My 11-year-old daughter has enjoyed many new experiences recently: first soccer goal, first solo trip to the store, first time as a community volunteer.
There was also another, less enjoyable, first. While she was in our front yard, wearing her favorite T-shirt, which proclaims: “Unicorns are real,” a man drove by, yelled a comment and whistled loudly.
I didn’t witness this, but my daughter and my 10-year-old son said the driver was an adult, not a teenager. I remember how odd it felt when I was a girl getting sexual attention from grown men. I’ve felt prepared to discuss many complexities that accompany my daughter’s evolution into young adulthood, but I choked on this one. I realized that I’ve never handled this well myself. I blanked and muttered something about how we women have to be careful. It felt like a cop-out. I usually welcome tough conversations, but in this case I was tongue-tied.
I wish I could tell her that I respond strongly and strategically to cat-callers, but I’ve never found the right approach, and all of the options seem fraught. If I answer, it might be misinterpreted as interest. If I flick him off, that might seem like an invitation. So I usually get embarrassed, and freeze.
That’s not a solution, and it’s certainly not a response I feel comfortable teaching my daughter. So, particularly in light of recent stories about politicians and other famous men victimizing women and teenage girls, I set out to better understand this behavior, and come up with an effective approach for her, and myself.
The Girl Scouts of America notes that 1 in 10 girls is catcalled before her 11th birthday. Surveys conducted by Cornell University’s ILR School and the nonprofit organization Hollaback! reveal nearly 85 percent of American female respondents report facing street harassment before age 17; nearly 70 percent before age 14. Almost 80 percent of women report they were followed by harassers at some point.
Amanda Burgess-Proctor, associate professor of criminal justice at Oakland University and an expert in gender-based violence, sexual assault and crime, points out that girls and women of color are more likely to experience street harassment, and at a greater risk of being victimized physically or sexually.
Being targeted on the street can have a negative emotional impact, especially for young victims. “Catcalling can have a variety of deleterious effects on girls who are developing sexually, intellectually and emotionally,” says Claudia Luiz, author of “The Making of a Psychoanalyst: Studies in Emotional Education.” “On the most basic level, it is objectifying, and therefore shaming and frightening . . . There is nothing positive about non-subtle sexual admiration that is not invited . . . the dynamic is devoid of respect.”
Burgess-Proctor points out that while female victims don’t initiate the behavior, they are routinely taxed with its prevention.
“We often talk about sexual harassment as if it’s some inevitable condition of the environment,” she says. “If I go outside and leave my unprotected skin exposed to the sun for long periods of time, I will get sunburn. We can’t change the way the sun operates. But that’s not what this is. So our attention is focused on girls: Wear sunscreen, wear long sleeves and reapply.
“That’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about how women and girls can respond to this, but the real change won’t come unless the social norms governing men’s interactions with women change,” she adds. “I think that starts from the way we raise our sons. I think it will take men. I really believe it will take other men interceding.”
For men to intercede, and for boys to learn how to become advocates, it’s important for them to be able to empathize. In talking with the men in my family, however, I discovered that while they wouldn’t engage in this behavior, they don’t fully understand why it’s upsetting. They have a somewhat romanticized idea about how it would feel to hear comments about their appearance from a passerby.
“What I wish more people understood is that especially in this public setting, especially from strangers, women are experiencing a comment in the context of, in the reality of, sexual violence,” Burgess-Proctor says. “It’s hard to feel flattered by a comment if your brain has already moved on to ‘Where is this going? Am I in danger? Is he going to follow me?’ We can’t divorce these individual leering comments or these unwanted, unprompted sexual comments. We can’t divorce that from the reality that women experience sexual victimization.”
As male advocates hone their awareness, it may be helpful for them to recognize the similarities between street harassment and comments from social media trolls. Anonymity emboldens catcallers to utter things they wouldn’t say otherwise, even when the people they target are children.
“It affords a freedom of expression that is probably otherwise denied to these men in most other social circles,” Luiz says. “Because it feels so good, catcalling men are often blind to the underlying frustration, rage and powerlessness.”
Male advocates need to understand that catcalls are often a sign of anger and aggression toward women, which is what makes it so frightening, especially for child victims.
It’s important to create a family culture of open discussion, instilling awareness by talking about experiences you’ve had or witnessed. Discuss how street harassment made you feel, and how you responded. “For both girls and boys, talking about what they feel is validating and healing,” Luiz says. “It opens up channels of understanding.”
Also, strategize as a family. Stop Street Harassment is a nonprofit that offers advice and resources, including a tool kit that covers how and when to report harassment. It provides information about state harassment laws, which are important to know as you develop your family plan.
SSH also recommends family role playing, to prepare for situations that may arise. Give your kids the chance to play the part of the victim, the bystander who takes action or the catcaller’s friend who shuts him down by challenging his behavior. That training can empower kids by furnishing them with a plan to navigate the unexpected when it comes up.
Finally, remind kids they have the power to say “no,” even to an adult, when someone infringes on their rights or personal space with an inappropriate request or comment. Kids need to know that when that happens, they are no longer bound by manners. They get to say “no.”
And I do too. Finally, I have my go-to responses for catcallers.
Eileen Hoenigman Meyer is a freelance writer and blogger based in Illinois. She tweets @EileenHMeyer.