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COUTO: Men should be aware of impact of ‘catcalls’

Opinions Column: Through the Looking Glass

Recently, it seems like every morning new allegations about sexual misconduct committed by a high-profile man alight the day’s tabloids and bombard our Twitter feeds. Finally, women are speaking up against the oppression and humiliation they are forced to face day in and day out. Finally, we are using our voices to fight for a cause that really boils down to basic human decency — a trait that is clearly lacking in several people (particularly of the male variety, if the news is any indication). Although I could use the next several hundred words to praise women and the recent trend in exposure of sexual predators, to do so would mean ignoring another issue altogether: the everyday street harassment women are subjected to, whether it be on their way to work, school or a night out with friends. Whatever time of day, no matter what kind of clothes we wear, it is an unfortunate circumstance that continues to pervade our society. 

CNN reporter Emily Smith writes that according “to a survey that Cornell University conducted with Hollaback! in New York City, 60 percent of reported incidents of sexual harassment happened on the street. A further 22 percent happened on public transportation or in terminals.” After reading these statistics, one is likely to question why stricter measures have not been imposed to end this impropriety. But the solution to such an issue is a tad more complicated than expected, as noted by Smith: “Part of the problem lies in how the general public defines sexual harassment in public spaces. At work, there is a government-approved definition: ‘unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.’ There are rules to be followed, departments to hear grievances and punishments issued to offenders. But out on the street, or on public transportation, that line is blurred or nonexistent. What may sound like a simple hello to some can come across as threatening to a woman trapped in a train car.” Put another way, it is extremely disturbing that this is what society has come to. Men have become so untrustworthy in certain cultures that a “simple hello” to “a woman trapped in a train car” can easily be perceived as a threat, as opposed to a friendly stranger who wants to engage in conversation. Some may claim that women need to “lighten up” and stop seeing every advance as a threat, or that most men do not approach with harmful intentions. While that may be true, it does not change the fact that women cannot possibly know whether every man they cross paths with is really “one of the good guys.” Hence, as we have been taught by our mothers and their mothers before them — better safe than sorry. In other words, women must always exercise caution, whether it is in the street, the workplace or sometimes even in their own homes. 

As a result, women have resorted to clever and discreet methods to fight back against harassers. One example is a group called Hollaback! — “an international organization that's trying to end street harassment using crowdsourcing,” which Smith said creates a platform for women to post their stories and pictures to the website. "The theory is that the more publicized street harassment is, the less likely it is to occur. Posts are carefully screened and most of the faces of alleged perpetrators are blurred. Hollaback! uses that information to lobby for greater public safety, be it more street lamps and emergency phones, or increased police presence,” Smith said. 

But, while organizations such as Hollaback! are incredibly helpful, the fact that we even need groups and strategies dedicated to protecting women against harassment is extremely problematic. Women should not have to be on their guard 24/7. Women should not need “creative solutions” to “avoid” or “protect themselves” against sexual predators. 

It is time the harassers stop the harassing, whether it is in the streets, the workplace, the home and everywhere. It is appalling that in the year 2017 women are still treated as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male gaze when all they want to do is cross the street to get a coffee. No, we do not take your catcalls or whistles as compliments. And no, we should not be “flattered” by the “attention” because believe it or not, a woman’s worth does not lie with her physical appearance. And frankly, it makes most of us uncomfortable, frustrated, upset and sometimes scared. So please, next time you feel the urge to “hey baby” a random woman minding her own business, think about how it would make you feel if you were the one too afraid to cross the street because it could potentially lead to an encounter that violates your personal space, safety and the principles of basic human decency. 

Ana Couto is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in English and journalism and media studies. Her column, "Through the Looking Glass," runs on alternate Mondays.


*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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