Street Harassment: Why Don’t Guys Understand It?

I understand why it is that men tend to be the ones harassing and women the ones subjected to the “flattery” of catcalls. But I do not understand why it is so difficult for most men (and some women) to understand the problem.

Awhile ago my husband stayed at a leasing office and got started signing paperwork while I walked back to our new apartment to make sure the building manager had given us the correct keys.

As I walked, locals unpleasantly acknowledged my presence.

I ignored the calls of “hey, sexy” and “blah blah blah just ain’t right” but I was still upset. I remembered all the times when my first response had been to question what I was wearing. Was I doing something to invite the harassment? I am now quite confident that it has nothing to do with what I do or wear* and that there is absolutely nothing that I can do about it.

Oddly enough, I am not bothered by my powerlessness as much as I am the fact that I cannot make the good men to whom I am closest understand. My sisters know from experience the feeling of righteous anger that wells up and causes one to want to destroy the harasser. We do not play out violent scenarios, but we do sometimes tell each other exactly what we wanted to say in response to a certain comment.

But I just cannot make it clear to my husband or my brothers and male friends. They see street harassment as something that stupid guys to for attention, but nothing more than a minor annoyance. I try to explain how it is “a power dynamic that constantly reminds historically subordinated groups (women and LGBTQ folks, for example) of their vulnerability to assault in public spaces. Further, it reinforces the ubiquitous sexual objectification of these groups in everyday life.[source]” And they can grasp that in theory.

They cannot, however, understand the feeling of being told that one is not able to walk down the street as a human worthy of respect. They cannot understand what it is like to have a stranger assert the fact that he is able to undress you and that you are entirely vulnerable to his plans for you. After all, isn’t there a world of difference between threatening rape and simply telling someone about how you would enjoy sleeping with her?

I simply cannot make them understand how a few “harmless” comments can make the difference between me feeling fine with a neighborhood or completely unsafe. After all, the crime stats did not change.

I cannot make them understand why I take a slightly longer path to the leasing office in order to avoid further remarks from a man who probably is not even there at the time.

I cannot make them understand how there is absolutely nothing enjoyable, flattering, or ego-enhancing about being informed about how sexually attractive random men find me.

I just cannot make them understand.

I can accept that there is no good response to street harassment. But I cannot accept that it is impossible for men to understand it. There are cards to hand out to the jerks, but what do you say to the good guys in your life who just don’t get it?

*Well, not entirely. It happens some when I wear pants, but not nearly as frequently as when I wore skirts. There is something about skirts which either says “notice me” or else “I am not to be noticed” and each obviously draws more attention than nondescript jeans.
Image: Fabiana Zonca

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12 Responses to “Street Harassment: Why Don’t Guys Understand It?”
  1. Jen

    I understand you perfectly, sadly enough. I live in Baltimore and am fully aware that any time I leave the house, I must prepare myself for a litany of absolutely foul catcalls, people following me in the street, and harassing me in places like the metro and the library. I’ve come to terms with the fact that this is inescapable.

    But the fact that the dudes in my life I love and respect, who would never do things like that, don’t feel the same sort of hurt and anger I do when I am harassed like that is way worse than any street harassment. None of my guy friends understand, either. They tell me all I can do is deal with it and make sure I bring pepper spray, that people who do that know they can’t get with me so that’s why they do it, etc etc. Stupid female acquaintances even tell me sometimes I should feel ‘flattered’ because they are just informing me that they ‘find me attractive,’ apparently.

    What that says to me is that it’s easy enough in word to empathize with the basis of a woman’s right to walk in the street unharassed, but to fully empathize emotionally and mentally would mean committing to a lack of control over females entirely that most guys are just not ready to relinquish. The thought of it being totally prohibited to yell at a woman in the street – because just WHAT IF one day they might want to because some woman is just SO BEAUTIFUL OMG – it just heinous. Why, you might even say it’s unconstitutional! Then they convince themselves secretly that feminism in totality is a huge over-exaggerated crusade against what makes men men. Yep.

