Isn't It Just Harmless Flirting?
Nope. Just nope.
Behavior and jokes that are demeaning are not flirting. The catcaller who says "hey beautiful", the dad who talks about "women drivers", the boy who snaps your bra strap are all homing in on gender, employing power and stereotypes that chip away at girls' sense of safety and self-esteem.
Many of us grew up believing this was flirting or at least a normal part of girlhood and something girls just had to deal with in their lives. It has taken years for our culture to realize it’s not normal or acceptable, and it’s certainly not flirting.
Flirting is welcome attention. It goes both ways, and both people enjoy it. We all want our desirability affirmed and flirting can do that. That's especially true for teenagers whose sexuality is just beginning to bloom. And maybe in particular for teen girls who have come to understand their sexuality is often counted as their single most important quality. Flirting can be a great thing.
Sexual harassment, on the other hand, makes you feel icky, embarrassed, angry, helpless and/or hopeless. If you’ve asked the person to stop, or you’re not in a position to do so because you worry about the consequences (a bad grade, being alienated by kids at school, getting fired), and they continue, then it’s harassment. And it’s illegal.
Photo by Antonio Guillem
Flashlighting or Gaslighting?
Despite the major advance in laws against sexual harassment, women are still not taken seriously and are frequently told they are too sensitive, that they lack a sense of humor, or are acting like the “PC Police”.
Sowing seeds of doubt by manipulating someone’s sense of reality is called gaslighting. When we shine a light on a particularly troubling social phenomenon, we are often gaslighted. Girls and women who complain about being harassed are made to think their feelings and concerns are petty, not legitimate, all in their heads, or their fault. This is crazy-making. Teach your kids about gaslighting. Tell them their gut feelings are important and, in some cases, life-saving.
Catcalling: Why are compliments not always compliments?
Smile baby! You’re hot! Marry me beautiful! While these words, often from perfect strangers, may sound like compliments, they rarely feel like it. Girls who hear these commands from boys or men as they walk down the street often find they freeze momentarily, and try to pretend they didn’t hear. Being commanded to do something is a power play and the object is to dominate. (I’m almost positive no woman has ever turned around and said “cool, I’ll go home with you now,” yet men continue to catcall).
Girls can't know the intentions of these words and creepy stares so, instinctually, many girls feel scared. In addition to being scary, it is also insulting because commenting on someone’s body, objectifies them. As former First Lady Michele Obama put it, such comments made her feel as if “my body were their property, as if I were a object to be commented on instead of a full human being with thoughts and feelings of my own”.
Compliments and endearing names like sweetie and baby are often followed by “you fuckin’ bitch” or “you know you want it” if you don’t respond. Recently, I was walking alone to my favorite cafe to work on this website when a guy I didn’t see and certainly didn’t know started hissing at me: “Baby…hey baby…baby”. (Unless you’re my intimate partner, please do not call me baby. Ever.) Doing my best to ignore him and appear unrattled, I walked on and heard him say in a loud, friendly voice to a man passing in the opposite direction “What’s up, boss?” Fascinating, isn’t it, that I was the recipient of creepy voice and infantilization, and the dude got non-threatening voice and referred to as, literally, someone in charge?
So how should we (or our daughters) respond to catcalls? There's no one right way. It depends on your personality and your level of safety at the time of the occurrence, but this article, How To Safely Respond To Catcalling, Because It's A Major Problem expounds on these approaches you can take to your kids:
1. Respond Firmly
2. Make It Weird
3. Go Viral
4. Be Blunt
5. Fake A Phone Call
6. Say Thanks
7. Say What
8. Show Compassion
9. Ignore It