When Standing Up to Sexual Harassment Makes You a B*tch

What does it mean when a woman is called a “bitch” for responding to street harassment? What does that say about the options women have in responding to harassment?

By Renee Davidson, Communicators Director, CASS

[NOTE: Renee’s been nominated for the Women’s Media Center’s 2013 Social Media Award! Please support CASS & vote for herVoting closes 9/24/13.]

Protecting against the onslaught: Many street harassers berate victims when turned down.

I recently enjoyed my lunch break by picking up books at MLK Library, located in Gallery Place/Chinatown in Northwest DC. A few steps after I left MLK to return to work, an older man walked briskly toward me on the sidewalk, pointing his finger as he approached. “You’re sexy,” he said, continuing to point at me as he passed.

Stop harassing women,”  I said. I didn’t turn around to see his reaction. A young man waking beside me chuckled. I wasn’t laughing. In my work clothes with my books, I immediately felt embarrassed and objectified by what he said. 

Right away, I heard the man begin yelling at me from behind. From the sound of it, he had stopped on the sidewalk behind me. I didn’t slow to try to catch what he said, but it was clear I was being called a “white bitch”– at least a few times

The incident shows how street harassment is not an isolated event, or something to be brushed off as “not a big deal.” Instead, it functions within larger contexts of power regarding race, class, sex and gender. As noted by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, the intersection(s) of race and gender often (if not always) play an extraordinary role in sexual harassment.

First, what does it mean when a woman is called a “bitch” for responding to street harassment? What does that say about the options women have in responding to harassment?

Many women like myself struggle with the Catch-22 of responding versus not responding to vulgar words thrown at them: “Is it best for me to say nothing and feel like a passive victim (note: this is how I often feel when I don’t respond, but this is not true for everyone or every scenario), or is it best to be assertive and be labeled a ‘bitch?’” I often find myself thinking, “Which of these scenarios will ruin my day LESS?”

So what did this harasser accomplish here, at least for me?  In “Black Sexual Politics,” feminist theorist Patricia Hill Collins argues that “the term bitch is designed to put women in their place.” By calling me a bitch – a deeply misogynistic term – the harasser put me in “my place” as inferior to, or beneath him, based on my sex. According to Collins, “One sign of a ‘Bitch’s’ power is her manipulation of her own sexuality for her own gain. Bitches control men, or at least try to, using their bodies as weapons.” In other words, my speaking out against this man’s sexual objectification of my body was a threat to him — it represented my denial of his power and control over my sexuality — and explains his injured rebuke. He called me a bitch in order to invalidate my objection to his behavior on the basis that I was, according to definitions by Urban Dictionary, nothing but an “annoying and whiny female.” He was punishing me for speaking out.

This sexism was in place when the harasser first addressed me. In order to have found it acceptable to wag his finger at me and sexualize my body to fellow passersby on the street, he had to have certain feelings about women – specifically about how he had the “right” to judge their bodies publicly, what he was allowed to say to them, and  – perhaps most importantly – how they should receive his judgment. (I guess I was supposed to smile graciously and say, “THANKS!”). But for me, his comment wasn’t a “compliment” and it wasn’t harmless – I saw it as coming from a point of male privilege in which he felt entitled to publicly judge, comment on, and sexualize my body. This type of entitlement often extends to forms of physical violence.

But I wasn’t just ANY old bitch – I was a “white” bitch. For this man, my race (or at least what he read as my race) played a role in my bitchiness. Our friends at Urban Dictionary define a “white bitch,” (ie me) as a:

    1. Woman of caucasian (sic) extraction who thinks she is more atractive (sic) than she is.
    2. White woman with unwarranted confidence.

Add that little bonus of “white”  bitch, and my objection to his sexual harassment was even more invalid because, as the stereotype holds, white bitches are full of themselves and…let’s be honest…not even that hot anyway. “Calm the f*ck down, not-that-hot white bitch!!”

Why did this harasser mention my race? What significance did this have for him? While I don’t share his male privilege, as a white woman, I have white privilege – something he did not. According to Hawley Fogg Davis, “The stereotype of black men as sexual predators, especially of white women, has historically rendered black men the targets of lynching, and other forms of punishment, humiliation, and surveillance.” By calling me a white bitch, was the harasser hinting at this unequal (and unjust) racist history? Was he trying to shift the power dynamic?

