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Street harassment and its opposite

Posted by Robin Abrahams  May 21, 2008 08:08 AM

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In which CNN, and many commenters on its website


... miss the point. (Image courtesy of

CNN has been getting a lot of chatter for what I hope is a deliberately obtuse headline, intended to generate controversy: "Catcalling: Creepy or a Compliment?" Presumably, they will move on to cover other keen questions of the day, such as "Home Burglary: Depredation of Private Property or Homage to Your Fabulous Taste in Consumer Goods?" Because really, there's no controversy here: catcalling is wrong. The fact that some women take it as a compliment doesn't change the underlying dynamic of catcalling: that women exist for the amusement, evaluation, and viewing pleasure of men. (There are, apparently, some women who think if their man doesn't get violently jealous that he doesn't love them, too. We don't consider that reason to think that violent jealousy might be a "compliment," but rather as evidence of how damaged some women's psyches can become.)

When a woman is walking down the street, she has a goal in mind. Perhaps she is returning library book. Perhaps she is meeting a friend for coffee. Perhaps she is just out enjoying the spring weather. She is a person with her own aims and motivations, NOT one more decorative object like the lilacs and the trees. She is a private citizen, not public property. And this applies regardless of how she is dressed. Sweatpants, hijab, miniskirt, tank top, business suit, bare feet, high heels, lipstick, facial piercings--it doesn't matter. A woman's appearance and fashion choices are her own. She's not out there being pretty at you, so you can't take her appearance as the first strike that then deserves a response from you, whether "complimentary" or hostile.

I'm in favor of a bit of mutual public flirtation, actually. I like the appreciative glance that can be returned with a bit of eye contact. In my single days, I never minded when a man started a conversation over the produce counter or the library copier that he clearly hoped would end up in an exchange of phone numbers (and some of those conversations did). We all like to know that we are attractive to others.

And this encounter cheered me up for the rest of the day: a few weeks ago, I was going to meet a friend for lunch in Harvard Square. I walked past a security guard and we said hello to each other. My friend and I had mixed our dates up, and he didn't show, so about 20 minutes later I was walking back along the same route, and the guard said, "That didn't take long."

"I got stood up!" I replied.

"I would never stand you up," he answered.

"I can tell you're not the kind of man to treat a lady like that," I said, and kept on going.

Now that was just nice. I was the one who signaled my willingness to talk, by saying hello to him first; no body parts were referred to; our full humanity wasn't compromised by the encounter, but truly complimented. He said I deserved to be treated right by a man, and I told him that he was a man who could treat a woman right. What's not to like about that? We both felt a little better for the encounter.

If you can't quite get the difference between that conversation and "Nice ass, baby!" shouted from a car window, or "Smile, sweetheart!" from a stranger, then work on that. Work hard.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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