Since the age of 13, men whistling at me, shouting obscene comments about my body, or making “kissing noises” at me has been a common occurrence in my daily life. And I am not alone. According to a study by Cornell University and the non-profit hollaback!, 84 percent of women globally experienced street harassment before the age of 17. Street harassment, also known as catcalling, is defined by anti-street harassment organizations as any unwanted interaction in a public place forced on a stranger without her or his consent, often due to his/her actual or perceived sex, gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation (1). It usually happens in urban environments and can take many forms, from leering to wolf whistling to following or stalking. In some cases, women have even been attacked for not responding to a catcall. A form of gender-based violence, street harassment makes many women feel unsafe navigating the streets of their own cities, day or night.
What can we do to stop this daily affront to women’s rights and empowerment?
To answer this question, we first need to understand why some men engage in this degrading and sometimes violent behavior. The most common hypothesis is that catcallers are trying to get a woman’s phone number or a date, or to compliment the woman. However, as research shows, most women feel unsafe, anxious, or angry when they are catcalled — not the response these men are looking for when asking someone on a date! SAFER: NYC, a male-engagement non-profit I co-founded in 2015, debunked this “compliment myth” in its groundbreaking research on why some men street harass, identifying instead another cause for this form of violence against women.
SAFER: NYC found that masculinity, or the desire to assert, prove, or fulfill traditional masculine norms, is in fact the real motivation behind this assault on women’s safety. Men in the survey reported that, “[Catcalling] is just what men do;” “These alpha males feel like they need to prove their sexuality;” and “if I don’t [street harass], maybe [women] will think I’m queer.” Professor Michael Kimmel, Executive Director of Stoney Brook University’s Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities and an advisor to SAFER: NYC’s research, reinforces this finding: “Although we think of street harassment as heterosexual, it is really what I call homosocial, which is, it’s done and performed for other guys.”
In order to end street harassment, we need to address this association between masculinity and street harassment and the idea that street harassment makes you look macho, strong, or cool with your male peers. We need to rebrand street harassment to sever this link between it and masculinity, so that what becomes “cool” or “manly” is actually respect for women. Given that 61 percent of men in SAFER: NYC’s survey said that they are most likely to listen to other men, this message needs to come from male allies, ranging from male celebrities and sports stars, to elected officials and CEOs, to our own dads, uncles, and brothers. Public service announcements and campaigns, educational programs, and gender-respectful media, art, and music can all contribute to this effort to dissociate masculinity from catcalling. Ultimately, we need a collaborative and multifaceted approach to dismantle toxic masculinity, which is at the root of many forms of violence, so that we can make our cities, and homes, safe for everyone.
(1) Street harassment can be perpetrated by a person of any gender and toward a person of any gender. In this article, I focus on heterosexual male-to-female harassment, as that is the most prevalent form of street harassment.