  2. Jen

    Also, forgot to add the next thought in that vein: “Next thing you know, I won’t even be able to compliment a woman without it being called sexual harassment. Feminazis!”

    • Amazing comments, Jen!

      Complimenting is a very different beast than leering so your final excuse shouldn’t hold water with any but the dullest sort. Unfortunately there may be quite a few of those.

      One thing I, as a male, have found amusing is to respond to “street harassment” directed at female companions as if I were the one commentary is being directed at. Having a huge dude turn, wink, and say “thank you, you’re so sweet!” tends to have good results.

      Guys aren’t good at policing each other on such behavior. I’ve been the silent accomplice more times than I’d like to admit. I’m learning. I’ve made an effort to regularly dole out classy compliments and had only positive results. Noticing a haircut, saying she has a great smile WHILE LOOKING AT HER FACE, and such tends to go over quite well. Even the “Feminazis” seem okay with it. =)

  3. Hey there! Great article – and I recognize that quote from our site on what street harassment is from our site (

    Thanks for contributing to the conversation.

  4. Melanie

    This is interesting…I don’t usually get harassed when I’m with a man. The one time my husband was there, I thought he was going to start a brawl with the harassers, and I had to talk him down (a brawl is a regular bad idea, but this was worse because we were outnumbered).

    Anyway, there’s a lot of fascinating graduate school-type reading material out there about privilege. Privilege is one of the few things that you can only fully understand if you don’t have it. The poster and commenter described it perfectly, so I thought I’d add the term.

    It’s not because men are incurably dense or anything like that…rather, any kind of privilege (racial, class, gender) can have this effect on its beneficiaries. Privilege is the societal norm, and otherness is the alternative state. So, if you have privilege, society parrots it back at you, reinforcing it as the norm. That’s what you see, what you experience, and what you come to expect. But if you don’t have privilege, and society shows you the privileged ideal, it makes you believe that your experience is different, and somehow less than it should be.

    Even if a person has a sense that he or she is privileged, as the poster mentioned, that person would have to sacrifice that privilege in order to make it right. Of course, individuals can do what they can, but it’s an institutional problem. Individuals have to know that they’re privileged, though…and that’s really the hardest part. How do you convince a person that he has to get out of a comfortable box that only you can see?

    • Joy

      Thank you for adding this term to my vocabulary!

      I’ve been struggling for the past month with my husband’s inability to understand how disempowering and hurtful it is to be told by men that I can’t do or say or write certain things. I’m having this issue with my blog right now, in which I’ve written some raw posts about my crisis of faith, and the leaders of the church my family joined last year object. They want me to stop writing things that disagree with their teaching. (They believe they have authority as leaders of the church and as men since I am a woman.) ExCUSE me? I’m quite sure none of them, nor my husband, has ever been in a similar situation. I feel I have little recourse except to write those things where they can’t be found by this particular group, unless I want to invite sanction on me (and by association, my family). It’s a powerless feeling. And my husband, while trying mightily to grasp my side, clearly has no emotional understanding of it.

      I know it isn’t exactly the same situation, but it’s an expression of male dominance, and I’m on my own to deal with it.

  5. So much depends on the situation and the background of the receiver though. I mean, if I were walking down the street and a couple construction workers yelled out “Hey sexy!” I might be tempted to actually smile and wave. If it were a creepy guy who stared intensely at me while saying the exact same thing, I’d be tempted to move out of the neighborhood.

    Since your husband likely never experiences either circumstance, it’s not hard to understand why he doesn’t have an emotional reaction like you do. However, I think you put together a very persuasive argument here on why it’s upsetting. I can’t understand why he doesn’t get THAT.

