A year ago I walked down the street to our local liquor store. I picked up my items and made my way to the cash register, where I waited behind a middle aged man purchasing a tall can of beer. When he came up short a quarter, I pulled one out of my purse and gave one to him – good deed done for the day! We had what I perceived to be a perfectly lovely interaction while I purchased my own items, but then he proceeded to follow me next door to the taqueria where I ordered a burrito. The lovely interaction quickly disintegrated into hassling where he told me I was beautiful and asked if I had a boyfriend. It got really uncomfortable when he began to tell me about the “sex convention” he just went to. After trying to mostly just ignore him and display I was no longer interested in engaging, I finally turned to him, looked him straight in the eye, and told him very loudly, “You are making me very uncomfortable and need to leave me alone right now.”
He got the message and left. But the entire interaction is the perfect representation of why it can be so frustrating to be a woman. It started with me attempting to do a small kindness and escalated into being sexually harassed. Notably, this taqueria was not empty, but no one stepped in when it became clear that I was being hassled. It took me standing up for myself, a 135 pound woman to a 200 pound man, to get him to leave me alone because no one else wanted to get involved.
I’ve gotten into too many online debates about catcalling lately. Here are the typical arguments I hear men use against it:
- Well, I have never see catcalling happen, so it can’t be that big of a problem.
- I’ve seen men be catcalled by women too!
- This is just a excuse that feminists use to shame men.
- I get “called at” by creepy people when I walk down the street too, so it’s not something that just happens to women.
- Men are also mugged and killed in the streets, so it’s not like women are the only ones who are concerned for their safety.
- There are more important issues than catcalling, like domestic abuse or women in third world countries, so why are we wasting our time talking about it?
Let’s talk about these points for a few minutes, shall we? First, I am virtually never catcalled when I am walking with a man – it usually happens when I’m entirely alone. In fact, it’s such a common experience that most women don’t even bring it up with other people later unless it was a truly terrifying interaction that escalated.
Yes, men get “called at” by people on the streets too, the difference is that women are typically targeted because they are women, whereas for men it’s more situational and incidental. Attacks on women on the street happen because they are women. Either they are sexually fueled or occur because women are typically physically smaller than most men. I have to assume at least part of the reason why women are targeted is because we live in a society where a small yet significant portion of men are taught that they have a right to women’s attention and over their bodies.
Finally, there will always be “more important issues” than the ones we are discussing, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t discuss issues smaller than genocide and mass murder. Catcalling is a symptom of larger, really important problem in our culture where women are still thought of as second-class citizens by some men and whose bodies are available for comment whenever the men desire. It doesn’t matter if I’m sick or walking my dog in my PJs or dressed up for a night on the town – catcalling is a constant reminder that I am primarily valued for my physical appearance. We do not constantly comment on men’s appearance like we do on women’s. These “compliments” are used as a tool to assert the power of the male view onto the woman.
I understand that some good men are tired of strange women assuming that they might be predators. They feel like it’s unfair that the actions of a few “bad” men would ruin it for the “good” ones. But if every one out of 100 men is a chauvinist or sexually aggressive, that’s still common enough that women will learn to be suspicious of all men. I ask that in addition to standing up for women you see who are being targeted, that men be empathetic when women are on their guard, because often we prefer to not open the door to any interaction with men in public that might lead to us being followed or sexualized without our agreement or consent. At the end of the day, some women being suspicious of you or preferring not to engage is far better than fearing for your safety when you are walking a street alone.
One of my all-time favorite authors, Margaret Atwood, has a quote: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
How do you feel about catcalling? Have you ever had an experience that taught you to be on your guard?