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Whenever the problem of street harassment arises on the Sexist, one complaint will invariably be raised: How are men supposed to know the difference between friendliness and harassment? A recent thread on cat-calling produced this series of questions from commenter kza:

“How else do you get a number of a girl walking past you on the street?”

“How do you know who gives out their number and who doesn’t?”

“But how would you know that someone feels? I can’t read minds.”

“If I approach a woman for directions am I threatening?”

There are no hard-and-fast rules as to what exact words or actions might be perceived as threatening. Women are individuals, and our responses to men-on-the-street are as varied as so many unique snowflakes. What may strike one woman as an honest compliment may strike another as a possible prelude to stalking. When we establish strict rules about what men can and cannot say to women on the street, we set up street harassment as the woman’s responsibility—-as long as the man follows the established script, it’s up to the woman to fail to feel threatened by his approach, no matter how threatening his subtext.

But that’s not to say that harassers should be given free reign to indiscriminately come on to strange women, hoping to find the one snowflake that responds positively to the random ass compliment. So I’d like to propose one really simple guideline for approaching women you don’t know: Treat them like people, not objects. When you’re considering approaching a woman, ask yourself:

* When I hang outside my car door and yell at a woman about her physical features, am I treating her like a person who is busy commuting to work, or an object who is out on the street to aid in my arousal?

* When I approach a woman and ask for her phone number without ever having interacted with her previously, am I treating her like a person who will likely be wary of complete strangers attempting to gain her personal information, or like an object that’s happened to catch my eye and that I’d like to be able to look at regularly?

* When a woman shows no interest in my advances but I push the interaction anyway, am I treating her like a person with a subjective experience, or an object whose feelings are unimportant to my actions?

* When a woman informs me that I am harassing her, and I become angry that she would ever interpret my comments that way, am I treating her like a person whose attitude is informed by her own unique experiences, or an object who must respond in the manner that I expect of her?

I bet that following the person-not-object rule will help to reduce most harassing behavior. But well-meaning men who treat women like people are still capable or scaring, threatening, or offending strange women they approach on the street. Because we’re individuals. So for men who are truly uncertain about when their behavior crosses the line, his behavior following the perceived harassment is just as important as the approach itself. A recent post on Holla Back D.C. illustrates one ideal scenario:

I walk from the bus stop to get to my job this morning, and a homeless man was sitting outside of Starbucks on M near Wisconsin. He shakes his cup at people walking by, but with me it’s “Hey, gorgeous” and “Hey, mami.”

I walk up to him and tell him that he shouldn’t call women he doesn’t know “gorgeous” and “mami” and that he needs to refer to them as “miss” or “ma’am.” He immediately apologized, said he meant “no disrespect,” and told me to have a nice day. I wished him a nice day as well.

I rarely get apologies from harassers. Usually when they get called out on their behavior they get irate, start throwing insults and get violent. But this guy was genuinely apologetic and I appreciated that.

I wish more harassers would follow his lead.

When a woman is obviously uncomfortable by your advances, do you back off immediately? Do you apologize for the slight? Do you learn from this experience that not all women respond positively to the way you interact with them? Or do you project your expectations of correct female behavior on her, and call her a bitch for failing to take a compliment?