  6. Dear Sara,

    Great post. This would be so good as an opening for discussion on sexual harassment with adolescents and teens, boys and girls, as well as in work settings. The thing is, you probably already know, it’s not about you. It needn’t flatter or offend. Clearly this is a certain class of guys in the company of other guys of similar ilk, somewhat anonymous in their pack and safe at a distance, showing off. Little boys in the schoolyard. Lord of the Flies. Alone, they gawk, in packs, they show off. Consider the source, or don’t, and move on. If it’s mean-spirited or gets threatening or aggressive, it would be well and good to get it on record with law enforcement. Otherwise, it’s not worth your time. In school or work settings, it’s another story. There are guidelines and it’s good to know what they are. Inappropriate behaviors that aren’t dealt with tend to escalate, where the things authorities don’t correct, they unwittingly condone. Thanks very much for posting this. It’s important. Peace,


  7. I respectfully submit that there’s a little bit of “Jane Crow” going on with some of these guys. I’ve noticed that the street harassers tend to fall on the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder (not all by any means, and there are plenty of psychological dynamics at work in any phenomenon). But there are subtle and not-so-subtle ways that people act out to express their frustration at their societal predicament. I have no data other than my own experience but it seems that well-dressed women are targeted more often by street harassers just as expensive cars can induce a slower pace through the crosswalk. I think if you look closely, you’ll see class consciousness at work in some instances. The flip side, of course, is the type of “alpha male” who has lots of money and a cool job title and thinks that means everyone is entitled to his opinion. But that guy isn’t on the street as often.

  8. Regarding comments about both class and privilege – the lifelong experience of privilege may be a reason not to have a knee-jerk or “emotional” response to harassment. It is not a reason not to police bad behavior when you feel it is safe to do so or, at the least, learn to empathize with the women in your life who must often feel unsafe as a normal part of daily life.

    As for class, @pewestlake and others who may be interested, there is a wealth of both sociological and linguistic field literature about the nature of street harassment and what forms it takes in different class AND ethnic groups – and how it is differently perceived among women of different classes and ethnicities, too. It is certainly interesting. I’m afraid a longer discussion of it suggests that women of any visible privilege deserve to feel less safe in public…. and that sounds a lot like the tight jeans defense.

    The bottom line for me with street harassment is it’s a way to make some women, no matter their class or the class of their harassers, feel silenced, shamed, and less-entitled to the public space. And that worries me. So too should it worry the men in our lives – deeply.

    Of course, I recently had a conversation with a friend who suggested that his roommate (an older woman) was ridiculous for asking her (younger, male) roommates to fix an outside light. “Does she really think anyone wants to rape her?”

    And that, from a man I respected.

    The best we can do is keep having these conversations and help our sons, brothers, friends, fathers, husbands, etc. see that the world is a dangerous place for us sometimes – and to nicely ask for their help and support, whether that means taking the long road or speaking up or just listening when we stress about this. And fixing the light!

  9. I (clumsily) tried to express why men don’t understand this very issue only last night. Then someone sent me a link to your post. The reason we don’t understand it is that we walk through the world without the fear, without the vulnerability that women do. Just by virtue of our ability to look after ourselves physically. We’re less threatened, and so it’s harder for us to understand the viewpoint of many women who face such fears/concerns/vulnerabilities every day.
    We’re not necessarily thinking women make that stuff up. We just cannot relate to it. So it’s a lot easier to not give it much thought.

  10. Karanime

    If you’re safe and you’re fairly certain you’re not going to get raped, I really don’t see what the problem is. It seems to me that the issue is less one of personal safety (the percentage of actual rapes is tiny compared to the amount of times catcalling ensues) and more one of emotional outrage.

    When you are physically threatened, yes, you should get to a place where you are safe. I don’t think your guy friends are questioning this. It’s the emotional hurt, the ridiculous notion that you are being disrespected as a person and that your anger is righteous and correct.

    In middle school, I was teased every day. I was told I was ugly, that I was unwanted. I really was being disrespected as a person. I wasn’t being treated as a piece of meat. I was getting treated like dirt. But when I got upset about it, nothing got any better. I tried yelling back. That only made it worse. I tried ignoring it, but then they tried even harder to get to me. When I asked my friends for help, they told me to suck it up.

    Yes, the people calling me names were jerks. They were being unfair. I had the right to be angry. But I chose not to. And I never tried to get others to be upset over my problems.

    You can choose to be angry and hurt (and try to spread the misery around), or you can suck it up and realize that this is not life’s biggest problem. You’ve got it good.

    At least you’re not some starving kid in Africa.


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