How to Respond to Harassment at Work, On the Street, and Everywhere Else When the Cat(caller)'s Got Your Tongue
Years ago at work, a few managers and I were idly chatting in a tiny office while we waited for a coworker to join our meeting. I was sitting in a chair with my back to the door when suddenly I felt pressure on my shoulders. The other manager had stepped in and immediately, inexplicably, began giving me a back massage. My mind and body went slack and all I could think about was...my cat. This is how Fries feels when he doesn’t want to be held but I pick him up and give him a little squeeze anyway. After what felt like five whole minutes, somebody broke the spell with a quip about calling HR. But, as Freud says, there are no jokes, and in the days that followed, I felt uncomfortable about the incident. And I’m still angry with myself: Why couldn’t I come up with the words to stop that scenario?
I’m constantly inspired by courageous women who are raising their voices and taking risks to expose harassment and objectification. Last month a woman taped herself enduring unwanted catcalls as she walked around New York for 10 hours. Around the same time, a bevy of women stepped forward to bring allegations against a certain beloved Canadian radio host. Last summer, Senator Kristen Gillibrand revealed that her political male peers subjected her to sexist remarks. Also, all year, Beyoncé.
But despite the brave demonstrations, my friends and I often discuss our struggle with delivering the right response when we bear the brunt of a catcall on the street or off-the-cuff objectification at work. It’s like someone sneezes unsavory words or actions on us and it isn’t until the offender is long gone and the sticky droplets have settled onto our skin that the stupor wears off and we regret not having said something then and there. (“Nice comeback,” my seventh-grade self taunts.) Funny how that works: Somebody mistreats us, and we’re the ones knocked off our game.
I spoke to several women about such experiences. Chelsea, a Social Media and Marketing Manager in her late 20s, had never responded to catcallers before. However, early in October, after an evening at a bar three blocks from her New York City apartment, Chelsea's walk home was interrupted by two men hurling offensive comments at her across the street.
“One started yelling 'Hey mama' and ‘Come give it to me.’ The usual. When I ignored them, it progressed into ‘Whatever, you have a fat f*cking ass.’ There were plenty of people in sight, so I crossed the street and went right up to him. Boy, was he surprised that I had the gall to do that," she says. "I said, ‘You have no idea what it’s like to be a woman, to live in New York, to deal with this every day. Who do you think you are? What gives you the right to talk to me like this? What would your mother say if she knew you spoke to me like that?’ His friend stood there, shocked, silent and staring at his friend shamefully. The guy then responded, ‘Shut up and put my dick in your mouth,’ and then reached for my crotch. I backed away, disgusted, tearing up and realizing I’d made no difference.”
Women are cracking the ceiling glass and leaning into the world. We are finding the words to express and defend ourselves. We are making feminism cool. So, it’s a tough pill to swallow when standing up to street harassment doesn't so much as bring a douchebag to redemption, much less clear the cache of the sexism ingrained in our cultural hard drive.
“When women reject street harassment or refuse to ‘smile,’ there's a push to put them in their place and an anger that they are not being perfectly objectified," Jae Cameron, Program Associate at the anti-street-harassment organization Hollaback, tells Bustle. "We often joke internally that someone saying ‘smile’ on the street to a stranger is actually saying 'perform your gender for me.’ The anger when you say ‘no’ highlights how difficult it is to dismantle individual harasser's sense of entitlement over women’s bodies.”
The expectation of access to our bodies isn’t only a “street” problem. It seeps into the workplace, where we constantly step on stealth truth bombs that remind us that exceeding our professional goals will not matter if we do not please the gaze of our male office-dwellers while doing so.
Last spring Claire, a 28-year-old writer, started a new job tutoring junior high and high school students at a Pittsburgh tutoring center. For a few weeks she shadowed a seasoned coworker. He had seniority and took it upon himself to offer out-of-the-blue advice within proximity of a student.
