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 tess@rvanews.com.

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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.

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