April is here, which means warm temperatures are around the corner. I am personally excited about wearing some spring and summer dresses…but I inevitably think “do I really want a wear a dress and increase the chances of getting those uncomfortable cat-calls?”
Not that there’s no street harassment in the middle of the winter. I mean c’mon I live in Chicago, where 6 out of 12 months are cold enough to wear long coats and unflattering warm hats and I have definitively received those unwanted “compliments”.
But can we really refer to cat-calls as compliments? ABSOLUTELY NOT. It is called harassment.
It is not a compliment because those comments, gestures and actions are unwanted. Are forced on us without consent. They generate fear, discomfort and sometimes even shame. How can anyone even think it’s a compliment when women feel forced to look down and walk faster because of those comments?
The definition of a compliment is: “a polite expression of praise or admiration.” We can all agree that phrases like “that’s a fine ass”, “s*ck my dick” and others of that same nature do not qualify as polite, specially coming from strangers.
When these harassers comment on someone else’s body, my ass, their ass, anyone’s ass —their body is the focus of those remarks, but are actually not the source of them. The reality is harassment is about an assertion of power and control over the victim, rather than the victim’s sexual desirability and it is often a manifestation of societal discrimination, like sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, classism, ableism and racism.
Let’s stop for a moment and clarify that even though women are the usual victims of street harassment by men, anyone can be a victim of street harassment regardless of gender, race or sexuality AND the same goes for the harasser.
Any kind of harassment is harmful and it’s a human rights issue because it limits the harassed persons’ ability to be in public. No one should feel this fear. No one.
So, when a well-meaning guy still asks whether some of these comments aren’t compliments after all, my answer is NEVER. Even the simplest “Have a nice day” line can have the power to make my blood boil and make me feel abused. Because it’s not only what they say, but how they say it and the way they strip you down with their eyes when they say it.
I think I can speak for most women when I say we are tired of it. Even worse, we are used to it. We have all these techniques to avoid the harassers like listening to music on our headphones to avoid listening to them, talking on our phones when walking down the street or walking with such determination and speed wearing our “bitchy resting face.”
A question for men: what do you guys do every day to avoid street harassment? I bet the answer for most of you is “nothing.” If you identify as a masculine, white, able cis-man, please, use your privilege, use your power to speak out against street harassment, and help make the streets safer for the rest of humanity.
All that being said, it doesn’t mean that the rest of us can’t do anything about it. If you feel safe and comfortable, call the harasser out, to defend yourself or others. No need to use violent language but sometimes by confronting the other person that false conception of power and control disappears. Sometimes I have said: “Excuse me? What did you say? I hope the women in your life you care for are not talked to that way on the streets.” Calling men out has the intended effect of removing the social approval that allows them to act in this way.
Aside from interrupting street harassment, if we all want to put an end to this behavior once and for all, we must break the cycle. And that means that we must teach our children, especially boys and young men, to respect all people’s body autonomy. We need to teach them to be critical consumers of what they see on TV and other media. If they are exposed to street harassment, we need to have conversations about what they saw and why it’s wrong.
If we can teach young people from an early age just how wrong this type of behavior is and we create positive alternatives, we can transform our neighborhoods, towns, cities, and wider communities to places where people can feel safer. Places where people feel more free. Places where women don’t ever have to hesitate about wearing that dress on a hot summer day and harassment is not confused by a compliment.