Coping with catcalls: How some women brush off street harassment

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By Meghan Holohan

Hey, baby. You lookin' hot. Why don't you smile, sugar? What's wrong with you? Are you a ...?

Sound familiar? 

Earlier this week, TODAY's Natalie Morales shared her experience at an airport, when a complete stranger said, “With such a pretty face, you should put a smile on it.”

Her thought, “OK, creep."  

The "Why aren't you smiling? " taunt is such a pervasive unwanted experience that two women, Rachel Krant and Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, have created public awareness projects about it.

But that's almost the least of sexual come-ons and leers women have to deal with in public too often.

Some women can brush off harassment on the street or in public without a blink; for others, it ruins their day. A new study from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, gives insight on how some women cope with catcalls.

“A lot of women experience sexual objectification and body objectification and sexual advances,” says psychologist Dawn Szymanski, the study's author and associate professor. "[We wanted to know] how these experiences influence women's mental health." 

At least 65 percent of women have experienced catcalls, leers, and unwanted sexual propositions and advances, according to a survey from Stop Street Harassment

To understand the impact of street harassment, Szymanski asked 270 college-aged, heterosexual women to answer an online survey about their experiences. While most felt distressed by it, street harassment did not affect resilient women as much as it did for more vulnerable women, Szymanski says. Resilient people tend to see negative experiences as challenges instead of overwhelming barriers and find healthy social support. 

“Women who have low resiliency are more likely to internalize and self-blame,” she says. It's hard to believe, but instead of realizing that the harasser did something wrong, these women tend to blame themselves, thinking that if they did something differently, the catcalls would not have happened.  

Women shouldn't blame themselves, says Emily May, co-founder and executive director of Hollaback!, a website dedicated to ending street harassment. “It’s not about what you wear. You have the right to wear what you want and walk safely and confidently." 

“This is just men feeling like they have the right to say anything to you,” says Holly Kearl, founder of Stop Street Harassment.

May from Hollaback! and Kearl from Stop Street Harassment provide some tips on dealing with catcalls: 

Don't seethe alone

“People who told their stories online had reduced trauma,” says May.

In isolation, people believed that their street harassment experience was their own bad day, she says. After sharing, they saw it as more systemic and wanted to act. Sharing a story of street harassment with friends — or on a site like Hollaback! — can help women feel stronger after creepy experiences.  

“Sharing how we cope and how it makes us feel can be empowering,” says Szymanski.

Intervene on someone’s behalf

When people witness someone being harassed, a disapproving glance might stop it. Or people can interrupt by asking for the time or for directions, says May. Normally, this causes the harasser to stop and the victim feels supported, without a confrontation.  

People can also ask the person being harassed if she’s OK.  

“[Intervention] reduces the experience of trauma and people [know others] aren’t watching passively and accepting as normal,” May says.

The “fake friend” can also help people out of street harassment, Kearl says. Pretend to know the person and start a conversation. 

Speak up

For those who feel compelled to stand up for themselves, saying something to the aggressor such as, “How would you feel if someone talked to your mother like this?” often stops the harassment and can feel empowering, says Kearl.

For those with friends, co-workers, or family members who engage in street harassment, May suggests asking why they do it and sharing how it feels to be harassed.  

“I think that these guys have zero understanding that what they say impacts [others],” she says.