Challenging cat-callers preserves female agency

Chelsea Boushka

According to a national survey by nonprofit organization Stop Street Harassment, 65 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment. The most common responses are passive — ignoring the harassment, walking away — but these types of reactions are problematic.

A 2008 study showed that passive response strategies are associated with significantly higher rates of self-objectification — valuing yourself based on physical desirability and feeling shame over imperfection. Self-objectification is associated with depression, anxiety and eating disorders. The study hypothesized that active responses don’t have the same harmful impacts because rejecting the harasser’s objectification makes it easier to not internalize. We clearly need to use active methods that preserve our sense of autonomy when dealing with harassment.

So what do these active responses look like? It could be reporting the harassers, telling a friend about your experience or filming the harassment. Interpersonal communications professor John Daly says other active responses can happen internally. He has helped customer service employees deal with offensive clients by learning to mentally distance themselves.

“It gave them a sense of control,” Daly said.

This same effect is accomplished in the street-harassment scenario by engaging in a self-talk that negates the objectification. You might focus, for example, on how pathetic your harasser comes across.

Additionally, Daly referenced research by social psychologist Amy Cuddy on the psychological effects of power posing, saying, “Don’t walk away head-down. Walk away head-up.”

Anything that helps you feel empowered is helpful. Beth Quinn, a sociology professor at Montana State University, conducted a study on sexual harassment in the workplace which upset the notion that harassers can’t see their behavior as demeaning. She determined they can clearly see its harm when forced to contemplate it from a woman’s perspective. The reason they continue the harassment is simply because they don’t care enough to take women’s sides.

Knowing this is where the problem lies, we can tailor our responses to address the harasser’s apathy. This would work in situations where danger is less immediate, like a workplace or a party. If you want to confront your harasser, more effective responses are ones that motivate them to see you as a fellow human being, so restructure the interaction to subjectify yourself. Shake their hand, exchange names and have a short conversation with them. It’s harder to objectify someone when you’re forced to see as a human being.

After a personal interaction like this, asking, “Why did you say that to me earlier?” or, “How would you feel if your sister or mother was spoken to like that?” would likely be better received. All these responses aim to disarm the harasser because you’re responding in a way they don’t expect.

Whether you are resisting through self-talk or direct conversation, what really matters is how it makes you feel. You are not responsible for others’ harassment, and you cannot change a person in a two-minute conversation. Whether you decide to walk away from your harasser or confront them, what matters most is that you feel in control.

Boushka is a psychology sophomore from El Paso.