"He told me, 'You dress like a librarian but not the sexy kind.' I was taken aback by it. I was wearing a knee-length skirt, blouse and pair of ballet flats. He continued, saying my shoes made my feet look big and that my legs would look better in heels. At the time I didn't say much of anything except 'Oh, really?' but I was self-conscious about what I wore to work for after that because I felt like I looked dowdy," Claire says. "It took awhile for me to be like 'Wait, what the hell? Who cares if people think you look dowdy?' Looking sexy is the last thing I want to do at my job. I work one-on-one with minors!"
She got the chance to respond about a month later, when her coworker called her to get feedback on some writing he had sent to her. The topic turned to feminism, and it was a natural segue into telling him that his unsolicited comment on her appearance had made her uncomfortable.
"His first reaction was to mansplain, 'Well, I just think that you could be dressing to your figure better.' I told him it was a weird comment to make to a person period, much less a tutor working with minors," she says. "He apologized but then took it into a totally different direction, saying he was offended when a student told him that he looked like a character from the film Big Fat Liar. In the end, I didn't feel like I got a resolution, but I'm glad I said something."
Whether it's a power play or ignorant move, commenting on women's appearances in the workplace is a form of harassment cloaked in a compliment or misguided advice. Chauntelle Tibbals, Ph.D., a sociologist specializing in gender, sexuality, and work and organizations, thinks it may stem from the false belief that we're living in a post-feminist society.
“People still think we achieved and have managed to maintain gender equality since the ‘70s and ‘80s, so they claim it’s no longer an issue," Tibbals tells Bustle. "First off, gender inequalities still exist in virtually every corner of society. Second off, in believing or claiming that gender equality has been achieved, people may rationalize harassment as niceness, jocularity or advice. This is problematic as it perpetuates inequalities behind a veil of egalitarianism. At least in the ‘70s people were honest about being sexist assholes.”
All that said, then, what is the value of our individual micro-responses? Is it worth figuring out what to say and taking a risk to voice them? Do they make a difference when we stack them all up? I can't help but wonder: Is there a point?
“Yes! Every exchange is a potential teaching moment. Every delicate-but-direct exchange contributes to the wider conversation," Tibbals says. "Even the tiniest step forward is still a step forward. Misunderstandings can be repaired, but outright harassment will never stop on its own."
Cameron agrees. “As more and more people tell their story, the culture shifts. On an individual level, even telling your friends and family that street harassment is real is revolutionary. On a community level, as more of us speak up, we cannot be ignored. Movements start simply with people sharing their stories.
Of course, responding to harassment is a personal decision, and your first priority is to consider your safety in any given scenario. Don't hesitate to GTFO if you sense danger.
If you want to respond but feel like the cat got your tongue (trust, I can relate), I spoke with experts to create an unofficial, evolving script we can use when we face a variety of icky situations. By no means a definitive guide, this is merely a suggestion of direct, firm, and unapologetic lines to keep in your back pocket should you need to fling one at someone on the fly.
And they aren't witty or cute. I've always tended to laugh and rattle off a clever insult or self-deprecating comment, but I'd advocate that we drop the “play it cool” and “nice girl” acts when it's possible. They play into the stereotype of women being people-pleasers or "performing our gender." At least for me, making jokes always promoted more uncomfortable behavior because the offender assumed I was engaging in banter. For better or for worse, the experience will empower you and one day add up to something bigger.
Situation 1: The lewd catcaller.
Real-Life Example: “I had just moved to New York and some frat boy riding in a Jeep yelled, ‘I want to come on your face.’” -Antonia, 26
What to say: The Hollaback playbook (a great resource for more responses) suggests that you look the offender in the eye and denounce the specific behavior in a strong voice. Some suggestions on what to say:
- "Do not comment on my body, that is harassment."
- "Do not stare at me like that, that is harassment."
- "That is not OK."
- "Don’t speak to me like that."
Situation 2: Gross public transit-taker.
Real-Life Example: “I was taking a crowded subway car to work when a stranger pulled up behind me and basically nestled his penis into the back of my pants.” -Annie, 41
What to say (very loudly):
"Stop touching me now. That is harassment."
Situation 3: Coworker under the guise of a compliment or friendly suggestion, comments on your appearance in a professional setting.
