• Thu, Mar 20 - 4:02 pm ET

Why Women Need To Stop Blaming Themselves For Getting Catcalled

man harassing woman on street

I grew up in the kind of midwestern suburbia where people don’t lock their car doors or change out of pajama pants before going to Olive Garden at four o’clock. I experienced a million little culture shocks when I hopped off the plane at LAX and officially became a City Mouse, but most of the changes (more ethnic diversity, more places to walk, more vegan ice cream) have been good for me. The one thing that’s been hard for me to adjust to… is the catcalling.

I’m not saying that men in the middle of the country are more respectful of young women, and I absolutely received creepy and unnecessary comments about my appearance when I was a college student in Ohio, but every day that I walk down the street in LA, I hear more come-ons than I can even properly process. If I walk past ten men on the sidewalk, I can guarantee that at least eight of them will stare at my body, move in closer to me, say something suggestive, or do all three. Often times it’s innocent enough– looking me up and down and smiling, or saying something like “what’s good, beautiful?”– but occasionally it’s much more aggressive and much harder to ignore.

One evening, just as it was starting to get dark, a man who was walking in the opposite direction of me turned on his heel and followed me until he could put his face an inch away from mine. I felt his breath on my nose as he told me I was sexy, and I immediately tensed up and pushed my way past him. As I power walked away and towards a more populated part of the sidewalk, he called back to me, “Stupid bitch. Come back here! Why are you such a bitch?”

There are a couple reasons why this kind of behavior is totally frustrating:

  • If you lack the judgment to know that a woman walking alone on the street might be afraid of your come-on, what makes me think you’re respectful enough to not touch me?
  • Why do you need to prove your dominance so much that you have to make some stranger feel uncomfortable?
  • Where did I sign up to be treated like a zoo animal?
  • How dare you make me wonder what it is I’m doing wrong that encourages you to treat me this way?

That last part is a big issue for me, and I’m trying really hard to stop blaming myself for the actions of moronic, power-hungry assholes. Every time I get catcalled, I start asking myself a litany of questions. Why did I have to wear shorts in this 85-degree weather when I know shitty comments will be inspired by my visible thighs? Why did I have to wear a dress today when I know it’ll just remind people that I’m a woman? Why didn’t I bring someone with me on this two-second walk to CVS? Is my midwestern “pleasant face” encouraging people to mess with me? Is the fact that I look younger than I am making me look like an easy target?

If a friend of mine were to tell me that she blames herself for being harassed, I’d be furious and I’d be determined to convince her that she’s not inviting belittlement by occupying a female body. Why can’t I extend that same courtesy to myself? Why am I letting douchebag randos have any control over me?

Catcalling is just a symptom of the shittiest parts of patriarchy, and patriarchy has the ability to make women take personal responsibility for problems that exist at a societal level. The creepy things that strangers yell at me have almost nothing to do with my shorts, with my resting facial expression, with my naivety, with my cleavage. My clothes are never “asking for” unwarranted comments, and I shouldn’t have to be carrying pepper spray and a machete for you to leave me the hell alone. In the moment, it’s really hard to remember that it’s not my fault. But it’s never, ever my fault.

Photo via Shutterstock

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  • Samantha Escobar

    What the actual fuck? That would startle the crap out of me to have somebody turn and get close to me like that while walking.

    One of my old coworkers used to tell us that she never got harassed on the street, and that always surprised me (in the saddest way possible, of course), because she was a pretty person living in New York City, where it’s basically expected that 5 times a day, somebody will tell you something they want to do to your body. And the problem is, if you tell people you do get regularly harassed, everyone thinks you’re being cocky and stuck-up. It’s kind of the worst, but you’re totally right–it’s 100% not your fault.

  • Lindsey Conklin

    OMG that’s so terrifying! And it is SO hard to not blame yourself, or let it get to you, but it’s not your fault!!!!!!!!

  • Crystal

    That sounds so scary!!! Why are people so shitty?

