Calling out the catcallers

When it comes to the street harassment of women, everybody loses

By Melody Thomas

Research into how sexism influences its target as an individual is plentiful. Among the many harmful effects are lowered self-esteem and greater self-objectification, which in turn can lead on to depression and eating disorders. But while sexist acts may be perpetrated at a personal level, sexism itself is an inherently inter-group phenomenon – with a woman being objectified or harassed on the sole basis of her gender. So, researchers Stephanie Chaudoir and Diane Quinn decided to take a look at how such encounters may affect inter-group dynamics. That is – into how observing an incidence of sexism causes women to feel towards men, as a group. Men, this is an important one for you to read – because there’s likely to be a sexist few out there whose actions are damaging women’s perspectives of men in general.

Imagine that you’re a female university student, sitting in a room waiting to take part in an experiment of some sort for course credit. Imagine, as you are waiting to begin, that a young man and a young woman walk past the door, and as you watch the man says to the woman :

“Hey Kelly, your boobs look great in that shirt!”

How does this make you feel? Do you wish it were you with the great boobs in the hallway? Or does his tone frighten you? Or perhaps his presumption that this kind of comment is OK makes you angry, and makes you want to march on out to the hall and give him a piece of your mind?

Social Identity Perspectives state that we vary to the extent to which we view ourselves as individuals or as members of a group, and environmental stimuli can help make one or the other identity more salient. The first interesting research finding was that in comparison to the control group who heard the male in the hall say “Hey Kelly, what’s up?” to his fellow student, bystanders to the sexist incident identified more strongly with their group. That is, bystanders to sexism felt emotional responses and motivations related not to themselves as individuals but to themselves as women. In this case, a member of their “ingroup” had been threatened, which in turn helped to make their group-based identity more salient. They reacted as a woman, on behalf of women, against a threat perceived as coming from the out-group of men.

Prior research has identified fear and anger as being two of the most common emotions when you – or your group – is threatened. Anger is more likely to be the reaction if the threatened group feels they have the resources and strength to confront the threat, Fear is the more usual response when the person or group feels it lacks sufficient resources to counter-act. Anger traditionally leads to a response to move forward against the out-group, while fear commonly leads to a desire to avoid them.

The primary response of female undergraduates in this study was one of anger. And this anger was not directed at the man who made the sexist remark, but at men in general. Strangely enough, while anger did lead to motivations to move against men (i.e. to confront the perpetrator and speak up over future incidences) there was also a significant trend for women to move away (ie to avoid) men in general.

On closer inspection it seemed that this motivation to move away from men was not being motivated by fear, as it traditionally would be. Chaudoir and Quinn then looked at reports from the control group who had witnessed no sexism in the experiment and found a general trend for all female participants to move away from men, irrespective of exposure to an incidence of sexism. The effect was significantly greater when sexism had been witnessed, but the desire to avoid men was present, nonetheless.

What could this mean? Have women become so wary of men in general that their natural instinct is to avoid all members of the group? Is sexual harassment that prevalent?

While statistics relating to the prevalence of sexual harassment may vary, the numbers are never negligible. Hitlan and pals in 2006 stated that 69% of female undergraduates reported being a bystander to sexual harassment at some time. And this behaviour isn’t just relegated to university halls, since 42% of US women report being direct targets of cat-calls at least once a month and an additional 31% report being targets every few days.

In a study conducted in the early 1990’s at Indiana University, 100% of the 293 participants cited multiple incidents of street harassment – a form of sexual harassment defined in 1981 by UC Berkeley professor Micaela di Leonardo as “…when one or more strange men accost one or more women … in a public place which is not the woman’s/women’s worksite. Through looks, words, or gestures the man asserts his right to intrude on the woman’s attention, defining her as a sexual object, and forcing her to interact with him.”

Street harassment encompasses anything from a whistle or a cat-call (which some men may deem innocent enough, and indeed in a minority of cases may be so) to obviously encroaching acts like groping and public exposure or masturbation. This behavour is so prevalent and so invasive as to have set off websites like , a site dedicated wholly to the stories of the harassed, and where victims are encouraged to snap pictures of their harassers and post them online in an attempt to shame them out of their bad behaviour (one such photo has actually led to an arrest).

The stores are horrific. Men masturbating on trains over 6-year old girls. Women being followed home late at night after class, terrified the whole way that they were about to be raped or killed. Sometimes accounts are even caught on film.Almost every time, there are witnesses to such acts who say, and do, nothing.

At first I couldn’t believe that such a thing could be happening all the time, and yet despite my initial instincts of disbelief it quickly became obvious that I could not discount the prevalence of sexually harassing (and often frightening) acts towards females. As the days wore on and I read more and more stories from fearful or angry women who had been followed home, ejaculated on (yes, unfortunately there are many of these), lewdly stared at or otherwise infringed upon in public – incidences where I had been harassed came tumbling back into my consciousness.

The time when I was 9 and a group of teenage boys surrounded me at the swimming pool, reaching out to touch me between my legs. The time when I was 19 or so and a taxi driver with 3-inch fingernails took me up a back street, held my hand and told me how beautiful I was. The time a man followed me to school at 8am yelling “PUSSY! PUUUUSSYYYY!”

