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Catcalling: Ignore It Or Enjoy It?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. You might have checked out some of the duds the NBA superstars are sporting off the court. One of the people who helps them stay that fresh is designer Ozwald Boateng. We'll hear how the son of Ghanaian immigrants found his place on London's prestigious Savile Row; that conversation is just ahead.

But first, I want to take a trip to the Beauty Shop. That's where our panel of women writers, journalists, thinkers and activists talk about what's in the news, and what's on their minds. And today, we want to talk about something that a lot of women - and some men - have to deal with, especially now that the weather is warming up and there are more people on the street. We're talking about the whistles, the calling-out, the unsolicited comments about one's attire - you know what we mean.

For generations, women have been told to ignore it or enjoy it, that it's ultimately flattering. But now, many women are saying no, it's not flattering, and it's not harmless. It's actually verbal abuse, and it needs to be stopped.

Here to talk about this are Tracy Clayton; she's a writer and blogger at brokeymcpoverty.com and theroot.com. She's with us from Louisville, Kentucky. Holly Kearl is the founder of the nonprofit group Stop Street Harassment. She's also author of the book "Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming For Women." Here in Washington, D.C., with me is Jasmine Garsd, producer and co-host of NPR's Alt Latino; and Viviana Hurtado, blogger-in-chief of The Wise Latina Club. Welcome, ladies - welcome back, I should say.

VIVIANA HURTADO: Hi, Michel. That's a nice dress you have on.


MARTIN: Well, thank you. Thank you, mami. So I want to mention, we reached out on Facebook to ask listeners about their experiences and opinions about this. I have to tell you, it took about an hour to get a hundred - hundreds of e-mails and more than a thousand Facebook comments. I just want to play a clip - and from women and men, I do want to say; from women and men. I just want to start with a clip from a woman named Rochelle Keyhan. She lives in Philadelphia, and she's the director of a group there called Hollaback that is also aimed at ending what they call street harassment. Here it is.

ROCHELLE KEYHAN: One instance where I was taking the subway home from law school and someone was already on the subway when I got on, with his two friends, and they were, like, just making comments at me the entire time, pointing and laughing. And then when I got off the subway, one of them followed me, and he kept saying things like, don't worry, I don't bite, why aren't you going to talk to me. I can bite, if you want to. And just, like, really annoying. But he was following me also, so it was, like, crossing the line from annoying to oh my God. I just walked straight to the police station and when he realized where I was going, he stopped following me. That was pretty scary.

MARTIN: So let me ask each of you, does this represent, like, the outer edge of experiences or does this actually feel kind of like a normal day? Jasmine, what about you?

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Well, I think there's a little bit of both. You know, I think there's guys who say, hi, how are you doing or you're looking nice today, which I actually don't have a problem with that. I think that's a beautiful human interaction. But then there's the guys that make you feel embarrassed, humiliated, or just, it's just very aggressive. And that's the line that is crossed that I think makes people very uncomfortable.

MARTIN: Viviana, what about you?

HURTADO: I live in the U Street area of Washington, D.C. and so it's every single day that something like this happens, but it is in perception. And, for example, I've had somebody walk next to me and say, on the street, baby, you look as good as you smell. So he got close enough and I guess I'm glad I hadn't just worked out.

But then, just yesterday when I was walking my dog, I had somebody whistle and say, hey, shorts. There was a very big difference for me between a guy who was dapper and he was in a business suit, and he said, you smell, you know, as good as you look, and then somebody who just didn't even acknowledge that I was anything more than shorts. So that goes to perception as well and intention.

MARTIN: I don't know that I want anyone smelling me that I don't know. I'm just saying, I'm just throwing that out there, I don't know. Tracy, what about you?

TRACY CLAYTON: Well, I definitely agree, wholeheartedly - excuse me - that it's about perception because once you have enough of those experiences that do cross the line, you know, people following you down the street, people actually putting their hands on you, then, you know, when that happens enough times, then someone who approaches you, probably with very good intentions, that say that they like your hair today or you look very nice, you know, your guard is already up because you don't know where it's going to go after that.

