30, 2009

Wow, I accidentally came across articles which are each called some variation of “How to Talk to Girls on the Street.”  I’m going on the assumption that these are real articles… From one of them:

“…One of the most challenging things for men in the dating scene is approaching women on the street. Like any learned skill the more you practice approaching women the better you will get. So the easy solution in learning how to talk to women on the street is to simply approach more of them. But this is not as easy as it sounds. Sometimes you might be walking in one direction and she is walking opposite and toward you. It can be very awkward because she’s going one way and you’re going the other way so it’s not very natural to just walk up and say something. Or is it? The reality is that you can approach anyone, anywhere, and virtually at any time…”

A friendly smile or hello from a stranger of any sex can often lift someone’s spirits. I also recognize that strangers can and do meet in public and form relationships, be they one night stands or lifetime commitments. What bothers me about these articles is the assumption that any girl/woman (preferably attractive, right?) on the street who is not already with a man is publicly available for a man’s attention and he is free to approach any and all of them if he just gets up the courage and learns how to do it well.

I’m reading Sue Wise & Liz Stanley’s book Georgie Porgie: Sexual Harassment in Everyday Life (published in 1987) and something I read today relates exactly to these articles.

“As marriage is taken to indicate a woman’s perpetual sexual consent to the desires of her husband [when this was written rape was still legal within marriage in many places], so womanhood is taken to indicate a woman’s perpetual consent to the attentions of whatever man: unless a particular man owns the property in question it’s taken to be public property” (Stanley and Wise, 176).

Let me try to explain further why I see these articles as being misguided.

Raise your hand if you mostly are harassed when you are alone or with female friends! In my informal, anonymous survey I conducted last fall, female respondents said they were harassed the most when they were #1 alone and #2 when they were with female friends. The absence of men seems to imply women are sexually available and just dying to be approached on the street. I’ve learned from several women’s stories that wearing a wedding ring or being with one’s children doesn’t always prevent harassment either because the men who “own” the women and/or children aren’t actually present.

Side but related note:  I’ve  found that when men do harass women who are with other men, it’s often directed at the man about how lucky he is to be with a hot woman, or something along those lines. This even happened to me two years ago when I was out with my boyfriend and a man started talking to him about me like I was a car he was admiring. We were both stunned.

The men writing and reading the articles don’t seem to care to take into account that – depending on the time of day – most women are out in public because they are traveling to/from work or school or stores or out getting exercise or walking a dog and they have no interest whatsoever in being detained by men testing out pick-up lines or trying to improve their game or improve their confidence at approaching women by “hitting” on them. No matter what their reason for being in public, many women who are not looking for a new romantic or sexual relationship are not going to be interested in having men approach them this way. These articles also assume that all women are heterosexual; what about women who only date women? They really don’t want to be approached by men in a sexual way. And the articles don’t adequately address how unnerving, scary, or annoying it can be to be approached by unknown men in public, particularly in isolated areas or at night.

So these men would be better off following advice like this on how to talk to girls/women on the street:

1. Don’t assume a girl or woman is single, heterosexual, and/or interested in being “hit on” or picked up just because she’s in public.

2. Instead of whistling, honking, touching, or saying something about the way she looks as a way of saying hi, treat her like a normal human being and actually say hello and smile or nod.

3. If you want to engage her in conversation, see #2. If she says hello back and doesn’t hurry away or look away, then you can try to politely and respectfully start a conversation about something inoffensive and preferably not about her body parts. Take cues from her whether to continue the conversation. If she looks busy, distracted, or nervous, leave her alone! She may not have the time or inclination to talk. Or you may be the third or fourth man to approach her that day – even if it’s done politely this is wearisome and annoying. Don’t be rude if she doesn’t talk to you. You don’t know her personal history or what’s on her mind or her schedule. Be respectful of her as a human. Don’t force her to be rude to you in order to get you to leave her alone.

4. Never approach her in an isolated area or at night because that makes most women nervous or scared.

What’s your advice to men who want to talk to girls/women on the street?