It’s hard to come up with a constructive way to respond to street harassment — or at least one that sits right with you (which is all that matters!). So I hate that the response that often makes me feel the most empowered — assertively labeling the behavior as harassment — ended up with me being insulted. For me, calling out street and sexual harassment is a way to give myself voice and break the sexual objectification I am feeling. But for many women, it’s more empowering to not reply at all — a way to not engage with behavior they don’t support. What’s more, each and every incident is different. Bottom line: Street harassment is complex, and so is responding to it.

Why are racial descriptors so commonly (at least in my experience) tagged onto sexist slurs? How does my experience differ for women of color and varying races? What are other ways in which street harassment becomes racialized? How do YOU typically respond to harassment? What response makes YOU feel empowered? Share your thoughts with us in the comments here, and share your stories by submitting to our site.  In the meantime, you can find some tips for responding to street harassment here.

The phrase “Stop harassing women!” is an expert-recommended response to catcalling and sexual harassment. To learn more, check out “Back Off: How to Confront and Stop Sexual Harassment and Harassers,” by anti-harassment expert (and friend of CASS!), Martha Langelan. It’s currently in stock at MLK Library.

Renee Davidson is a feminist activist and Director of Communications at Collective Action for Safe Spaces. She has been nominated for the Women’s Media Center’s 2013 Social Media Award! Please support CASS & vote for herVoting closes 9/24/13. Follow Renee at @reneetheorizes and @safespacesdc.

 MORE FROM “My Streets, Too”:


“My Streets, Too” is CASS’s ongoing series on personal writings on street harassment by members of the DC community. Email Renee to submit writings using your full name, initials, or anonymously (just let us know). Please be sure to use the subject line “My Streets, Too.”

27 Responses

  1. […] post is originally published on Collective Action for Safe Spaces.  It is cross-posted with […]

  2. […] Davidson. Re-posted with permission from Collective Action for Safe Spaces. Read the original post here. You might also like …Hollaback! Alberta July 2012 – Hollaback! Alberta Hollaback! is a global […]

  3. CT

    “Which of these scenarios will ruin my day LESS?”
    First of all, why would you let a random comment on the street affect you that deeply. Moving to an dealing with long terms issues of drug abuse, poverty, and denial of resources puts you in direct contact with a street culture in which people will say insane things to you on a regular basis. The wretched of the earth have nowhere to go and nothing to do but scream at passerbys. It’s unavoidable in areas of extreme wealth disparities.

    Obviously, a situation in which one was actually in danger of assault is an entirely different story. But from the sounds of it, this guy sounds more like he was seeking some sort of brief interaction with you. He acknowledged your femininity in a way that you found to be inappropriate, and you responded by reframing his attempt at acknowledgment into a plane of harassment or even rape. Your response altered his attempt at interaction into a nebulous form of sex-crime, and he was publicly shamed as a perverted harasser, an object of loathing and disgust. An objectified, untouchable, form of human that deserves neither acknowledgment of presence nor humanity. He is man, the rapist.

    It’s not hard to see how that would create a hostile response in an individual within whom society already marks with signifiers of “old-creepy” or “black-lustful/lecherous”.

    • Amanda

      is this for real?!

      you have enough education to know the word “reframing”, yet not enough to know that aggressive sexual comments from strangers are harassment?

      it’s not up to you to tell others how to feel in response to harassment.

    • Kelly Bowerman

      Can I just say that even Chris Rock admits that guys doing nice things for a random woman is non-verbally asking her if she wants some dick. All guys no, MANY guys, yes….be the minority, people.

  4. renee

    He made no “attempt at interaction.” He spoke AT me as he walked by, not expecting to elicit a response. Street harassment isn’t a compliment.

  5. dcn8v

    CT, are you serious? You are exactly the kind of person that embodies the culture that we women have to worry about every day. The word “bitch” is full of coded malice. How would you feel if on any random day, at any random time, someone you found threatening called you an ugly name that demeaned and discriminated against you? And it doesn’t happen just once. It happens again, and again, and again.

    Newsflash: Random comments on the street affect me deeply, too. They would affect you, too, if they were leveled at you every day. This is not a trivial problem. It’s not about this one incident. It’s that all these incidents are trivialized and ignored by people like you. I think the author’s response was a good one. And I think your attitude and lack of empathy is more responsible for perpetuating this ugly problem than the man that originally called the author a bitch.

  6. CT

    ” You are exactly the kind of person that embodies the culture that we women have to worry about every day.”