Because unfortunately, I think there's this paranoia among women that after you get that compliment, then it's going to go somewhere else, and someone expects something from you. So, I mean, for me, it doesn't matter which happens more often 'cause I kind of prepare for the worst anyway.

MARTIN: Holly, what about you?

HOLLY KEARL: For me, interactions on the street need to be gender-neutral and not commenting on how I look for it to be a compliment to me. I think that our culture is very much focused on telling women and girls, from a young age, that our value is in how we look, and to have that reinforced on the street by men commenting on how we look, whether it's positive or negative, I think is really damaging and is not the kind of message that I think young girls and women should experience. And, you know, in the research that I've done, street harassment starts really young. Of more than 800 women, almost one in four were experiencing harassment by age 12. And so I think that's really, really problematic.

MARTIN: So you're saying that if somebody says to you - if you were walking your dog and somebody said your dog is cute, and you've realized that person would say that to a man, as well as a woman - or I like your dog, or your dog is friendly...

KEARL: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Or I like your briefcase, right, then you feel like that's an acceptable interaction? But if it's something that you think you would not say to a man, that that's what, kind of, is the line, Holly?

KEARL: Yeah, for me that is, and I can give an example. So I'm a runner and so I experience so much harassment when I'm out running. And a few times, you know, people have said things like, oh, you're looking strong or, you know, you have a really strong stride. And both women and men have said that, and I felt like that's a compliment because that's about my achievement and me as an athlete.

But when people comment on - someone said to me, I like the way your tits bounce when you run. You know, that's clearly very offensive and not something that I want to hear. Or when I'm running and I hear whistles and honks, you know, 10 times in an hour, that's very annoying, that's very disrespectful and men don't have to deal with it at that kind of level.

MARTIN: Yeah. And I don't think people in carpool want to hear that word either. Holly, thank you. I understand your point, appreciate it. But to your point, Holly, just one more thing just to tie a bow on this - your view is that you feel that this kind of boundary-crossing sets women up. It's almost like it's training them to accept their boundaries being breached, right, that you should accept being spoken to in a certain way. Do you see what I'm saying? Is that what you're saying, you think it's kind of like...

KEARL: Yes, yes.

MARTIN: ...Cultural conditioning that you are required to listen to this kind of stuff and...

KEARL: Right.

MARTIN: You have to take it, that sort of thing?

KEARL: And I think that men are taught that women want to hear that and so some of the scary harassment really happens when, maybe a man says something to a woman or a girl and she ignores him or just doesn't give him the response that he thinks he deserves, and then he gets angry and says well, you're not all that anyway or - I guess I won't say any of the other terms they would say.

MARTIN: Yeah, let's not. We kind of get what you're saying.

KEARL: Or would follow them or, you know, I've heard so many stories from women who have men chase them or throw trash at them.

MARTIN: Well, in fact, Tracy, you had an experience like that of somebody who dropped - tried to drop a book on you because you wouldn't return - from like five stories up because you wouldn't respond to his entreaties or whatever they were.

If you're just joining us, we're having our Beauty Shop roundtable with writer Tracy Clayton, journalist Jasmine Garsd, writer Viviana Hurtado, and activist Holly Kearl. We're talking about what many activists now consider street harassment, that calling out to people on the street, particularly women. But now I just want to give another perspective on this. This is a clip from a woman we heard from named Kristin Sergeant (ph) and this is her perspective. Here it is.


KRISTIN SERGEANT: When I'm complimented in the street, that doesn't bother me, I wouldn't consider that harassment. Recently, I was traveling in New Orleans and after a hot day of sightseeing I wasn't feeling my best. I stepped off a curb and I almost got run over by a guy on a bike. My response was to jump back, smile, and excuse myself as he swerved. His response was, girl give me that smile again. I couldn't help myself, I laughed. I had almost been run over and yet the whole situation was so pleasant.