Street Harassment: 1880s vs 2008

November 24, 2008

I just read “Going Public: Shopping, Street Harassment, and Streetwalking in Late Victorian London” (thanks Emily!) and what I’m most struck by is how some of the arguments around street harassment are pretty much the same 130 years later.

In part, the article looks at how more middle class women and girls were entering public arenas in the late 1880s, specifically to do shopping and to go to tearooms and they were outraged over being treated like “streetwalkers” by unknown men.

Some of the newspaper editorials cited in the article about this occurrence echo today’s blogs and the comments sections of online articles about street harassment. I’ve come across dozens of modern day examples during my research, but here are a few:

1. Women say they were harassed despite being dressed respectably/modestly:

1880s England: In letters to a newspaper which were excerpted in a column headed “How Ladies Are Annoyed in London Streets,” women usually described themselves as innocent victims of street annoyances who were respectably dressed, walking or traveling in broad daylight, and who weren’t attempting to attract notice. (Victorian London article page 10).

2008 USA: “I have been followed and shouted at while wearing loose capris and t-shirt. The outfit was in no way skanky or revealing but even [if] it was that doesn’t give someone the right to harass and threaten me.” (comment from a CNN online article from 2008)

2008 England: “I echo the sentiments saying that what one’s wearing etc is irrelevant. My breasts are not big. I will not necessarily be wearing revealing clothes when I get comments. I am not especially attractive or especially ugly. But I have had comments, been followed home, been whistled, been groped, and been punched (no reason, no dialogue, the guy was walking past and just punched me in the chest).” (comment on the F-word Blog about street harassment)

2008 England: “I wore a wonder bra ONCE when I was a naive 15 year old and decided that it wasn’t worth the hassle. So I went back to my ‘modest’ clothes, not because I’m ashamed of my body but because they’re more comfortable and more me. This hasn’t stopped the perverts though.” (comment on the F-word Blog about street harassment)

2006 India: Blank Noise conducted a project where they collected hundreds of clothes women had been harassed in to show that women are harassed in anything and everything

2. Men blame women’s appearance/clothing for their harassment:

1880s England: “What can women who ‘dress themselves up’ with ‘false bottoms and stays – and other erotic adornments’ expect? If women ‘really do wish to be left alone,’ they should dress to be ‘plain and unappetizing and avoid the haunts of men.'” (from a newspaper letter from 1887 cited on p 6 of the Victorian London article).

2008 USA: “Whenever a woman dresses in a skanky way… she will receive more attention whether she wants it or not. Not saying they are a “ho”… but they are wearing a “ho’s” uniform, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise.” (comment from a CNN online article from 2008)

2008 USA: “Word of advice, look in the mirror…if you are dressed like a hoochie (tight jeans, short skirt, see through or low cut shirt etc) you can expect more catcalls. It’s not rocket science. And for you ladies out there who look hot in sweats, you’ll receive them no matter what. For the record, any physical harassment is totally wrong, but hollering at a woman walking down the street? Come on!! What do you expect dressed like that?” (comment from a CNN online article from 2008)

2008 England: “What comes first – the stare or the wonder bra/low cut top? I find wolf whistling as boorish as you but to not recognise a 2 way street is just as sexist.” (comment on a Guardian online article from 2008)

So there continues to be a major focus on women’s appearance and clothing. Then and today, some men think a woman who looks – to them – like she is seeking sexual attention from men through flashy or revealing clothing deserve any interactions – negative or positive – men bestow on her. Many women argue that it doesn’t matter what they wear or what they look like or how respectable/modest they appear, they still get harassed.

So what do we do about this obvious disconnect? There’s clearly more going on than just “skanky” women getting catcalled. And why should men be allowed to comment on, yell at, touch, follow, and assault any woman they want just because the men think that’s what the women want based on what they look like… Ugh I could go on for a while discrediting the comments of these men, but i’ll save that for my potential book 🙂 and to anyone who wants to take a shot in the comments.

A few other points in the article definitely echo today, for example, the lack of concern by police officers when women report street harassment, how the definition of street harassment varies among women, and the desire of women disgruntled by street harassment to distinguish themselves from women with so-called lower morales than them. There aren’t a lot of studies out there on street harassment and this article is definitely worth the read if you’re interested in the topic.