    Well, you can just as easily look at it as a web site like this reinforces and encourages the idea that women and LGBT individuals are frail worrying creatures in need of “Safe Spaces” because the minute they leave their house they are suddenly under masculine attack. And when that attack comes, the recommended action is a canned response of “Stop Harassing Women!” and then go home and blog about it. Perhaps it is necessary to cultivate a more nuanced understanding of the motives and insecurities of people that approach or harass women in the street, as opposed to promoting an “I am a victim” mentality. The world can be a cold place but no one should live in fear of it.

    “He spoke AT me as he walked by, not expecting to elicit a response.”
    I’d argue it’s hard to say what he expected. He probably would have loved to been acknowledged by you with even a glance. Yes, I agree it was creepy and gross, but more than likely his intent wasn’t overtly hostile in his perception. But the fact that he is old, black, probably a member of the underclass cements his comment as creepy and gross, whereas in a different context most people happily accept compliments from strangers if framed in a way we approve of. But that’s the difference, he probably doesn’t have the same familiarity and cultural awareness to interact and compliment a young, white woman that probably comes from a better background and has more far more education that he does (forgive the assumptions, it’s just to make a point).

    • Celia

      CT – Nice attempt at gaslighting in that first post there! Even though you went about this in a really dickish and self defaming way, I actually sort of agree that there may be a better way to respond to minor street harassment. I don’t think people should be passive and wishy washy about social change, but I believe phrases like “stop harassing women” may be totally lost on the people they’re said to. I do believe that the way a person behaves obviously is deeply ingrained into them by about a million complex reasons. And so, when someone by default thinks they’re right and you’re wrong, of course if you tell them to stop doing something, they may not take it seriously. So I think that rather than telling someone what not to do, it would work better to tell them what they COULD do instead. It may sound weird or corny, but I think I would rather try a phrase like “you know better than that” or “you can be better than that”. After hearing that I guess they may ask you what the heck you’re talking about too, after which you can calmly tell them that you found them threatening, or they made you feel bad. That being said, I do think there are probably lots of cases where “stop harassing women” is the best route to go. It’s up to personal judgement I guess. You can probably guess who’s a seasoned misogynist and who’s some kid copying the way his friends and all the dudes on TV behave in public.

      Personally I usually respond to the run of the mill harassment with humor. Not sure how productive it is. But I do get a kick out of the confused look on the person’s face. I may or may not try the “you can be better” approach some day.

      • ppock

        I think looking them in the eye, if they don’t walk off too fast, might be a way to go too. Then, a simple “no” could suffice. They might not get it, but they should understand that you dislike their behavior and you take it seriously. I definitely think there is value in saying “harassment” and naming what’s happening too. Like you said, it’s up to the person being harassed and what they want to do. It doesn’t have to be their job to try to educate every street harasser, they have their own life to live.

  7. Alito

    MRA’s logic: It’s ok to a man to point a woman as “sexy”, even if she doesn’t want to be acknowledged that way, just because that man desires to do it. If she responds, that man is entitled to SCREAM a slur to her, just because he (oh, poor victim) feel offended and objectified, just for being a black man whose only crime was “complimenting” a woman.

    Let me try to make this clear for you, CT. YOU don’t decide when a woman should feel flattered or awkward or harrased towards a compliment. THEY do. What would you decide if an unknown gay man (if you’re gay, a female) decided to compliment a part of your body?

  8. Elle

    Or, men could just stop making comments that they think is alright to make when it’s actually not ok.

    • littleneon

      Amen to that. It’s pretty sad that we as women need to come up with rebuttal for jargon that shouldn’t be happening in the first place.

  9. DD

    It may very well have been a communication barrier as this CT says. Why act so certain that it otherwise when you do not know? Why the personal attack? I’ve seen street harassment many many times. Where some guy just relentlessly follows and harasses a female, usually he’s drunk… and it’s disgusting and VERY apparent there is no question of it. An offhand comment of “You’re sexy” is NOT the same thing. Harassment is only harassment when it is clearly unwanted yet still the harasser persists.

    • ppock

      Maybe harassers can run their comments by people -before- making them, to be sure whether or not they’re clearly WANTED. Certainly if we’re taking street harassment seriously and really don’t want to make anyone feel threatened, it would make sense to double-check before. Don’t you think?