  • diane kaston

    when my father died 4 years ago, lots of gross men said “you should smile” i stopped and told them i just came from a funeral, it stopped them in their tracks, i hate it when they say smile baby ugh, and they are always super ugly

  • JennyWren

    It’s the politeness reflex. No matter how horrible someone is being to me, I can’t bring myself to shout at them or tell them to eff off unless I’m drunk. I think so many women are brought up to be quiet and polite and *not make a fuss,* so when someone gets hostile we assume it’s our problem, not theirs.

    I’ve actually found street harassment to be so much harder to deal with since I moved to the Midwest. Where I’m from in the UK, you just don’t approach strangers in public, it’s a personal space thing. So when some guy decides to get in your face you at least have the security of knowing this is not normal behavior. Here people will say “well maybe he was trying to be friendly!” and you end up feeling like a bitch because you didn’t attempt to befriend the random individual who kept asking you where you live while you were using the laundromat.

    • LynnKell

      No, most the time they aren’t friendly, they want to intimidate. When someone has friendly intentions, they don’t make your sixth sense go bananas. I agree that we women had been trained to be polite no matter what, even if it put us in danger. Shitty thing, now let’s re-train ourselves to not feel guilty for wanting to feel safe when walking a freaking street.

  • Nancy

    So, first of all, I totally agree with everything you said and I hate it when people catcall. I live in a place filled with pretty polite people so it’s mostly only guys in vehicles driving past that do it, which is not as scary but still outrages me.
    Second, that happened to a friend of mine in our very small hometown: she was walking alone on a deserted road in the dark and passed a guy in a dark hoodie, with the hood up, who was going the other way. But he turned around and walked behind her, and when she turned around he was RIGHT in front of her. She punched him in the face! Then he revealed that he was our friend, just trying to freak out. It was pretty hilarious, but I think he had a black eye the next day.

  • natalie

    I’ve recently started saying (either shouting or in a very calm voice, depending on how far away they are) “would you treat your daughter/ that way/would you say that to your daughter?” especially because I seem to constantly attract middle aged cat callers. Usually it stops them in their tracks or makes them say “don’t bring my daughter into this!” and I go “Well, I’m someones daughter. Remember that.”
    Honestly though, I usually only do this when I’m with a friend. I did it once alone then legit sprinted away because I was so scared. I’m pretty fast though.

    • Sam Hall

      I love that you had the strength to do that! It is kind of sad that putting it in that perspective is what often makes a difference; it’s kind of like saying “remember that I have value to other people” as if they wouldn’t acknowledge that a women would have value on her own. A less depressing perspective: since it reminds them that if their loved ones have value they’ll realize so must everyone else. I bet that would stop a lot of them from cat calling again!

  • ktree

    I am posting this here because I want to. I live in a middle-sized city in the south.

    One day I decided to walk to a convenience store about 4 blocks away, after dark. On the way back, I thought I heard something behind me… (by the way this is somewhere where no one walks anywhere, almost ever.) I thought maybe it was acorns falling, but it was some assclown following me, but trying to walk really softly and quickly so as not to draw my attention. Well I turned around and saw him, and said “HEY MAN, HOW ARE YOU?” Because I have read that, you know, ignoring people who may wish to victimize you doesn’t make them go away, it just helps them. Also, I was really, really pissed. He followed me a couple streets over where it was even darker until he even said anything. Then he was like, Hey girl, what’s up, where you going? I said “I AM GOING HOME, WHERE I HAVE DINNER ON THE STOVE. MY NAME IS KATY” At that point someone turned on their porchlight and he ran off. But I will be DAMNED if I let someone victimize me because I am too scared to acknowledge what is going on. If someone is going to mess with me, they are doing it on MY terms. Sorry, I know this is long-winded, but I want other women to know this. If you confront your potential attacker, and yell and have a fit, that scares them off faster than anything. It could just be some nice random guy hoping to hook up, but for the most part those dudes aren’t going to try to sneak up on you and stay quiet until you reach a dark street.