Source: Art of  Seamus Gallagher
Source: Art of
Seamus Gallagher

The bystander effect is really terrifying.

I got followed (loudly, publicly) today, by two men.

This isn’t the first time it’s happened, or the first time a large number of strangers in ear- and eyeshot declined to do anything. It was also very obvious: two men were shouting, making gestures, and pointing at me for an entire block in a crowded area.

I had headphones in, was not walking with them, and well, I don’t think most people’s conversational style with people they don’t know is “walk in front of them, at increasing speeds, while they shout and point”.

…I also don’t think most people know what to do when they see this happening. I hardly expect 15 or so people in the vicinity approved—several were women my age. To that end, here are some things that might have helped me either feel less trapped or bring the catcalling and following to end.

  1. Making eye contact at all. Highly recommended! I don’t live in NYC, and it’s not unusual for people in my part of town to make eye contact or smile as they walk by others. But as soon as there, ah, began to be a public discourse on my body and attitude, the people passing me wouldn’t make eye contact. This felt especially lonely and scary. A sympathy!face or eyeroll can make me feel as though there are people on my side. (This isn’t something I usually feel I can assume; I’ve also been lectured by strangers for being unfriendly when I told people catcalling me to leave me alone). When everyone goes to immediately pretending I don’t exist, it sends the signal that I’m doing something embarrassing or making a faux pas.
  2. Pretending as though you know me, and immediately starting a loud conversation. (Almost entirely directed at women/not-men, as it would take me a second longer to determine if another man was pretending to know me to be helpful, or part of the set of men catcalling me. I’m usually using a lot of my focus on staying calm.)
    “Hello Susie! Long time no see! How is work going for you?”
    [begins walking alongside the person]
    [chatter loudly until catcalling/unwanted conversation from catcaller stops. When I’ve done this it felt like it took about 30 seconds, but was probably more like 10 or less.]
    “Hey, sorry for being so strange, I just figured you wanted to not deal with the catcalling.”
  3. Depending on the level of escalation happening, loudly and obviously saying that you’re calling the police, etc.
    This instance wasn’t particularly severe (a previous one involved an enclosed space and someone yelling loudly and getting very, very close + giving signs that he might escalate to violence), but one available option is pulling out a phone and saying loudly “I AM CALLING THE POLICE NOW.”
    Downsides: you might not want to direct all attention towards yourself, which is a valid concern.

It seems possible there are things that people could say directly to the catcallers that wouldn’t escalate the situation, but I’ve never seen this happen, and I’m nervous to make suggestions that might backfire.

3 thoughts on “Intervening

  1. This is extremely helpful advice! I saw a woman being catcalled the other day, and I just stood around to make sure the situation didn’t escalate. As a man who hasn’t had to deal with that shit personally, I wasn’t sure what would be wanted help.

  2. I’m really sorry you have to deal with this, Kate. Sounds scary and all around terrible.

    I really appreciated this post and have often wondered how to intervene in these types of situations. Because I encounter them less often than many of my female friends, I’ve found that I often have too short of a fuse and struggle to prevent myself from intervening in a way that escalates the situation and makes the person being catcalled less comfortable or less safe.

    I’ve never been a victim of catcalling myself so I feel really uncertain when I feel uncertain about how to handle interventions that I’m told might be helpful but which I feel also have major drawbacks. But I did want to ask folks to be fairly cautious about the third option. I think most people who call the police have good intentions and hope the police will help to resolve problems and reduce conflict. But once police are introduced to a situation, the folks who asked for their help no longer have any control over how they act.

    I don’t want to discourage anybody from calling the police if someone is really unsafe. But folks should also keep in mind that calling the police does put the safety and freedom of others at risk, which can be a major cost if there are other ways to resolve a situation.

    1. Howie, I completely agree with your points about calling the police. It’s a struggle, though, to know what to do. Catcallers can escalate if they are ignored or confronted, putting the catcalled person in danger. And yet the police can escalate a situation to violence or even death, especially if the catcallers are PoC. It would be great if the bystanders saw themselves as community and enacted some of the interventions suggested above.

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