If you’ve ever been through the uncomfortable experience of street harassment, you’ll know that one of the most frustrating things you can hear is, “Take it as a compliment.” It’s just victim-blaming dressed up in nice clothes. Any type of women in any style of dress can be harassed on the street, so calling it a compliment is akin to saying, “You could have prevented this,” and therefore puts the responsibility for cat-calling onto the victim.
New Jersey’s MarketFair Mall decided to do just that with this billboard that they hung explaining their construction: “We apologize for the whistling construction workers, but man you look good!” (Avid About-Face readers might notice that this is not the only recent advertisement that actually harasses the viewer.) As Jezebel’s Katie Baker sarcastically put it, “Because every company has the right to effectively encourage its employees to harass passerby.”
The sign has already been taken down due to outrage, but it says a lot that the mall thought it was okay to put up in the first place. At Jezebel, there’s some discussion in the comments about whether or not construction workers actually harass women more than any other group of people. I don’t know if they do or not, but if they do, it’s because of things like this.
The “whistling construction worker” is a stereotype in our culture, and because it’s so prevalent, it gives actual construction workers the freedom to act on those impulses. If someone is walking down the street and sees a woman, they might think something crude, but know that they shouldn’t say it out loud. But a man working at a construction site has no incentive to keep comments to himself, because after all, everyone already thinks all construction workers are harassers. This is unfair to construction workers who don’t harass, and it’s also going easy on construction workers who do.
The MarketFair billboard isn’t just victim-blaming; it’s also perpetuating the culture that allows harassment to happen. Someone working on the site where that billboard was hung has no reason at all to restrain his catcalls, because the mall has already predicted that he’ll act that way and apologized for it. It’s insulting and harmful to hold blue-collar workers to such a low standard, and it means that the harassment that women face from construction workers is seen as normal and acceptable. If we expect people to behave better, we need to hold them to a higher standard than this.