Richmond Proper: On street harrassment

I’m sure this is a nightmare you’re well-acquainted with: You’re walking down the street minding your own business, when suddenly a stranger squawks a bunch of nonsense at you, and you can’t think of a great comeback until after you’ve already stormed off.

“Good behavior is catching; the more you display it, the more it spreads.  This doesn’t mean becoming a doormat; it does mean you can defuse a situation without wrangling over who’s right or wrong.”
– Peggy Post

Ladies,* I’m sure this is a nightmare you’re well-acquainted with: You’re walking down the street minding your own business, when suddenly a stranger squawks a bunch of nonsense at you, and you can’t think of a great comeback until after you’ve already stormed off. This routine is a guaranteed morning-ruiner, dreaded by women the world over. In this culture where assault is supposedly a major crime, it’s somehow no big deal to yell down the street about the theoretical assault that you’d like to commit. It’s frustrating and ridiculous.

Cat calls have been on my mind since I recently discovered Hollaback!, a web site that gives a voice to victims of street harassment.  Participants send in stories and pictures of their harassers, publicizing behavior the men would rather keep anonymous and undocumented.  Hollaback! hopes to create a “crowd-sourced initiative to end street harassment.” Though this goal seems overly ambitious — some of us have been waging war against public rudeness for years already, to no avail — just providing a venue for a response is revolutionary.

The Hollaback! method of taking an embarrassing iPhone video and using it to humiliate the guy who humiliated you is certainly an innovation.  I’m impressed by people who have the wherewithal to accomplish this task during those few awkward seconds on the sidewalk. Fighting back in this way is admirable, but I know it would be hard for me to do without (1) getting flustered and / or (2) being rude myself.  If I actually stopped to interact with a harasser, I would probably end up dispensing a few stammered curses rather than shining justice.

A major focus of this column has been on never repaying rudeness with more rudeness. Richmond Proper is in the business of encouraging you not to stoop to their level. And what is the number one thing that a cat caller wants?  Your attention. Nobody paid attention to him when he was little, so he wants you to pay attention to him NOW.  Feel free to ignore him.

The Richmond Proper method goes something like this:

You: Walking down the street, staring vaguely into the distance.

Him: “Hey baby, get your [unintelligible] [unintelligible] over here so I can [unintelligible] your [unintelligible]!”

You: Walking down the street, staring vaguely into the distance.

The big picture is what this method is all about, and in the grand scheme of things this man was so insignificant that you couldn’t be bothered to turn your head in his direction. “It is the object of lewd behavior to annoy and anger those to whom it is directed, ” writes Judith Martin. By refusing to get angry you’ve just reinforced what every neglected child knows: that being ignored is far worse than being yelled at, and that no one will ever, ever love him. And you didn’t even have to lift a / the finger!

Of course, I’ve also heard of the You Wouldn’t Know What To Do With Me If You Had Me method being used to great effect. This involves yelling out “Yes, I’d love to ‘get with you!’  Meet you at Ruth’s Chris at 8?” which inevitably sends the harasser running terrified in the other direction. Alternatively, you can suggest meeting at Jared, the Galleria of Jewelry.

If any of my dear readers has her own method or a good war story, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

*Yes, I realize that it’s possible for men to get cat calls as well, but since those cases seem to make up a slim minority, I’m going to simplify things for myself and use only female pronouns here.

Have an etiquette question and need some advice?  Email

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Tess Shebaylo

Tess Shebaylo is a freelance writer, crafter, history geek, and compulsive organizer. She works at Tumblr and lives in Church Hill with her husband, Dan, and their two cats.

20 comments on Richmond Proper: On street harrassment

  1. Shades of Red on said:

    This happened to me once as I was leaving work from my office in the Fan. Worst part, I was with my male boss. Some Richmond City employee was working on the street out front and yelled some “Hey Baby” type stuff. Normally, I must confess I don’t have a witty comeback, I vary between the ignoring and the cussing out. But with my boss there?! It was mortifying. I did the ignore but then we (boss and I) did the awkward conversation where we pretended that it hadn’t happened. I think we were both very embarassed. Also, I’ve noticed the ignore sometimes results in an increase of hostility- from inappropriate to angry- “Oh, you’re too good to talk to me? You think you’re better than me!?” What’s up with that? I’d love to hear of a good comeback from other readers!!

  2. Lindsay on said:

    This happened to me once as I was leaving my office in the Fan- city of RVA worker at his best with all the “Hey baby” type stuff. The clincher- I was with my MALE boss on the way to a meeting downtown. I was mortified. Of course, I did “the ignore” but then had this horribly awkward drive with my boss who was also pretending that hadn’t just happened! It was awful– we were both so embarrassed. I guess, normally, men don’t do that when a woman is in the company of another man. Regardless, it was horrible for both of us. I normally have two responses in my playbook- the ignore and the cuss a blue streak. Sometimes an ignore leads to an increase in hostility along the “you too good for me?” lines. WHAT TO DO!? I’d love to hear another Richmonder’s advice for a response! I’m at a loss.

