Understanding Why Street Harassment and Cat-calls Scrape At Our Hearts
Editor’s Note: Street harassment seems to be like the small scab that gets picked at and ripped off, little by little. Most say that not big enough or deep enough to take it seriously, but I beg to differ. Anytime something evokes strong negative emotions, it’s big enough and important enough to talk about. So today, I’m writing a bit about my experience, sharing some emails I’ve received, and asking for your comments! – Lauren
A couple days ago I got an email from a girl from California, studying abroad in Europe.
“I really cannot deal with the street harassment I’ve gotten in Europe. I’ve been called names (from slightly humorous “beyonce’s” to really hurtful sexual names, gestures, and slurs) and I’m really just sick of it. I’ve been harassed and followed until I’ve given my number to guys literally every week of being here and although I’m having fun, I’m also a bit afraid to go outside. Three men followed me home last month and they waited outside of my house for an hour until I called the police, who basically excused their behavior because they were drunk. I don’t really know what to do – I [honestly feel] that there is nothing wrong or inappropriate with my clothing. I have really long natural hair and so I decided to straighten it to garner less attention, but that didn’t work. I met a man who I thought I could trust and he ended up using me and getting really upset when I wouldn’t have sex with him. I feel like I can’t trust any men I meet. I’m feeling a bit broken right now and I’m wondering if you have any advice as to how I can try to toughen up for the rest of my time here so that I can enjoy it instead of crying all over my apartment. I was hoping that God could help me forget about the opposite sex for a while [while studying in Europe ] so I’m not consumed with wanting a man/being afraid of them, but I’m still sitting in Starbucks and feeling like I want someone to hold me, hoping the man God created to love me will come around the corner.”
I know this ache that seems to conflict from every angle. Wanting nothing to do with men, but wanting nothing more than a good man. It’s in studying this conflict that we find the truth: The war is not one of gender, but of the individual. When I was 22, someone told me, “the day I stopped viewing people by their gender and instead by their actions, my life changed forever.” And my life changed the day I heard that.
Still, being the on the receiving end of degrading sexualized comments can wedge a bit more disgust between myself and the male race. Yesterday, I asked you girls on our Facebook how you felt and responded when you were sexually harassed on the street.
Most of you replied that you ignored it, and kept their eyes down. Avoid eye contact, and simply keep moving as quickly as possible. A few women shared that they reply with clear, “that’s not appropriate” or coals-of-kindness, “thank you – God bless!” in hopes of offsetting their vulgarity. But all of you said that it resulted in these feelings:
– taken advantage of
On top of this, if you’re a woman who has been sexually assaulted or abused, even a series of honks or a vulgar shout can feel like knives scraping the raw flesh of your heart. There are women who may find it a compliment, and others often tell us to “suck it up and understand that you’re just an attractive woman,” – but this only serves to echo the devastating voice of, “this is your fault” or “stop bothering us with your imaginary problems” that we’ve heard after rape, molestation, infidelity, abandonment, or any experience where we have been hurt badly as a woman.
Note: It doesn’t take rape or extreme sexual assault to experience physical or emotional pain because of a man. Being hurt by men can come from our fathers, brothers, community, guy friends, boyfriends, a bad breakup, anywhere. And they may not have been malicious about it. If you feel like your heart is overly sensitive, accept it and own it. You were created with that heart for a very intentional purpose, and it is GOOD.
Clinically, depression is often described as anger or severe disappointment turned inwards. If we are angry at one man, certain men, or all men – particularly in relationships where we have not been able to express our anger or hurt to them – street harassment can be an instant trigger for depression and any of the coping mechanisms we are relying on. This means that if you are beating yourself up for having such a strong emotional response to a cat-call on the street, I will hold your hand and say that it’s okay, and that you are not a weak woman. You are simply a hurt woman. And hurt is not synonymous with weak.
Street harassment is something I battle with weekly as a young woman living in Los Angeles. My friend Rhiannon told me recently, “As a 24 year old married woman, I’m afraid to walk down my street. I’m afraid of getting the honks, catcalls, and stares I get when go for a jog at the park. Living in a tiny apartment in LA with my husband, with no balcony, or terrace to speak of, leaves me longing for just some time outdoors. But I become a prisoner of my home because I am terrified of walking down to the park down our street. Even if I wear baggy clothes, I’m scared some man will stop me, or stare at me, and it would be all my fault for dressing this way, for putting lust in his heart.”
I don’t have the answer, but I have two thoughts, and I covet your opinions, stories, feelings, suggestions, revelations, comforts that you have on the subject. So please comment!
There seem to be two parts to handling street harassment:
1. Responding externally (to men). ihollaback.org recommends responding with clear, declarative statements, such as, “Stop ________” and “Do not whistle at me.” I personally am scared of responding to men and having them become violent, but sometimes “just taking it” puts us again in the place of the voiceless victim, and does additional damage to our hearts. What do you do, or say?
2. Responding internally (to ourselves). I feel angry and taken advantage of. I remember jokes that men I’ve cared about have made, implying that all I’m good for is sex. My skin crawls. My posture changes. I feel objectified. And I feel worthless. BUT. I need to start paying more attention to what “truths” I passively accept in the moment: “All men are animals,” “I hate men,” “all men want from me is sex,” “all I’m good for is sex,” “I hate being a woman sometimes,” and on and on. Sometimes they’re just feelings, but I want to try to put words to them. Knowing how to identify feelings and emotions is invaluable.
Passively agreeing (which is what happens unless you identity the False thought and consciously counteract it with a True thought) means we begin to accept truths into our worldview, our perspective, and our beliefs about ourselves and the world around us – without realizing it. It’s kind of like throwing a party, letting every person on the street walk in, and then looking around and saying, “but I didn’t invite any of them to my party!!”
As women who have had our boundaries broken and crossed by men in the past, we often let all of these negative thoughts and feelings in, believing we don’t have the right or ability to stop them. The goal is to re-build our mental and emotional boundaries so that they stop at the front door on their own, before they scrape at our hearts. But we have to re-create the door that was destroyed, in order to keep them out.
Every time I feel taken advantage or made worthless by a crude gesture or cat-call on the street, I subconsciously agree to what that man is communicating, unless I consciously disagree. Even though I would tell you that I’m not ‘just good for sex,’ and that my husband wants me for things other than sex, I still feel taken advantage of, simply because other men want to behave that way – and up until this point, I’ve felt helpless to fight this feeling. So, I’m making a commitment to myself to start paying close attention to what I think and feel every time I’m whistled at and called names. And to fight those thoughts with truth about who I am, what I’m worth, what my husband believes of me, and what God says about me.
What will you be doing? How do you respond to men? What thoughts go through your head when you’re cat-called? Do you feel helpless? What truths, statements, or verses do you fight your thoughts with?
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