How do we solve a problem like catcalling? – Part 2: Challenging life-long privileges
Deep dive / by Conor D'Andrade
This is the second part in a series of three articles about street harassment. You can read part one here.
Despite decades of progress pushing for parity between women's and men's rights, catcalling remains an unwelcome – and all too common –occurrence for women. In the second of 3 articles on the issue, Conor D'Andrade looks at some of the potentials ways to address outdated misogyny and privilege.
Can changes in law prevent catcalling?
Some have suggested that changes in law could be made that would allow victims to prosecute catcallers. This action was taken in Kansas City in 2014, where the city council enacted an anti-harassment ordinance containing:
“(b) No person shall, for the purpose of intimidating or injuring any person riding a bicycle, walking, running, or operating a wheelchair or for the purpose of intimidating or injuring such person’s service animal:
“(3) Sound a horn, shout or otherwise direct loud or unusual sounds towards such person or toward such person’s service animal.”
While this has allowed victims to prosecute catcallers, Kansas City’s Attorney’s office admitted doubting the law’s success due to difficulties with prosecuting offenders as “victims will still have to help police identify the violators, including providing driver’s license and other evidence.” As most perpetrators would have moved on from where the harassment occurred, securing their ID for prosecution is highly unlikely.
If changes in law cannot stop men that catcall, then perhaps changing their attitudes through education is the best solution. But how realistic is this?
The role of legitimising beliefs
The biggest obstacle preventing many men from confronting sexism against women is the combination of their male privilege and the difficulty of rejecting legitimising beliefs, i.e. ideologies that attempt to justify inequality in society.
For example, someone that believes in individual social mobility – the belief that individuals can rise to the top of the hierarchy through effort and hard work – would justify women earning less on average than men as a sign that men work harder and so earn more money. True causes of this inequality, such as discrimination, occupational segregation, vertical segregation and barriers of entry to the labour market that are unique to women, are then more difficult to identify.
For men, rejecting these ideologies that legitimise their high status compared to women can be challenging as, by holding these beliefs, men are able to enjoy the psychological and material benefits of belonging to a high-status group.
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Challenging life-long privilege
But these beliefs can be changed. Research suggests that by simply having men reflect on their position of privilege, their legitimising beliefs can be significantly diminished.
In one study, male participants wrote reflectively about their privilege and watched a video featuring men discussing how male privilege has benefitted them. Results found this significantly reduced participant support of modern forms of sexism.
Acknowledging the illegitimacy of male privilege is intimidating for some men, as it means accepting the advantages it provides are undeserved. Because of this, the intervention can be made even more effective when used in conjunction with interventions to increase men’s openness to the potential threats of acknowledging sexism. For example, using inductions of self-affirmation – “positive statements that can help you challenge and overcome self-sabotaging and negative thoughts” about oneself – can reduce this intimidation and help make the message that sexism is still an issue for women more receptive.
By fighting the prevalence of legitimising beliefs that justify men’s higher status than women, we increase the chances of them recognising the systemic issues that cause it. From there, we increase the chances of them becoming a male ally that will actively confront sexism.
Teaching children to recognise sexism
This is, however, only part of the solution. Ultimately, teaching men to challenge their beliefs relies on their continued cooperation to change their own views as well as to positively influence the attitudes of their children. And with street harassment presenting such a complex problem due to its insidious nature – one that is subtly influenced and developed throughout a person’s life – another key to ending it for good relies on addressing it at an early stage.
Educating children on how to recognise injustice, including sexism and gender discrimination, is crucial to equip them with the tools to notice discrimination against women when it occurs around them. Some experts have suggested that even small actions, like presenting children with non-stereotypical characters in books and movies, and dividing housework equally, prevents children developing traditional, rigid, and sexist ideas about gender roles.
By demonstrating to young boys that women are just like men in the sense that they are individuals with their own strengths and weaknesses – where some may want help in one regard and others may want help in another or not at all – this should help them recognise that seemingly generous acts can also be sexist acts. Stop Street Harassment agrees with this idea, suggesting that more initiatives that teach boys and men to respect women are needed to counterbalance the sexist ideas they receive from media.
The role of the male ally
As we’ve seen, catcalling can have serious, and sometimes fatal, implications for women, all of which are driven by outdated and misogynistic beliefs. But thankfully, these are beliefs that can be addressed with the right interventions, at the right time. There is however one final piece to the puzzle. In the last instalment of this series, Conor D'Andrade delves into the importance of the ‘male ally’ in the fight to end street harassment for good.
If you have been affected by street harassment, there are organisations you can contact who can help:
Helpline: 0808 168 9111
Website: https://rapecrisis.org.uk/ (also offers an anonymous live chat service)