Real-Life Example: “You look so hot in your new Facebook photo! Why don’t you wear makeup/skirts/your hair down more often?” - Composite experience from most women, ages 25-35, I spoke to.
What to say: Ask yourself if this is something that's likely to continue. If so, it's worth not brushing it off. Express yourself with confidence.
- "It isn’t in my job description to please you with my appearance."
- "I’m not here to please your gaze."
- "Don’t be That Guy who comments on a woman’s appearance at work."
Situation 3: Repeat the above scenario except replace the middle-management minion with your department’s head honcho—the person who holds your potential for advancement in his crummy, probably clammy, hands.
Real-Life Example: “A Department of Education superintendent asked me why I wasn’t married, and said, ‘For God’s sake, get moving on that. What’s wrong with you?’” -Emily, 34
What to say: Look, dealing with upper management is tricky. I asked Beth Livingston, Ph.D., assistant professor at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, to break it down. "Women have worked so hard to be 'part of the group' and the fear of retaliation, like being blamed for being a stick in the mud or losing rapport, often silences them. However, there are options:
- Confide in a work mentor, who may have insight on shutting it down within your office's particular dynamics. You may also discover he (or she) is a serial offender, and there's a better chance of succeeding if you file a formal complaint that HR has heard before.
- Pointing out the absurdity of the comment may stop those who assume they are dishing out nice compliments: "Did you tell [enter male coworker's name] how great his legs looked today?"
- Go direct. "It is often the best way to respond, but it doesn't mean you won't experience backlash," says Livingston. Assertive responses ("That makes me feel uncomfortable and lose focus on work.") are important if you plan to take legal action because you established the "attention" was unwanted. (We know, we know. But — law.)
Situation 4: Two words that should never reside next to each other: Handsy. Coworker.
Real-Life Example: “A VP who had a reputation of being a letch tried to spank me on my last day on the job. All I did was quickly move out of the way of his hand and yell ‘Whoa!’” -Andrea, 35
What to say:
"Well, that's making me and everyone else feel uncomfortable. Please don't touch me."
Situation 5: Boss or coworker makes a stupid racist comment.
Real-Life Example: “My boss told me I was an 'Oprah' kind of black person.” -Meg, 36
What to say: In Hear Me Roar: How to Defend Your Mind, Body & Heart Against People Who Suck, co-authors Jennifer Cassetta and Lindsey Smith suggest embedding the question as you ask someone to clarify (and make them feel like an ass in the process).
- "I just heard you say that [enter offensive comment]? Well that sounds to me like an offensive comment. Is that what you meant?"
Situation 6: Lothario-Gone-Loco on OkStupid.
Real-Life Example: 9:59 p.m.: “Hey baby, I think I should buy you a drink.” 11:47 p.m.: “What, you’re too good to go out with me? You’re just an ugly dumb bitch anyway.” -Angela, 31
What to say: You could reply with earnestness (“That is extremely disrespectful. Men and women are entitled to respond to or ignore internet messages at their own discretion.”) or sarcasm (“Your mother must be proud.”) But why engage this guy?
Block. Delete. Move on.
Situation 7: Strangers pet your pregnant belly and offer you unsolicited comments and advice on your pregnancy.
Real-Life Example: “This lady would not stop talking to me about all the stuff I need to be doing right now, like belly banding and kegels.” - excerpt from a recent Washington Post essay by Bobby McMahon.
What to say:
- "My pregnancy is between me and my doctor."
- "I don’t discuss my body with strangers."
Situation 8: A social acquaintance acts inappropriately, even within view of his or your partner.
Real-Life Example: “My husband’s coworker was super touchy-feely with all of his friends' wives. He would greet me by kissing me on the lips, and once he felt me up at a music festival. I stopped joining events when I knew he would be there.” -Jan, 33
What to say: In addition to limiting the time you spend with this person, end the interaction immediately, saying "That makes me uncomfortable, and you are being disrespectful."
Get ready for varied reactions, and not all of them negative. If you can get one harasser to question his words, consider your point of view and maybe even stop doing such things with anyone else, it will have made a difference. One of the reasons my silence frustrated me when I was “handled” at work is because he was a friend. I think, had I said something, he may have understood.