Don’t Tell Me to Smile

Catcalling is more than just an annoying distraction during my walk to work in which I attempt to enjoy the little bit of fresh air that I will experience for the day.  It’s a daily reminder that as a woman I am merely an object that men are free to comment on, whistle at, and approach at will. However, it only has been recently that I began to refuse to see this as simply rude or ignorant behavior–it is blatant harassment.

The prevalence of street harassment was given much overdue attention after a video went viral that showed a woman in New York experiencing over 100 catcalls (and one stalking event) while walking for 10 hours.  The endless commentary by men of all ages and races is not about offering compliments and asserting their First Amendment rights as many claim.  It is about women, especially women of color and those who identify as LGBT, living on edge in a patriarchal society that condones gender based violence with little or no consequences for the perpretrators.

Hollaback mural

Luckily, some people are doing more than just going about their business.  Women and men throughout the world are taking action against street harassment in all its forms. Jeremy Corbin, the Labor Party frontrunner in England has suggested adding “Women Only” train cars for late night use to provide a safer commute for girls and women. Tokyo introduced these cars during rush hour and on heavily traveled lines in 2005 after groping had tripled within eight years. (NOTE: I fully understand this is not getting to the crux of the problem and it may cause increased harassment for those women on mixed gender cars.)  Tatyana Fazlalizadeh fought back through a nationwide exposition of street art and murals. Hollaback! has taken to social media to organize women internationally to share their stories and to fight street harassment in their own cities.  And has countless global resources, research, and events to combat this abuse.


Although many women, members of the LGBT community, and allies are bringing much needed attention to the problem, I only observe apathy and defensiveness from many men. Some of the men in Tokyo are quite offended by the women-only cars and believe that women are being given a special privilege by riding on less crowded trains than men. When teenage and adolescent boys in the US were confronted on camera about their behavior they quickly engaged in victim blaming. In India, street harassment is innocently known as “eve teasing.” (Chilling considering the brutal gang rape and murder of a college student riding on a bus in Delhi this year.)

But this is nothing new. As women, we are constantly being told how to protect ourselves.  Dress “modestly”. Don’t stay out late. Take a self-defense class. Buy pepper-spray. Don’t walk alone.

It is exhausting to constantly be hyper-vigilant and strategizing trips around the city in order to “protect” myself. As I listen to my pepper spray can jingle on my key chain and feel sweat on my long pant covered legs, while I precisely plan my route in the Denver heat so as to be “responsible” and “proactive”, I realize the extent to which gender based violence has invaded the precious moments of my life. As a society, we need to realize that it’s time to StreetHarassment