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Laurie Penny: Why do so many men harass women on the streets?

For many women, being wolf-whistled is as hurtful as beinggroped, slapped or flashed. So why do men do it?

Street harassment? What are the ladies complaining about? It's just attention, isn't it, and women love attention! They'd probably complain more if they didn't get catcalled, groped and followed home! I've heard this sort of argument from men so many times that it's impossible to dismiss as wilful stupidity.

A lot of men and boys don't understand what it's like to be a woman in a public place. The feeling that you have less right than a man to your own space, without being hassled, groped, or worse. Not every time you go out, but any time you go out, and that's what's important.

The man who yells "give us a smile!" or "nice legs!" at a passing teenager often doesn't understand that what he might think is a harmless compliment is part of a total atmosphere of threat and invasion of privacy, where any man has the right to comment on your body if you choose to go outside with it. It's hard for men to understand the calculations women make – when a stranger shouts at you in the street, it's impossible to know whether it will end there, or whether he will be the one who follows you home, the one who tries to put his hand up your skirt. You have to decide whether to ignore him, and run the risk that he might become angry and aggressive, or to smile and respond, which he might take as encouragement.

That's why it's important that this study recognises that for many women, being wolf-whistled and catcalled in public are experiences which, while easier to brush off, figure on the same spectrum of unwanted sexual attention as being groped, slapped or flashed.

What street harassment tells women is that we should expect to pay a price for being female in public. Many young women, growing up, learn that it is up to us to "fend off" sexual harassment in public places – by dressing conservatively, taking the shortest route home, not travelling alone after dark. We learn, in short, that public sexual harassment is our fault. It's time we change to record.