Street Harassment: What Men Can Learn

Generic image (Thinkstock)
Generic image (Thinkstock)

(The Root) — 1. "Smile, girl."

2. "God bless you."

3. "Slow down, I really wanna get to know you."

4. "Hey, beautiful."

5. "What that mouth do?"

If you know that one of these expressions is not like the others, you're a regular guy (correct answer is No. 2). If you can spot the most offensive phrase in this group, you're probably a good man (correct answer is No. 5). If you have said any of the other phrases (Nos. 1, 3 or 4), you're probably a man who considers himself a gentleman. You're the type who would never disrespect a woman. Whenever you tell a woman who's passing you by that she's beautiful, you're paying her a compliment, and there's no harm in that, right?

As a man, I am apt to agree. But you're not talking to me; you're talking to her. However well-intended your words may be, however respectful you think you are, your words are usually falling on exhausted ears. Ears that have heard it all before and hear it everyday.

Whether it's with our admiring eyes or with our words, women are fed up.

And gentlemen, they are talking bad about us.

We're perpetrators of street harassment. We don't have any home training. We don't know how to respect women. And what may be the biggest offense of them all: Our game is utterly and completely wack and unoriginal.


Now, I know what some men are going to say: These women have attitude problems. They can't take a compliment. If we all looked like Idris Elba, they would not be saying we're harassers.

Unfortunately, with the exception of maybe Idris Elba himself, no one can tell these women they're wrong.

My average for successfully approaching random women in public spaces is about .500. If I were a baseball slugger with those types of numbers, I would be in the hall of fame. Which is to say, I have done pretty well.

When I have been unable to engage a woman, I've backed off immediately. That's the gentlemanly thing to do. It's also ego — the only thing more embarrassing than the first rejection is a second rejection by the same woman.


Fortunately this has kept me out of that muddy area known as street harassment.

One of my biggest concerns about the street-harassment discussion is how one-sided it has become. Women have taken the lead, and rightfully so, considering they are the victims of street harassment most of the time. Hollaback, an organization against street harassment that was founded by three men and one woman, says on its website, "particularly men are unaware of the frequency and severity of disrespect that numerous folks, especially women, experience in public spaces."


There's Hanna Price, who took it upon herself to turn her camera lens on men who said something to her while she was out in public. The images of the men — all black — are telling. Tatayana Fazlalizadeh, a black woman living in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, N.Y., has waged a public guerilla-style art series entitled "Stop Telling Women to Smile." Fazlalizadeh  paints images of young women's responses to things they have heard from men in public spaces. One of them is "My name is not 'Baby.' " Holly Kearl is the founder of Stop Street Harassment, a nonprofit organization that addresses gender-based street harassment around the world.

I see behavior like this from all sorts of men, uptown in Harlem where I live or at construction sites in midtown Manhattan. I laugh at the men's attempts, not because they're rude (they are) but because I know they won't work.


The problem is when the behavior of these men spills over to those of us who are looking for more meaningful relationships. I know that as a man, if I want to meet a woman, I have to be the "aggressor." This is what all young men are taught. We have to go up to a woman we don't know and initiate conversation. I think I know how to approach women. I also know what it means to be a misogynist or a male chauvinist, and I try to avoid exhibiting any behavior that would garner me such labels. Yet I've had women say they didn't want to hear phrases I used because those, too, constituted a softer form of street harassment.

Certainly listening to what kind of experiences women endure on a daily basis helps us better understand what they're going through. But men need to be part of this discussion. Just like we offer each other tips on how to pick up women, we should also be sharing tips on how to avoid offending women, and a good place to start would be with empathy through experience.


"One of the best things men can do to work against street harassment is talk to other men," says Relando Thompkins, who sits on the board of directors of Stop Street Harassment. As a resident of Detroit, he talks to a lot of men who gripe about the responses they get from women, and he tries to make them understand that what she finds offensive is not up to him. "Just like a white person can't tell me what I find offensive in terms of race relations, I can't tell a woman what's offensive."

In my conversation with Thompkins, he compared men who holler at woman to police who engage in stop and frisk. Whatever benefit the New York Police Department claims from its stop-and-frisk programs, numerous studies and statistics have shown it targets men of color more than any other group, thus making an already complicated relationship between the police and black and brown communities more fraught.


"My experiences with racism have helped me become increasingly aware of others who have to deal with oppression of any sort because of targeted identities," said Thompkins, referring to woman who are cat-called and consider it a form of harassment.

There are also other benefits to talking to other men about street harassment. Every guy I know has a story of being out with a woman and hearing another man say something to that woman. That kind of experience can probably help a man check himself. Then there's also the benefit of being able to better understand that rejection from women happens to the best of men. Just like we mean no offense when we approach a woman, most women don't mean any offense when they reject us. Is it offensive for women to label as street harassment every unwelcome but respectful attempt at engagement? Well, no one can tell you what offends, right? Our reaction is up to us.


But saying nothing at all to women is not a solution. In an interview with NPR, Price admitted her project isn't trying to end "catcalling." Thompkins also doesn't encourage a man to stay mum and not talk to women. "When I hear someone say that, I think, poor you," he says. And who can forget the Pharcyde rap on their 1992 hit single "Passin' Me By"? As Fatlip says in the fourth verse, "I did not really pursue my little princess with persistence/And I was so low-key that she was unaware of my existence."

If anything, men need to say more than they have been, with women and with each other. We may never arrive at consensus as to what street harassment is and what it is not, but maybe a better understanding from both sides will make everyone smile.


Jozen Cummings is a contributing editor at The Root. His new column, His Side, brings us men's perspectives on the latest events in news and pop culture. He is a writer for the New York Post, where he covers the blind date column, Meet Market, and writes for his own blog, Until I Get Married. Follow him on Twitter. He can be reached at

Jozen Cummings is the author and creator of the popular relationship blog Until I Get Married, which is currently in development for a television series with Warner Bros. He also hosts a weekly podcast with WNYC about Empire called Empire Afterparty, is a contributor at and works at Twitter as an editorial curator. Follow him on Twitter.

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