  3. I prefer a nice “What the hell is wrong with you?”

  4. Tess Shebaylo on said:

    @Lindsay — Yes, I’ve noticed like a 85% reduction in cat calls when I’m with my husband, but some people still do it. I wonder what a male boss is supposed to do in that situation? Something for me to research in the etiquette world. Regarding the “you too good for me?” thing, I’ve always thought that CONTINUING TO IGNORE THEM answers their question. :) One thing about my method is that it assumes you’re only around the person for a few seconds, as you pass by or whatever. Last week when I was in a pizza shop waiting for my pizza, a guy stuck his head in the door and cat called me. Since I had to wait for my pizza and didn’t really have anywhere to run, and since he was like 4 feet away from me, I was clueless about what to do.

    @Valerie — Oh my gosh, what if they actually answered you?! Let me know if this ever happens.

  5. Sarah on said:

    yeah it’s annoying and humiliating, but the sad thing about me is…i figure i will miss it once i’m too old to get cat calls. As for a response, I really just like the smile and shaking of the head in disgust. i think it gets em.

  6. I work downtown near 3rd Street Diner and I get this all the time. I bet 80% of the time I leave the building, I’ll get comments. I find that if you look at the person directly, in the eye, and make a comment acknowledging that they are a pig, they’ll back off. I really think it’s a power thing. They are saying something to you because they are betting you’re just a little woman too afraid to say something back. That gives them a power boost. As soon as you confront them and let them know that you won’t be silent, you take their power away. Now, you obviously have to be smart about this and be as safe as possible. However, I have no fear of standing up for myself in a situation like that.

    I will usually respond with something that will catch them off-guard..maybe using a little humor depending on my mood. Something like:

    Creepy guy: Hey gorgeous…..look at the legs you got, girl. Woo!
    Me: Seriously? You obviously don’t get out much.

    Creepy guy: Girl, get your fine self over here…let me look at the way you walk.
    Me: How would you feel if someone talked to your mother, daugher or sister that way?

    Creepy guy: Can I have your number, baby?
    Me: Sure, and when you call I’ll hand the phone over to my huge, strapping 6’5” husband, who happens to be a Marine.

  7. “Wah, wah, I’m so hot, life is hard.”

  8. Regardless of if someone is hot, that doesn’t mean it’s ok to say things to them that make them feel threatened. Saying “You’re really pretty” is totally different than making sexual comments.

  9. Tess Shebaylo on said:

    @Sarah — Really, you’ll miss it? Whoa. I think that’s a good method too, though.

    @Anna — I particularly liked example #2. BRING ON THE GUILT.

    @Brando — Thanks for sympathizing with a plight that just doesn’t happen to be your own. Also, it has absolutely nothing to do with being hot. It happens to basically any woman with a heartbeat.

  10. The best moment of 2010 for me was when some drunk dude screamed a thousand things at a group of five or so girls, of which I was one, and when he finally lurched across the street to bother us more, my friend Kate demanded his wallet. “That’s right, we’re all muggers!”

    Finally he said, “I gotta be honest, y’all are freaking me out,” and lurched away. I don’t recommend trying this approach when its not five against one, like we had, but it was probably the biggest victory I have ever witnessed against catcall rudeness. Get some class, dudes.

  11. Tess Shebaylo on said:

    @Susan — Okay, THAT is amazing. I’d probably make a mistake and say “We’re all muggles!” Which might terrify him as well.

  12. Susan: I LOVE that. I’m also laughing at the “meet me at Ruth Chris at 8”.

    Not going to address the troll directly (THEY JUST WANT ATTENTION, LOOK IT’S JUST LIKE THE CATCALLERS), just going to echo what Val and Tess said about it.

    I had it happen to me by a student at my workplace once, and it threw me for such a loop, I didn’ t know what to do, but I was so angry afterwards. I decided if it happened again, I was going to make an example of him. It didn’t happen again, luckily or not.

    I usually just ignore, but if it were offensive enough I’d probably say something or give them a dirty look.

  13. @ Chairman Brando, it’s not about giving someone a compliment; it’s about power. In Holly Kearl’s street harassment book (which just got asked to be included in a college textbook) she points out that incidents that start as street harassment have escalated to assaults, rapes, even murders. And it happens to all types of women (not just “hot” ones) by all types of harassers. It paves the way for all sorts of types of gender-based violence, and it’s not ok. We have laws to protect women against sexual harassment at the office and in our homes. Why shouldn’t we also respect and protect women on our streets?

