Why Do Men Catcall Women?

Three men at a house party in Columbus, Georgia, made the local news after a female lyricist outperformed them in a freestyle rap battle. The men, upset, decided to “avenge their humiliation for losing to a female” by kidnapping, gang raping, and shooting her, then setting her on fire and leaving her for dead.

This horrific incident was reported in September, but as I sat in a session at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women last month, it crossed my mind. It perfectly illustrated the speaker Rutgers University professor Dr. Charlotte Bunch’s statement: “Women face violence when they are out of the place they are ‘supposed’ to be in or when they speak on issues men think they shouldn’t.”

While the rappers’ response is extreme, we see those same attitudes play out in the rising rates of online harassment and the high incidents of violence toward women in male-dominated work fields, like the military and science, tech, engineering and math (STEM) fields. We see it in domestic violence incidents (she “deserves” it), especially when women leave the control of their abuser (up to 75 percent of abused women who were murdered were killed after they left the abuser).

We also see it in public spaces, arenas that have traditionally been male domains. Most women, especially young and/or marginalized women, face disrespectful or sexually aggressive language, stalking, flashing, groping, and other forms of assault and intimidation simply because they are there and especially when they are there alone. A 2014 nationally representative survey on gender-based street harassment in the U.S. found that two out of three women had faced some form of gender-based harassment in a public space by a stranger. A shocking nearly one in four women nationally had been purposely sexually touched or groped, one in five followed, and nearly one in ten forced to do something sexual. Other studies show that street harassment affects at least 80 percent of women in Australia, Brazil, Chile, Canada, Egypt, India and Yemen.

Women not only face harassment in public spaces just for being there, but that harassment can escalate when they protest it. Afghan artist Kubra Khademi walked down the street in Kabul in late February for eight minutes while wearing custom-made armor as a way to protest groping she had experienced in public spaces since she was a girl. Afterwards, she was forced into hiding because of death threats. Last year Mary “Unique” Spears was killed in Detroit when she refused to give the man her number. And in Berlin, Tugce Albayrak was killed for intervening when she witnessed a group of men harassing two teenage girls.

Men’s resistance to women being out of the place men want them in is strong. How can we change it?

The simple but hard answer is to focus on boys and change their attitudes toward women. The need for this is crystal clear in the new documentary “India’s Daughter” about the 2012 Delhi gang rape. In it, the rapists shared their belief that their atrocious crime was their right to carry out in order to punish Jyoti Singh for being in public without being accompanied by a man to whom she was married or related. One even said, “A girl is more responsible for rape than a boy.”

Not only is working with boys necessary, but it’s effective. Take the Nairobi-based program called “Your Moment of Truth,” run by Ujamaa Africa. They use curriculum to teach boys positive masculinity, respect for women, and tools for intervention when they witness harassment or violence. The organization leaders began the program when they found that schoolboys held beliefs that it was “legitimate to rape girls who they take on expensive dates or who are out after dark.” Before taking the class, more than 80 percent of boys said girls wearing miniskirts were “inviting boys to have sex with them.” But afterward, that dropped to 30 percent (still an alarming figure). The change in attitudes also led to a change in behavior. The number of rapes significantly decreased while the number of interventions increased after the training.

In the U.S. there are organizations like Futures without Violence, Hu_Man Up, the International Center for Research on Women, Men Can Stop Rape, and Men Stopping Violence that offer programs and tools for working with boys and young men. Because various forms of media regularly use harmful (and unoriginal) gender stereotypes and put pressure on boys to behave a certain way, the Representation Project recently released a new documentary “The Mask You Live In” about what we can do to help raise a healthier, more authentic and kind generation of men. Age-appropriate curriculum is available for all grade levels to accompany the film.

No one should be tortured or nearly killed for winning a rap battle, just like no one should be intimidated, harassed or harmed for simply occupying public space. If you agree, take a moment—especially this week during International Anti-Street Harassment Week—to talk to boys you know, support the efforts of organizations that work youth, and speak up when you hear harmful stereotypes and victim-blaming attitudes.

Holly Kearl is the founder of Stop Street Harassment and the author of the two books on street harassment. She works for the Aspen Institute, OpEd Project and UN Women.

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