MARTIN: Now, Kristin says she shared this story on another social media site and she got a lot of people who are mad at her, saying that she lacks self-esteem and that she was enabling street harassment. So, Viviana, I want to get your perspective on this. What do you think?

HURTADO: Well, it's something that Jasmine and I were actually talking about right before we walked in, because both Jasmine and I are Latin American. I was born here to Latin American immigrants, Jasmine is Argentinean. And, at least culturally speaking, in Latin America there is - the relationship between men and women is different. Not to say that machismo culture is one hundred percent clean of its issues, it's not. And not to say that harassment and rape culture does not exist, it does.

But at least there is a dynamic that's different. I think we need to talk about power when we're thinking about the relationship between men and women. And I grew up in a household where women embraced their femininity and where it is very common for men, whether it was my dad, whether it was my brother, whether it were my uncles, my male cousins, to compliment a woman. It was seen as something that is no different then if I were to return it to a man, well, you look very nice today, too. So I do think that, again, going back to what I was saying, what is the intention of a man. Is the intention of a man to say, you look nice and that's it, or is it dot, dot, dot.

MARTIN: Now, Tracy, what do you think?

CLAYTON: Well, in my personal experience it almost always is dot, dot, dot. And I think that in my conversations with men, a lot of them don't understand how a woman could get upset at somebody telling them they look nice today or to ask them to smile. And my answer to that is, you know, you don't know what kind of day somebody's having, you know, and also, it's my face. If I don't want to smile at you that should be okay.

And there's also this idea that a woman who is not in the mood to respond to a man in the way that she wants, oh well, she's a misandrist. She is - she has no home training, as we like to say down here in the south. And I think there's definitely this dynamic of, there must be something wrong with you if you don't like this sort of attention.

MARTIN: Holly, what do you think about this? Does it matter what the intention of the person is making the remarks. Does it matter whether what the age of the person is? Like, for example, if the person is close in age to the person he or she is talking to. What do you think?

KEARL: Yeah, just from my research, that definitely makes a big difference. So if there's a big age gap that can make something - the same statement seem very creepy and scary to someone then if it is said by someone around the same age. So yeah, context does play a big role.

MARTIN: But what about the issue that these ladies have surfaced here, the culture issue. Do you buy that, if people come from a culture where they feel like, well, people talk to women on the street and that's okay. Is that okay? Holly?

KEARL: Yeah, I think that's a really hard question, you know, street harassment, I think, at its core is when people don't - aren't able to give consent to an interaction. So I think that as long as someone does feel like they're able to give consent then that's fine and, again, just me personally I feel like that, the imbalance where it's mostly men saying things mostly to women, I feel like that contributes to, you know, rape culture and gender inequality. But, you know, in a more general level, I think as long as consent is given and taken and the interaction ends when both people want it to end, then that's fine.

MARTIN: I have another comment that I wanted to read from a woman named Kutsia Jafri (ph) and she is a Muslim-American woman. She lives in Maryland and she wrote to us to say, catcalling and such is often associated with short hemlines and cleavage and ultimately something a woman, quote-unquote, must have asked for by calling attention to herself by showing skin. You won't see a lot of Muslim women or women of faith, in general, walking around showing a lot of skin, but you can bet that we have to deal with the same sort of street harassment as any other woman, and unquote.

Jasmine, so she's saying, look, I don't think it has to do with what you're wearing or it's not complimentary, it really is a power interaction. That's what I heard from her comment. What do you think?

GARSD: Well, I think, yeah, I've been catcalled in some pretty horrible sweatpants. But I think there is definitely a power element. And I really do believe that there's - it's context, like Viviana said. I mean, there is a cultural thing and I do think there is a difference between saying you look nice and someone saying something that is absolutely a power thing, absolutely trying to get off on making you feel either insecure or unsafe.