      • DD

        Maybe. The point is that we can’t know the man’s intent and she obviously took offense to the comment, though her response was unmistakably meant to offend the man back. The easiest, and probably best response is just NO. It’s not condescending, it’s not presumptive, it’s just straight to the point. If she said NO to the man, he may still have thrown his tantrum calling her names and whatnot, but at least it wouldn’t have been in response to an insulting and presumptive “Stop harassing women,” and there’s a much better chance the man would have just shrugged and walked off.

        • Em

          I’m pretty sure that ppcock was being sarcastic, so you look a tad silly DD

  10. ppock

    CT, I completely disagree. Who do you know that is saying “stop harassing women” all the time?? I don’t think it’s common for many women to respond at all after being harassed. It can be very threatening to tell a man, a stranger, to stop sexualizing you while in his physical presence. How the hell do you know what he will do next? You know nothing about this person. I think it’s commendable to tell someone that their behavior, like street harassment, is unacceptable. What’s frail about that? She stood up for herself. What I hear from you is that women need to be more self-sacrificing, make more efforts to be nice, to understand what’s best for everyone else. Wouldn’t want to hurt some man’s feelings who just made you feel threatened on the street, right? I hope you realize that you can practice cultural-humility, become aware of your own classism, racism, sexism, etc., etc., etc., and still stand up for yourself when someone harasses you. Where do you draw the line for her comment to be justified? Would he need to slap her ass, grope her breasts? Just when would a straight-forward response like “stop harassing women” be deemed acceptable by you if the harasser happens to face other obstacles to equity, discrimination? What if the woman being harassed faced the same obstacles? Are you under the impression that that doesn’t happen? And, seriously, you think that white guys with more education don’t sexually harass women? I beg to differ. The irony is that you’re saying the women writing aren’t trying to understand where the male harasser was coming from, while you seem more than eager to refute the experiences of these women, and myself. We aren’t victims, we aren’t frail, and we don’t just need safe spaces, we’re demanding them for everyone. If that makes you feel threatened, hold onto that feeling, and then you’ll have a better idea of what it feels like to be street harassed before making more comments.

    • Celia

      I wanted to mention that as well. CT thinks that the woman in question should “have the decency” I suppose to consider that poor wittle man’s feelings, life story and philosophy in a split second, on the street, and they’re not willing to offer her (and women in general it seems) the same? Just more victim blaming.

    • julia

      Well said, ppock! It’s often this fear of offending someone or trying to be nice/polite that prevents women and LGBTQ folks from speaking out. In my personal experiences, and in many of the experiences on this blog, it seems that harassers sometimes take a gentler reply as a green light to escalate the situation. I’ve said “stop harassing me” and been called a bitch. I’ve said “no” and been called a bitch. I’ve said “hi” and been called a bitch. I’ve stared straight ahead and been called a bitch. I’ve given a death stare and been called a bitch. My point is that there is no correct response, there is only the response that you feel comfortable giving, and it’s my hope that more and more people will feel empowered to speak out against those harassing them.

  11. Lauren

    It’s obvious CT does not understand street harassment or patriarchy at all. In this (excellent by the way!) analysis of street harassment, race is focused on as a nuance. I have been harassed by black guys, white guys, Latino guys, in my neighborhood, in my own country, in foreign countries that have more oppressive gender roles, by rich guys who thought that they could grab me on the street (I was vacationing in a very wealthy part of Uruguay, so I know that they were well to do), at festivals, by poor guys, in completely indecent ways such as making sucking sounds and pretending to be holding on to a fake air booby, by a man who touched himself as he walked past me, and I’ve had simply, “You look nice today” or a “sexy”, “Mamita”, or “Boo”, “Sugar”, “Honey”, “Baby”. By guys with chains and NY accents or guys with a Southern drawl. By guys in Rolls Royces and guys on their bikes – It’s all the same to me – If you take the time to comment on how I look, to inform you that my dress, my body, my walk, my whatever is pleasing to you, (as if I got dressed this morning with you in mind Jerkface!) IT’S ALL THE SAME HARASSMENT TO ME! It’s that attitude that I was placed on God’s green Earth to be judged by YOU, and you shall inform me of your position of being a judge of me by commenting and letting me know that “I did good”, you stop me on my day to tell me I look nice/sexy/whatever. Don’t talk to me. You don’t know me. It’s NOT a compliment.
    With that being said I normally just don’t say anything. Which kills me inside and HATE that man in that moment for making me feel so small. Unless it’s really vulgar and I just use my middle finger. But, I like the “Stop harassing women” approach, I think I will use that from now on.

