In October of 2014, a the following video was posted to Youtube. It depicts an edited cut of the catcalling received by one woman during 10 hours on the streets of New York City.

Since its posting, there has been much discussion about whether or not much of the catcalling in the video constitutes harassment. Most acknowledge the aggressive and/or sexual comments are inappropriate, but what of the ostensibly “polite” comments? Are “how are you doing?” or “What’s up?” actually harassment or just conversation starters? Speaking as a man (since I can’t speak as anything else), a feminist (unapologetically so), and as someone who’s worked in assault prevention for almost seven years, yes, it absolutely is harassment. Here’s why:

Why even “polite” comments are still catcalling

In a previous conversation I had on the subject, someone said: “I do not see how “God bless you ” or “how are you today” counts as a catcall…The implicit premise…seems to be that any attempt to start conversation in a public place is inevitably unwelcome and wrong.”

Personally, I’ve heard this comment from a lot of guys and here’s the thing, it’s not quite the correct read from the other person’s perspective. Once a ‘catcaller’ or even an ‘innocuous complimenter’ has engaged, they’ve decided that ‘hey, we’re going to interact’ and the recipient has no say in it. It’s inherently depriving the other person of choice. That’s the imbalance at the core of the interactions, that’s the thing that’s “wrong”. Even “polite” comments are catcalling because the woman doesn’t have the option to refuse the contact. It’s not actually an “attempt to start a conversation”, the conversation *has* started and it’s started on the man’s terms.

The same person said: “Men make polite attempts to start conversation with each other all the time. There is nothing wrong with that. I could not live without conversation with other men in public spaces.” I’ve also heard a lot of guys say this as well and here’s what I’d say to anyone thinking the same: that’s not a rebuttal to women who say “I’m uncomfortable with this.” That’s actually a description of the advantage that most men have vs. women in our society. Most men don’t face the same realities regarding violence, so it makes sense our view of stranger interactions is different.

What’s being described is – to indulge a term that’s unfortunately gained something of a stigma – masculine privilege. Men have an advantage in society – we’re victims of violence at a much lower rate – and as a result, we don’t view these interactions the same way. Our (i.e., the male) response therefore shouldn’t be “Oh women, you need to lighten up” or “#notallmen”, but rather to engage in empathy and try to understand the reality that they experience.

Living in a world of linebackers

Guys don’t face the same reality that women face. To draw an analogy, were I to ask the average man if he were walking down the street and a 6’4″, 250lb guy looked at him and said “You’ve got pretty lips, you should smile more” – how would he feel? Would he feel safe? Would he enjoy that “compliment”? Would he think “damn, I wish I hadn’t worn this red shirt today, he wouldn’t have said anything if I wore a white one – this is my fault”?

Something leads me to believe that the average man wouldn’t be thinking/feeling any of those things, yet that is exactly the conclusion those defending such “innocuous” comments are asking women to draw.

For my male readers, I’d challenge you to ask yourself when the last time you feared for your personal safety was. Now, ask your female friends and family members. For most guys, the answer is something like “last summer when we were at that bar” or “when I was wearing my team’s gear at an away game”. For most women, the answer is something like “Last week”, “yesterday”, etc.

For women, because of the statistical realities they face (1 in 3 women will be assaulted in their lifetime1Department of Justice, 1 in 6 will be sexually assaulted, 1 in 5 will be assaulted during their college years2Centers for Disease Control), the specter of violence hides behind every stranger interaction in a way it doesn’t for men. Unfortunately, because women exist in a world where they are far more likely to be victims of violence and are surrounded by a population that is to them what a hulking, linebacker type is to the average man (i.e., someone significantly larger and thus inherently a physical threat), there is essentially no such thing as a “innocuous” comment.

Does this mean that no man can ever make a comment to a woman in public? No. It’s a false dichotomy to assume that “not engaging with unwanted attention” necessarily means “completely ignoring”. One can engage with other people while still respecting their boundaries and leaving them the choice of whether to engage or not. Even something as simple as “Pardon me, may I pay you a compliment?” may accomplish that by leaving the explicit choice in the woman’s hands.

The difference between an unsolicited “Hey, your hair looks really nice” (which seems super non-threatening to many/most men) and “Pardon me, may I pay you a compliment?” then waiting for permission is miles. Of course, even the latter is still going to be unwelcome by many (and guys, learn to read *and respect* body language there), but at least it’s respecting the other person choice and control over their own person and engaging in a roughly equal manner.

Respecting people’s boundaries and treating others as equals is what ethical people do. Catcalling isn’t doing either. It really is that simple.

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