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Street Harassment: Myths and Misinformation

Suzy Woltmann Suzy Woltmann
21st June 2021
Street Harassment: Myths and Misinformation
Catcalling disproportionately affects women (Damali O'Keefe).

Street harassment, more commonly known as catcalling, is a pervasive phenomenon that causes nearly half of the world’s women to feel they can not go alone to public spaces.

According to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, street harassment includes:

  • “Comments, requests, and demands
  • Commenting on physical appearance, such as someone’s body or the clothing they’re wearing
  • Continuing to talk to someone after they have asked to be left alone
  • Flashing
  • Following or stalking
  • Groping
  • Intentionally invading personal space or blocking the way
  • Persistent requests for someone’s name, number, or other information
  • Public masturbation or touching
  • Sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic slurs, or any comments insulting or demeaning an aspect of someone’s identity
  • Showing pornographic images without someone’s consent
  • Staring
  • Taking a photo of someone without their consent
  • Telling someone to smile
  • Up-skirting 
  • Whistling”

Here's a roundup of common beliefs and the actual facts about street harassment. 

Myth: Street harassment decreased during the pandemic.

Facts: Many hoped that between mask-wearing and lockdowns that there might be a silver lining to the pandemic: street harassment would diminish. However, extensive anecdotal evidence and studies show that street harassment didn’t reduce during the pandemic. Asian and Asian-American women actually reported an increase in street harassment over the past year – and service workers reported a “massive” increase in sexual harassment throughout the pandemic. Domestic violence and assault also increased during the pandemic.

Myth: Street harassment isn’t a gender/feminist/equality issue.

Facts: Being followed, catcalled, or asked for a hug or kiss, witnessing flashing or public masturbation, and other forms of street harassment is an issue that disproportionately affects women. Stop Street Harassment calls street harassment “a form of gender violence” and “a human rights violation.” Geographer and social studies scholar Gill Valentine calls the impact this has on women’s mobility patterns “the spatial expression of patriarchy.” Director of the Southern Poverty Law Center Scott McCoy says that violence against women can even constitute a hate crime: “What can’t be forgotten is the hate crime statute says ‘because of gender’ as well. The angle of misogyny has to be looked at.” 

The National Organization for Women says: “In the context of gender, harassment often ends up being a way for men to exert control over women and their bodies. Shouting a crude comment about a woman’s appearance suggests entitlement to her body. Groping or stalking or simply standing too close without a woman’s permission shows entitlement to her space. Expecting a woman to talk to you while or after you harass her displays entitlement to her time.”

As a largely gendered phenomenon, then, street harassment is a gender/feminist/equality issue.

Myth: If someone you know is harassed, you should give them advice on how to avoid it in the future.

Facts: Experts agree that if someone tells you that they have been harassed, the best course of action is to listen, empathize, and make sure they feel safe. Do not question their narrative, press for details, or tell them what they should have done differently. This can make the victim feel betrayal trauma or as though you are victim-blaming them. Studies show that men more often tend to blame women for sexual harassment. However, focusing on the victim’s perspective can lead to prosocial empathy frameworks that allow victims to feel heard and decrease incidents of harassment.

Myth: There’s a right way to respond to street harassment.

Facts: According to Hollaback, an anti-harassment movement, there is no right or wrong way to respond to street harassment besides working to enact change at the societal level. Volunteers at Hollaback “tried every strategy in the book to confront street harassers directly… yelled at them, scolded them, educated them… but it never seemed to work.” Bark at Men 2020 asked women to respond to catcallers by barking like a dog. This seemed to stop some street harassers, but others became more aggressive. 

Ignoring street harassment can be dangerous, as can responding to harassers. Some harassers can respond positively to assertive responses such as causing a scene or educational initiatives, but others escalate. 

Myth: If you don’t look people in the eyes, they won’t harass you.

Facts: Making eye contact tells a potential harasser or attacker that you see them and they can’t take you by surprise. It also humanizes you, which makes you a less appealing target. Avoiding eye contact, alternatively, can send the message that you’re intimidated and vulnerable. 

Myth: Turn the music up on your headphones so you can’t hear what a harasser is saying.

Facts: Potential harassers and attackers specifically look for women who look busy – looking through their purse, on their phone, and so on. The Metropolitan Police famously warned women, “don’t use headphones,” after a series of sexual assault attacks. Acting distracted or like you can’t hear the person yelling at you or approaching you can actually make the situation more dangerous. 

Myth: Just say you’re not interested; the harasser will leave you alone.

Facts: Saying no to a catcaller or sexual harasser can be dangerous – and even deadly. Two men knocked a teenager unconscious after she told them, “I’m sorry, I’m not interested.” A catcaller shot a woman in the leg after she asked him to stop. A total stranger shot and killed a woman after she told him she wasn’t interested in him because she was engaged. A man shot a woman’s 10-month-old child after she rejected his advances. A man raped and killed a teenager after she ignored his catcalls. These are but a minor sampling of the countless times sexual harassers and assaulters turn to violence when their victim refuses or ignores them. 

Myth: You're being harassed because you look/act/dress a certain way.

Facts: Nearly 100% (97-99%) of women in the U.K. and U.S. report experiencing street harassment, with 65% saying it happens at least once a month. 85% of U.S. female children experience street harassment by age 17. 77% of U.S. women under 40 have been “followed by a man or group of men in a way that made them feel unsafe during the past year.” 

More than half of men polled believe that “the more revealing the clothes a woman wears, the more likely it is that she will be harassed and assaulted.” However, multiple studies show that women who seem passive and are in modest dress are more likely to experience sexual assault. Women who wear the burqa, hijab, or niqab actually experience higher rates of street harassment. Studies also show that “provocative” behavior on the victim’s part rarely impacts sexual harassment rates (for comparison, it does greatly impact murder rates). 

Myth: Catcalling is a compliment.

Facts: Although 1 in 3 men do not consider catcalling to be sexual harassment, victims of street harassment report feeling angry, scared, and depressed. They also experience long-term reduction in their sense of well-being. According to street harassment activist TK Pritchard, “It's not a compliment, it's a use of power that often means people feel scared, uncomfortable, angry or just unsafe in their community." More than half of victims enact major changes following a street harassment incident. One study even asserts that street harassment is marketplace discrimination, since it often prevents women and girls from attending public establishments and forces them back into the private sphere.

Myth: So what, people can’t give out compliments now?

Facts: People can still give compliments to strangers. However, the National Organization for Women recommends asking permission first, not demanding anything in return, and leaving the stranger alone if they choose not to respond. The best compliments are about something the stranger chose for themselves, such as their outfit – not something immutable, like their body.

Myth: There’s nothing a bystander can do to help when someone is being harassed.

Facts: Hollaback recommends bystanders employ the five Ds if they witness someone being harassed or assaulted: Distract, Delegate, Document, Delay, and Direct.

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Debunking these myths about street harassment can help denormalize it as a phenomenon and thus lead to safer public spaces for all people.