  12. CT

    “What I hear from you is that women need to be more self-sacrificing, make more efforts to be nice, to understand what’s best for everyone else.”
    Nowhere in my response did I suggest that a passive ‘self-sacrificing’ response is the answer, and I could care less about his feelings. I was merely attempting to dissect the individual’s probable background, logic and comprehend his hostile response. And while doing so, I suggested that “expert-recommended” canned responses are not necessarily a good option as it suggests in the italicized text on the bottom of the article post. I am also suggesting that it would be fruitful to try and develop a complex understanding of the worldview, motivations, and cultural baggage behind individuals being labeled as ‘street harassers’ without throwing around unproductive, conversation-ending terms like ‘patriarchy’ and ‘white privilege’, like a women’s studies college sophomore. The benefits of this would potentially allow targets of street harassment to better control and direct the situation through anticipating the actions and responses of strangers on the street.

    If not, why doesn’t CASS start lobbying for the issuing of CCW licenses in DC? If you’re not going to control a situation by understanding it, you may end up having to control it with force.

    • cml

      CT, while generally I do agree with considering background, Iwoudl like you to consider for a second what it means to be whistled at randomly walking down the street or getting attention you don’t want. I generally walk around in long skirts and slightly lowcut shirts, nothing that would be considered unprofessional but since I’ve started wearing these clothes I’ve started getting whistled at. There is nothing more frustrating than doing nothing but try to get on with your day and getting catcalled. It’s not that I’m afraid or think of the person as a physical threat, it’s that there are much better approaches if you think someone is attractive and get to know them. Where I live, there is not much difference between people’s backgrounds, so why should I have to stop and give someone an explanation of proper behavior when all I did to attract this behavior was wear clothes I like? Here’s an idea, why don’t men start talking about better ways to pay compliments. Maybe instead of just whistleing, they should try to start a conversation, like say hi, and if she doesn’t repond go on their way.

      The difference in paying a compliment and annoying the piss out of women is objectifying them or indicating you find them attractive, but showing interest in who they are as well Yeah, it can be intimidating, but why is it not more intimidating to yell out random comments to women. My latest strategy for dealing with these men is to look at them and tell them that just because I’m wearing a skirt doesn’t mean they’ll ever get to see what’s underneath, generally catching them by surprise.

  13. Nafas

    CT, I would suggest that you read some of the advanced literature on the subject by authors who have well-advanced beyond their sophomore year in college…

    The point is that most women who are walking down the street just want to get from A to B without a complete stranger feeling like he can unabashedly comment on her appearance or on the appearance of the woman next to her. To a man, the man’s comment would be akin to, “Jesus, you should burn that shirt,” or “You need to find the nearest treadmill — yesterday”. The man probably does not want to hear that I (female) find his wardrobe and his love handles revolting. If I said those comments aloud they would be offensive and intrusive. Who the hell do I think I am? You wouldn’t need to know anything about me to know that I was acting like an ass. And then when you let me know that I’ve offended you, I respond, “Broke ass cocksucker.” Classy. Way to take ownership for my actions.

    Let’s add to that mix that that man can immediately assess based on size differential that I have the ability to harm him and he’s been reminded of that his.whole.freaking.life. He’s probably had at least one, if not say three or four scarring experiences ranging in severity, that informs him of exactly why this is so. It’s definitely not the time for you to assess how society may have given me a raw deal. And now let’s realistically say that this is the third time this week some woman has felt like she had the right to talk to you about that gut. Let’s see how patient and compassionate you find yourself to be after a lifetime.

    I’m not saying I’m a victim. I’m just saying that I’m tired of this crap. Don’t be surprised when a woman sounds off because she is too.

    • Em

      Nafas, I love that last sentence you wrote. Absolutely brilliant.

  14. […] the one hand, we have the idea that telling a stranger that randomly hitting on women is not okay makes you a bitch. On the other, we have the gay panic defense: the idea that if a man hits on another man, the […]

  15. miss king

    after the millionth “you’re sexy”, it gets old and tiring…. and I personally am liable to freak the F out. Not every action gets a reaction, but after hearing the same shit over and over and over again… from the randomest of random…… Its like watching the same show over and over again and its worse because it comes on when ever it wants to.
    The only control you have over it is reacting. Some reactions are big and some are small. I always wonder why they wait until I respond to be called a bitch. Don’t let my response to your catcalling be the reason I’m a bitch, you’re not that important, baby!