“But why was she walking alone?” “But it was a compliment!” “But don’t you think she asked for it?” “But what was she wearing?”
This is the noise that often clouds the stories of women who are harassed. Northwestern alumna and current Chicago resident Kati Heng grew tired of these blame statements put on victims of street harassment. In September, Heng combined her love of writing and passion for putting an end to street harassment by starting a Tumblr blog called, “But What Was She Wearing?”
On the blog, women submit selfies showing what they were wearing when they were catcalled.
In a recent interview with Buzzfeed, Heng said, “So often, when women try to talk about the harassment we face, we’re met with that stupid question, ‘What were you wearing?’ as if WE are the ones responsible for what happened to us. By having the selfies of what we were wearing upfront, it takes the question away, forcing people to get past it and just read the stories.”
Heng’s own experiences being catcalled prompted her to start the blog. During high school, she was involved in cross-country, and men regularly shouted inappropriate comments at the team. While attending NW, she was occasionally honked at when running through town. After moving to Chicago, the catcalls began happening almost daily.
Shortly before starting the blog, Heng was catcalled twice in one weekend. In one incident, she was on her way down the street toward Dominos and noticed a man making inappropriate gestures at her. In the other, Heng was out walking with her boyfriend and a man yelled past Heng to her boyfriend, “Hey, I want to f*** your girlfriend!”
This comment was more frustrating than most for Heng because she was no longer the target of harassment.
“He wasn’t even recognizing me as a person, he was just yelling at my boyfriend,” Heng said. She was wearing a baggy flannel shirt and shorts.
In the blog’s infancy, Heng was the main contributor, with the occasional submission coming in, some of which were from women attending NW. Abbie Amiotte was an early submitter to the blog. She shared the story of when she was out alone walking her dog in Orange City, and a group of men stepped out of a house and began yelling and whistling at her. She was wearing jeans and a thick sweater.
Amiotte also recalled the memory of one of her first days at NW. As she and her Steggy-mates headed to the dorm, several male upperclassmen stood on the Heli-pad yelling “dibs” on the women.
“I’ve been told that catcalling only happens in big cities,” Amiotte said. “It does happen in Orange City, and it’s a message that needs to be shared.”
The blog piqued the interest of roommates Joslynn Roth and Lauren Stanton after seeing links to it on Facebook. Two days later, they were catcalled while crossing the street near the caf. The girls were dressed in casual attire, and a young man yelled out of a pickup, “I want your p****!”
The girls were shocked, but knew they had to share their story on the blog.
“So many guys are used to it, and think catcalls are compliments,” Stanton said. “But when it’s the first thing yelled out of a stranger’s mouth, it’s just creepy.”
Roth was regularly exposed to this type of harassment in high school, but comments were typically laughed off and were never treated as a big deal.
“The blog gave me awareness as well; I had accepted this type of behavior to be normal,” Roth said.
Maddie Booher shared an equally disturbing story. Booher was about to walk into her dorm building when a few male students walked out.
Booher said this on the blog: “I didn’t know any of them. One guy greeted me, while the rest of them narrated and laughed, saying things like, “lady from the Hub gets harassed by strangers,” and “verbal harassment happening outside of cafeteria.”
Maddie’s experience proves that not only does street harassment come in all forms, but that it also happens between men and women on NW’s campus.
Lyric Morris submitted a selfie wearing jeans and her boyfriend’s baggy sweater. She was asked how much she cost while in downtown Des Moines.
“Too often the blame is put on the woman rather than the man who actively chose to do what he did,” Morris said. “The blog comes at the idea of false blame — the victim should not be attacked.”
In early November, Heng’s blog began receiving attention from popular media providers. After bust.com, a magazine for women, published a story about Heng’s project, outside submissions grew to one per day.
On Nov. 7, BuzzFeed published a story about the blog. Since then, its popularity has exploded. It caught the attention of The Huffington Post, Elle, Daily Mail UK and StyleBlazer. Ever since the blog was featured on these sites, Heng receives 200–300 submissions per day from women all over the world and has more than 18,000 followers on the blog.
“At first, all the submissions were from white girls, but I wanted to show everybody’s stories,” Heng said.
Now, she is happy to see more diversity in the submissions. The blog is peppered with the stories of white, black, Muslim, gay and lesbian men and women who want to see street harassment come to an end.
As with anything on the Internet, Heng’s blog has gotten pushback from both males and females, although they are far outnumbered by supporters. A few men have voiced that they think catcalling is fine.
They say oftentimes women don’t respond to catcalls, which tells them the comments are well received. Others deny the validity of the posts, and think the girls were not actually wearing what their selfies showed.
Some women argue that they appreciate being catcalled, and want Heng to stop telling men to stop.
“For some girls, it’s a confidence thing,” Heng said. “The call is masked as a compliment, but it’s not. It’s objectifying, gross and scary.”
Heng has two goals for the project. One is for females and one is for males. For females, she wants to create awareness that catcalling is a problem regardless of the outfit.
“Many moms tell their daughters to dress conservatively to prevent street harassment,” Heng said. “This shouldn’t be taught because it’s body-shaming, and catcalls really have nothing to do with what a girl has on.”
For males, she wants the blog to create more awareness and let them know that catcalls are not compliments. Although the blog’s big question is, “But What Was She Wearing?” the real issue is street harassment. As time goes on, Heng hopes to focus in on the issue rather than just the outfit.
The NW women who submitted to the blog also hope to continue raising awareness about the issue of street harassment. Amiotte brings the subject up in class when given the opportunity, and also talks to men about it when she can. She has advice for men who want to help put an end to street harassment.
“The best way to make a woman feel special is by standing up to guys who catcall,” Amiotte said. “Once we get past the vulgarity of street harassment, we can go back to people just giving genuine compliments.”
Morris hopes the blog will cause people to stop and think before they catcall. She also hopes that the creativity of the project inspires people to think of other creative ways to fight for social justice issues.
Morris proudly acknowledges that it’s “no secret [she’s] a feminist,” and will continue talking about this issue as well as other issues connected to women’s rights. Additionally, she is using her skills in art and graphic design to work with Heng on developing a logo and new layout for the blog. Jana Latchaw is the administrator of a “But What Was She Wearing?” Facebook site that shares stories directly from the blog.
Booher urges women to continue sharing their stories so people are aware that gender-related harassment is an issue that needs to be addressed.
“This should not be kept secret because the behavior cannot be excused,” Booher said.
If you would like to share your catcall experience, email your story to firstname.lastname@example.org.