MARTIN: So what should we do about this? I mean, let's just talk about the kinds of interactions that people find unwelcome. I mean, this for so long we've all been told that you just have to ignore it, learn to live with it, or drive everywhere, you know, roll up your windows, you know, don't walk, that sort of thing. So let's talk about it, have you found - are there effective strategies for addressing things that you find are unwelcome, that you don't like, Viviana?

HURTADO: I think it depends on the context. If you feel that you're in danger, I think getting in somebody's face and saying, why are you saying this to me, how dare you speak in this tone to me, could be dangerous. So I think you have to think about context. I recently had a situation where, again, I was walking my dog and a kid came up to me, probably 17 or 18 years old. I just thought he was going to ask me the time and he signaled down to his privates and then he walked away. And he walked into a building that belongs to an institution.

So what I did was, I walked straight into that building and demanded to speak with the security guard and then I filed a police complaint. I was able to do that. Now, look, if I was walking my dog and it was - and I'm passing by an alley and somebody says something and there's a possibility that I could be dragged into that alley, I don't know if I'm going to say something. I think I might just keep going and get away and to safety as soon as possible.


GARSD: To me, also, when somebody says something that could be interpreted as harmless like hello, good morning, you look nice, I make sure to answer really assertively, thank you, or good morning to you, you look nice as well. So that I'm just not establishing myself in this position of I'm so scared and I'm so vulnerable. I make it an adult conversation.

MARTIN: Holly, what about you? You've spent a lot of time thinking about this, obviously.

KEARL: Yeah, I think that, as everyone is saying, the context really matters and a lot of times, harassers interact with you in a way where they definitely have the upper hand and it can be very scary. So I think that everyone needs to keep safety in mind. But when you do feel safe, often, having some sort of a response that surprises them can be so effective, because it stuns them, it stops this interaction, and hopefully it makes them think twice about harassing someone else.

MARTIN: Like what? Give an example.

KEARL: Sure, so repeating loudly what they've said if there's people around or asking them to repeat themselves. Something that's worked for me is just saying, don't harass me or don't harass women. And that seems so straightforward, but every guy that I've said that to has been really surprised and, sort of, dumbfounded that I've, you know, named what they are doing and I said, don't do it.

MARTIN: Tracy, what about you?

CLAYTON: Well, I think that I have a bit of a process where I have to kind of steel myself before I leave my apartment. And, you know, I've got my headphones in place, hoping that if somebody sees me walking down the street with headphones, they won't say anything. I have a very, very vicious, mean look that I will pull out when the headphones don't work. And usually, neither of those things work. But as it was said earlier...

MARTIN: Worth a shot though.

CLAYTON: ...You know, I give it my best shot every time. But it really does matter, the situation that these encounters are happening in. If I'm in a dark alley and there's a big scary man talking to me, you know, I'm not going to choose that time to say, hey Mister, you know, this is wrong. But I have actually had some times where I've had discussions with men who, with the best of intentions I'm assuming, have stepped to me and I would just be like, you know what guy, I'm not really in the mood for it today.

You know what - or I would ask, you know, what kind of response were you expecting? Okay, here's why you're not going to get this response and please think about that next time. But, I mean, generally, I just try to, you know, just press through it and get to where it is that I am going.

MARTIN: Talking helps. All right. Well, thank you all so much for talking about it here, even though I know it's not the easiest subject to talk about, so thank you all so much. Holly Kearl is the author of "Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming For Women." She joined us by phone from New Orleans. Tracy Clayton is a writer and blogger with us from Louisville Public Media in Kentucky. Here in our Washington D.C. studios, Viviana Hurtado, blogger-in-chief at The Wise Latina Club. And Jasmine Garsd, producer and co-host of NPR's Alt Latino. Ladies, thank you all so much.

GARSD: Thank you, Michel.

KEARL: Thank you.

HURTADO: Thank you.

CLAYTON: Thank you.

MARTIN: Just ahead, Ozwald Boateng is as famous for his own personal style as he is for dressing Hollywood royalty. We'll find out what the statesmen of cool wears to his own interviews. That's coming up next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.