  14. I agree that this is a humiliating and infuriating experience for most women, and I’ve been using the ignore/get grumpy method for years, and that includes not paying attention to honking while on walks (so that explains why I will get hit by a car at some point in my life, probably). This kind of behavior is also why I haven’t been to Belle Isle in years.

    But, hey, at least we can vote and own property.

  15. Nandalal Rasiah on said:

    The Hollaback method is the probably the most intuitive one but I would add that, in the absence of law enforcement, going back to that person and applying a stun gun until they soil themselves is not only perfectly moral but also without the possibility of criminal charges (drunk dudes remember little but the tipple).

    The danger is that you end up broadening the scope of the safety heuristic and end up with the dreck known as the, “Schrodinger’s Rapist” method.

    oh radfems, how ye disappoint.

  16. Regarding your “staring vaguely into the distance” strategy, I must take issue and suggest that this may encourage even more aggressive behavior. I teach self-defense and have interviewed a number of women about their experiences surviving an attack. The vast minority of these crimes involved a stranger or a public place, but EVERY one of those that did had one thing in common: the victim wasn’t paying attention to her surroundings. One woman had an arm full of groceries and was distracted by an argument she had earlier. Another was tipsy and fumbling for her keys in the parking lot next to her dorm. One woman outside a library never even laid eyes on her attacker.

    I have read interviews conducted in prisons about what predators look for when choosing a victim and a number of things come up consistently; loose clothing and long hair come to mind, but the biggest determining factor was whether they thought they could get away with it. All predators go through an “interview” stage before an attack, which is designed to gauge how safe it is to proceed with their plan. For some it may be an attempt to intimidate with aggressive speech and posturing to see how a person will react. For others it’s just an approach from behind to see if they are noticed. Here’s where a little bit of confidence and awareness goes a long way: the best way to protect yourself may be as simple as making eye contact. This doesn’t mean stare the other guy down, but make enough to say, “I can identify you in a lineup.” At the very least, this suggests you are aware of their presence and may try to run, fight, or call for help, or that you will report the crime after, all of which makes it harder for an attacker to get away with it. By not acknowledging aggressive behavior and just staring off into the distance you may in fact be encouraging more aggressive behavior or worse.

    I personally like the idea of taking their picture with your phone: it’s great incentive for anyone to behave.

  17. Tess Shebaylo on said:

    @Holly — Glad I could make you laugh. :) Not sure the dirty look method would work for me, as I haven’t perfected it. I didn’t think I’d ever really need it!

    @Lauren — EXACTLY!

    @Kelly — Haha, one survival mechanism trumps another.

    @Nandalal — My husband is talking about getting me a taser, which is an interesting prospect. I agree about the Schrodinger’s Rapist thing, that you really don’t want to start living a life of paranoia and automatic suspicion. But I do agree with the article that even if you don’t truly believe / assume someone is going to harm you, you should probably act as if it’s a possibility, because you can’t read the mind of every stranger on the street. I think a lot of women who weren’t very cautious and ended up being assaulted probably wish they had been safer and more defensive. But then again, even the most cautious people in the world can still get assaulted. I guess we just have to live with that possibility and still live our lives and enjoy the world.

    @Nathan — It’s awesome to have your perspective; thanks for commenting! I should have qualified that when writing this article, I was envisioning the kind of scenario where you’re walking briskly past and some guy on a construction scaffolding hollers out at you as you pass. Stopping, figuring out exactly where he is, and making eye contact means that even though he’s not really near you, you interrupt your routine to pay attention to him. So I’m still in favor of my method for those situations. But I think that dark alley situations, or even just on the street in broad daylight, making eye contact makes sense for people entering your 15’ personal bubble.

  18. Nilla on said:

    I think you should broaden that to a 50’ personal bubble. If someone is within 15’ of you before you realize that they’re there, and they mean to do you harm, when you turn to run, chances are that person is going to catch you.

    I know that’s not what you meant – I’ve been in the situation you’re actually describing many times – but I just thought I’d mention it because some people don’t think that way until something tragic happens. “I’ll just run,” “I’ll scream,” “I can fight him off,” or “I’ll kick him in the balls” don’t always pan out.

  19. Tess Shebaylo on said:

    @Nilla — Good observation. As the comments continue, I’m thinking that self-defense may be a good topic as a feature at some point…not in my etiquette column, because that just doesn’t make sense…but as a standalone feature. Here I was just trying to tackle cat calls, rather than appropriate self-defense / awareness techniques. But I think there’s a need for that as well!

  20. Sheridan Dye on said:

    My response is to put on my best teacher voice, look them in the face, and ask, “Has this method of attracting women ever worked for you in the past?”
    they slink off, or mumble a no, but I’m prepared, should they answer yes:
    In my best casting director voice:
    “Perhaps you should lower your sights.”

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