The Problem With Catcalling

After a strenuous Wednesday full of classes and meetings, I was ready to go home. Going home, as for most students on college campuses, requires me to walk a little bit, bus a little bit, and walk a little bit more. It’s fine; I’m someone who silently cheers when the bus hits a red light and I get a few more seconds to listen to the new One Direction song on my iPhone. This particular Wednesday, though, I was exhausted. After finally reaching the stop about a block away from my apartment, I thanked the bus driver, stepped off the bus, and waited at the stoplight.

Thanks to my great friend Daylight Savings Time, Wednesdays in November at 5:30pm look more like Wednesdays in July at 9:30pm. I don’t know about you, but the dark makes anything either ten times more difficult or ten times more terrifying; depending on if you’re getting up to pee at 3am or if you’re crossing the street, respectively. As the pedestrian light illuminated on the stoplight, the ten times more terrifying darkness came to fruition. I walked across the street and heard—over the sounds of Harry Styles encouraging me to “live while [I’m] young”—my fear take human form. Specifically, this form was of an older man who was in his car at the stoplight with the window down.

“Damn girl! How do you fit all of that in those pants?”

My train of thought went as follows: is he talking to me? No one else is around. He’s definitely talking to me. What is he talking about? Fit all of what? Is he saying my legs are fat? It must be my ass. Why is he looking at me like he’s a starving panther and I’m his crippled gazelle for dinner? I hate these stupid pants. I never wear them. This is why. Why is he pulling forward? Why is he closer to me now than he was ten seconds ago? What are his intentions? Does he think this flatters me? Should I be flattered? Am I overreacting? I wish he’d stop staring at me. Is he licking his lips?

Following that thought, I’d successfully crossed the street. Unharmed (physically), I thought about what had happened the rest of the walk home.

This wasn’t the first time, nor will it be the last, that I’ve been street harassed. That’s the technical term for what is colloquially known as “catcalling.” Catcalling is defined as “unwelcome words and actions by unknown persons in public which are motivated by gender and invade a person’s physical and emotional space in a disrespectful, creepy, startling, scary, or insulting way.” This form of interaction occurs in a variety of places: walking by people in stores, walking by people down the street, walking by people in cars (as I experienced), even walking by people in hallways on campus.

I like to pride myself on being empathetic. In this scenario, I put myself in the position of the man in his car at the stoplight: I’m a middle aged man driving home after work and I see a girl on the street at the stoplight who looks attractive.

And that’s where the scenario ends. I drive away, hoping that that girl gets home safely.

What astounds me is that the theories behind why men catcall, such as asserting power over women or demonstrating masculinity, fail to take into account the phenomenon of cause and effect. It makes sense that guys want to get the attention of women that they deem attractive, but what doesn’t make sense is that the way they go about it causes the opposite effect desired (assumedly). If I see a guy I think is attractive and he then says an inappropriate comment to me about me, he will no longer be attractive. You get more flies with honey, and you get more honeys with keeping your vulgar comments to yourself.

There are some women who are fine with—and even embrace—catcalling. While it can be a matter of personal opinion, the problem with catcalling is that no woman, complimented by it or not, knows if that’s the furthest that man plans on going. Everyone can use a pick-me-up every once in awhile. No one dislikes being complimented! It’s when a man that a woman doesn’t know, yells at her in the dark from his car that can move much faster than her, that it becomes an issue. I don’t know what that man’s intention is. Is he planning on touching me? Is he planning on raping me? Is he genuinely attracted to me and thinks I should be aware of it? Women just don’t know. As a woman, I am skeptical of every man I meet until he gives me reason not to be.

I’m well aware that women are not the only people who are the subject of street harassment. Men are catcalled at, too. The difference between a woman and a man getting catcalled at is that that man is much less threatened by that woman, physically, than she is by him. Men are just biologically stronger than women. If I were to catcall at a man and then proceed to grab his ass, it would be much easier for him to fend me off than if the same was done to me by that man.

I’m also well aware that street harassment isn’t always performed in a tone meant to be complimentary. The LGBTQ community faces its fair share of street harassment. In a 2012 survey, 90% of 331 men surveyed said that they are sometimes, often, or always harassed or made to feel unwelcome in public spaces because of their perceived sexual orientation. According to the surveyor, master’s student Patrick McNeil, gay and bisexual men are targeted because their masculinity is seemingly below what the harassers feel it should be. Another way of looking at this: gay and bisexual men are targeted because they give off feminine vibes.

Woah woah woah. Straight men fearing that gay or bisexual men may do things that women are known to do? In the chance that those gay or bisexual men are going to project their “feminine” characteristics and habits onto “manly men?” An underlying theme in the harassment of the LGBTQ community is misogyny? Imagine that.

In the two weeks it’s been since I started writing this article, I’ve been harassed three more times following the initial incident I wrote about: once with my female friend and twice by myself. One of those times was at the Mall of America. I found it hugely interesting that the next time I went to the Mall of America, with my male friend, nobody said anything to me. Each time following the harassment, I found myself feeling increasingly angry and violated. I wanted to turn around and ask them what their goal was in yelling at me as if I was an object in a store window. I wanted to turn around and embarrass them as they’d embarrassed me.

But I didn’t. My fear of what they would have done to me had I “egged them on” forced me to bite my lip, put one foot in front of the other, and move on with my day.

This issue needs to be discussed. This issue needs to be addressed. Even my beloved One Direction has admitted to doing it. Dismissing it as an offhand compliment or a harmless comment is what continues to give catcalling life.

The next time you’re in your car and you hear somebody yell to someone on the street, I dare you to speak up. I dare you to think about that person on the street being your little sister, your gay cousin, your mom’s best friend’s transgendered child. I dare you to handle the situation with more class than the harasser. I promise you that that someone on the street will be thankful.

I know I would have been.

This has been a post by WC blogger, Sam.

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