Just a month or so ago, a man on a crowded bus grabbed my butt as I went to walk past him to get off. I was so shocked I said nothing, and didn’t even really register what had happened til I was on the street and the bus was pulling away. If I had been aware of the growing strength of these voices of dissent – if I had begun to feel my group identity as more salient and had then viewed the assault as an affront on my ingroup perhaps I could have reacted with anger.

Perhaps I could have stopped the driver and announced to the people on the bus what had just happened, and told the pervert to keep his hands to himself in future. But I reacted as an individual, with feelings of shame (heightened when a friend’s first reaction was to ask me what I was wearing, as if that counts for anything), self-consciousness and a general sense of the blues. And I imagine there will be many women reading this who have had very similar experiences, though like me they may become illuminated over time.

Holly KearlHolly Kearl is a woman at the forefront of the anti-Street Harassment movement (oh yes, it’s a movement). She first got interested in street harassment in 2007 when looking for something interesting and different to cover for her thesis. Stumbling upon sites like Holla Back NYC (which now has representation in half a dozen other places around the world, including Australia), Kearl realised that she too had been exposed to street harassment many times over her life. Kearl was inspired not only to write her thesis on the topic, to start a blog to speak to many media organisations around the world, and eventually to publish a book called Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Spaces Safe and Welcoming for Women. I contacted Holly with a few questions about what was fast seeming to me to be a very legitimate and worthwhile cause.

Holly Kearl’s most recent survey asked over 900 respondents (around 800 of whom were women) to fill in an online survey relating to personal experiences with street harassment. Firstly I was interested to know more about the breakdown of female subcategories in terms of emotional reaction to harassment. How many women reported feeling angry? How many were scared? And most interestingly to me (as many men use this as an excuse for their harassment) how many felt flattered?

The results vary depending on what form the harassment takes on. In the case of a wolf-whistle, 62% of women felt annoyed, 40% were angry, 26% were insulted, 12% were scared and only 8% were flattered. When it came to attempts by a stranger to get their attention or phone number, women were slightly more forgiving – with the top rated emotion being annoyed (again) at 62% and the second-most popular emotion being flattery, although still at only 23%.

Holly feels it important to note also that “…Most women had experienced at least one form of scary harassment. For example 75% had been followed by an unknown man in public. How did that make them feel? 68 percent felt scared, 43 percent were angry, 17 percent were annoyed, and 10 percent were insulted.” No flattery in that one.

Secondly, I asked Kearl why this is such an important issue. “Street harassment impedes gender equality because it means women cannot enter public places with the same freedom as men. Most commonly, women say they constantly assess their surroundings – 62% said they “always” did this. Other examples of common actions women take to try to avoid harassment include crossing the street or taking another route, scowling, avoiding making eye contact, wearing headphones, and talking on a cell phone. So women have to waste time and energy to try not to get harassed… Many women took more severe precautions on occasion, for example 45% said that at least monthly they avoided being out after dark and another 11% said they “always” do this. The implication of this is that they don’t do things like go to night school, take night shifts at work, attend community meetings, or go out for recreation.”

This answer from Kearl provides another bit of retrospective illumination. I remember walking home when living in Christchurch pretending the whole way that I was on the phone (“Yep, yep I’m nearly home – you can probably see me by now!”) and playing the harmonica and singing because 1. That would surely provide witnesses should I disappear and 2. Part of me was sure a man wouldn’t rape and murder a girl playing a harmonica.

So what it seems to boil down to is this; sexism doesn’t just harm the targeted individual, sexism harms everyone. It harms any female witnesses. It then harms all men as a group when any victim of sexism and its witnesses experience modified emotions and motivations towards all men for some time. And the reality is that while Western women are working in traditionally ‘male’ environments (where funnily enough, incidents of sexual harassment are often at their highest) and do have choices to follow paths that differ from mother and wife and so on and so forth, over half of our population is scared to venture freely into public places.

Over half our population feel the need to cross the road, change their route, carry an alarm or play a harmonica when they leave their homes. There is something wrong with that picture. There is something wrong when reality paints a bleaker picture then those of Margaret Atwood’s handmaids – forced to live a life they didn’t choose, but free from the harassment that comes with their gender.

So what can we do about it then? Firstly, Kearl believes we need to recruit men (“our essential allies”) to this cause. These issues are not women’s issues; their resolution benefits men too. In so many stories of harassment there are male bystanders who do nothing, probably with no idea that the action of one man is at that moment changing women’s perspectives of men in general. It’s time those men started saying something.

Secondly we need to continue this dialogue. It is ridiculous that I could have almost written off street harassment as an inconsequential issue when I myself had deleterious and repeated experience with it. If we can put a name to it, gather a sense of group and the support that comes with it, perhaps we can begin to act. And that must be the final step – action. Whether it be a polite “Excuse me, but when you whistled at me just then? It made me feel uncomfortable…” or a full-blown scream, action is essential.

In thinking back to that first experience of street harassment at the swimming pool I was proud to note that when this boy put his hands between my legs I instantly kicked out at him, screamed, gathered my siblings and left. What has happened to me so that when a similar thing happens now I stand shocked on a sidewalk creating excuses for how the abuse could have been accidental? When did I learn that it’s best to keep your mouth shut or pretend nothing happened?

Let’s un-learn that lesson. Holly Kearl concludes, “We need a full-blown global anti-street harassment movement to truly end this epidemic.” She calls for research, awareness campaigns, education, legal reform and activism. “Most of all”, she says “we need men to stop harassing women.”