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Why do men need to watch their girlfriends get catcalled to wake up?

Hey dudes—women have been telling you this for years.


Jess Zimmerman


Posted on Jul 29, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 6:34 am CDT

Cosmo, that bastion of feminist information like “put a donut on his dick!,” is getting into the Hollaback game by producing a new video in which men watch their girlfriends getting catcalled. There are a lot of awkward laughs, some grave nods, and some weirdly unfocused anger. (Sir, are you mad at the man who told your girlfriend the strip club was hiring, or are you mad at your girlfriend for somehow implying that she wanted to get hired by a strip club?) In general, the point seems to be: These men are finally get it. Hooray getting it! Hooray men!

Presumably, I’m supposed to be cheering. I’m supposed to relish seeing it finally click that this is the daily experience of living in a female-presenting body (and not just a young, pretty one, like the women in the video). And yet, all I can think is: “Where have you been?”

It’s true that men who don’t commit street harassment don’t see it in action. Women who are walking alone get catcalled; women who are walking with men do not, because the man’s presence tacitly asserts ownership. So this is probably the first time these guys have seen it play out—unless they watched the last widely-publicized street harassment video, of course, but that one wasn’t about their girlfriends.

But why did they need to see it play out to take it seriously? And furthermore, why did they have to watch it happening to a woman they have a stake in? “You’re somebody’s daughter, somebody’s sister,” says one of the irritated boyfriends. “Like, I’m sure if somebody did that to their mother or their cousin, they wouldn’t appreciate it.” Why did it need to be brought to their front door to feel real?

In general, the point seems to be: These men are finally get it. Hooray getting it! Hooray men!

I’ve felt this way a lot over the the last few years, watching “women experience constant abuse on the Internet” go from hysteria to truism among progressive men. Women have been saying this for a while, of course, but at some point, women started making it more difficult to minimize or discount our experiences.

We collected and published our worst abuse, or read it aloud on video, often at the risk of incurring more mistreatment or retraumatizing ourselves by having to say it over and over again. Men who cared about us started noticing—and then other men did, too. Men tweeted about it. Men wrote articles. Men pretended to be women online and came back with the shocking report: Women experience constant abuse! Finally, it became a thing men could explain back to us, instead of something they could easily ignore.

It’s also the way I feel when men find feminism—often loudly, and with a hearty helping of “telling women what they’re doing isn’t feminist enough”—once they have daughters of their own. As Kat Stoeffel wrote for New York magazine’s the Cut, the newly-feminist dad “was apparently unable to empathize with women before one sprung from his loins.” She asks, “Did he take nothing from his other encounters with half of humanity?”

Probably not. For a lot of men, it takes the “wives, mothers, and daughters” framing to make them sit up and take notice, preferably when that framing is brought to them by a man. That approach situates women’s issues within a framework they’re conditioned to accept—one in which important problems are those that affect men and are discussed by men.

It’s even the way I feel, to a limited extent, watching journalist Elon James White retweet anonymous DMs about unreported sexual assault for his hashtag #TheEmptyChair, which arose this weekend in response to the New York magazine cover story about the Cosby rape allegations. What White is doing is a powerful way to combat stigma and shame, and I applaud him for it. However, as even he has acknowledged, woman-run sites like I Believe You, It’s Not Your Fault have been doing this work for a while now.

Of course, we should all be working to give victims back their voices; men are as welcome in that fight as anyone. But as we read the writeups of #TheEmptyChair in the Guardian, the Huffington Post, New York, Mashable, GOOD, and the Washington Post—among others—it’s worth asking: Do men’s efforts get more attention? And if that’s the case, why?

I should take a moment to praise the men, because lord knows they need constant praise every time they do something north of “awful.” Hooray every man who finally believed something women have been telling them explicitly, as soon as he saw it with his own eyes happening to a woman he knew and had some kind of stake in! You get a cookie, and you get a cookie, and you get a cookie! Now do better.

It’s worth asking: Do men’s efforts get more attention? And if that’s the case, why?

If you’re one of those guys—if, for instance, it took a video of street harassment to get you to believe what women have been saying publicly and en masse for at least 10 years—I hope you’re asking “what can I do?” and I hope you’re asking “how am I complicit?” But I also hope you’re asking “why didn’t I realize this before?”

You’re not a bad person if you took a while to wake up. It takes whatever time it takes, and some people are sleepier than others; there’s a whole system in place to lull you into accepting and loving the status quo. That’s fine—as long as you think about why it worked on you. Why did it require a man’s experience, a man’s authority, a man’s sense of ownership, and a man’s affront to make you take women’s issues seriously?

We’re glad you’re here now. But asking “where were you before?” isn’t a nitpick—it’s the entire point.

Jess Zimmerman is a writer, editor, and smart-ass who lives with a dog in Brooklyn. She has written for the Guardian, Hazlitt, the Hairpin, the Toast, Vulture, Aeon, and others, and identifies as Chaotic Good.

Screengrab via Cosmopolitan/YouTube

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*First Published: Jul 29, 2015, 4:13 pm CDT