Growing up as a teenage girl who didn’t drive and ended up walking around a lot, I became accustomed to catcallers, hecklers, and whistlers. Not because I was particularly gorgeous or anything–it’s just that common. I taught myself to stare at the ground as they yelled sweet nothings from across the street, even though I knew these were directed at me. I learned to pull my cellphone out of my pocket and fake conversations when drivers rolled down their windows and slowed down to match my pace for the next block or two. I didn’t really care if they called my bluff or not– I just wanted them to see I wasn’t interested. You have to really commit to ignoring them, because even the slightest hint of acknowledgment, or even annoyance, gets them all rattled up. Even if what they say upsets you, you don’t dare turn around and challenge them…. or at least I never did. The thing is, even when catcallers have no intentions of raping me (because most of them don’t), I know that they could if they tried.
I never really talked about it because it just happened so often that no specific instance stood out–except this one time I specifically remember from when I was on my way to ballet class. There was this guy sitting on the sidewalk outside a gas station in the direction where I was headed, staring at me from a block away. But hey, I can’t control men wanting to look at me, media and film histories have taught us that much. But then as I was just about to walk by him, he whispered, “Tu pucha esta bien rica”, which literally translates to “Your pussy is delicious”. I could not fucking believe it. I think I called my boyfriend at the time out of distress, though there was really not much he could do. I certainly didn’t do anything. I was caught off-guard. Later that evening I came up with a million different scenarios in my head of things I should’ve said or done– some of which involved witty comebacks and spitting on him in disgust. The kind of brave response you’d see in a movie and applaud. But to tell you the truth, I was seventeen and way out of my league–I had no idea how he would’ve reacted.
The reason I still think about that afternoon and why I bring it up is because I’m still afraid. Five years later and I’m no better equipped to confront the kind of person who would dare say such a thing to a complete stranger, or for that matter, who dare say anything derogatory to their female passersby–no matter how graphic or supposedly flattering. So my question for those who do dare is this: what gives you the right (or even just the motivation) to say these things to our faces? You know, other than centuries of reinforcement, patriarchal entitlement, and the objectification/oppression of women. Guys think there’s no harm in telling a woman on the street how hot she is, or how smokin’ her body is…or how he’d tap dat. While for them it’s just a way of expressing their freedom of speech (as long as no physical harm is involved), for us it’s a painstaking reminder that we are always at risk, and can be so easily victimized. It’s really not up to me, and is completely out of my hands, whether or not someone attacks me. All I can do in those situations is hope that he’s just playing around. Thanks a lot for reminding me where I stand. Power and say can mean a lot on the street– and knowing how weak and terrible my punches are, I’m very aware that I don’t have either.
One time I was in the car when a man “complimented” a woman crossing the street for her nice legs. I must’ve flinched or grunted because he immediately apologized to me and said he’d forgotten there was a girl in the car. First of all, the idea of being on your best behaviour because the opinionated feminist might have an issue with what you do, really says more about you than about me. Second of all, why should you worry about having offended someone inside the car after you’ve just blatantly offended someone outside? What makes me so special? Is it because I’m in the car with you? Or because deep down you know that’s a shitty thing to do, and you’re sorry I had to witness such demeaning behaviour. No, of course I’m not offended (though my feminist senses are definitely tingling), but that’s because you didn’t say anything to or about me. She, on the other hand, might be very offended, yes– she also might not have heard you, there’s a chance she even loved it, but she also might not have given a shit. Some women really don’t mind, and others are so used to it they don’t even notice– but that shouldn’t be a reason for you to continue catcalling on the slight chance of scarring someone who, like me, will vividly remember it five years later. It’s not just about the individual people you may or may not have offended, but about a much bigger picture.
Other guys have tried to offer me solutions like “take it as a compliment, just ignore them, or turn the tables and start objectifying them”. In regards to the first two suggestions, I wonder what you think I’ve been doing my entire life? I’ve been keeping my head down and turning up the volume on my headphones for years–but is that really the only alternative? Is it really up to me to develop a stronger immunity or learn to embrace these degrading mockeries? After centuries of taking the high road, being the bigger person, and rising above, women have grown sick and tired of it. How about we don’t learn to deal with it, and men just stop. Just stop. And about that last suggestion, I really don’t care if men would rather be heckled than stop heckling in order for me to feel safe. This isn’t an eye for an eye situation. I personally have no interest in adopting the very position that has oppressed my gender for centuries. I don’t want to fit into a longstanding mold of agency in order to not be afraid, to access power through the very behaviour that took it away from me in the first place. I don’t want to get even; I just want you to back off. Female appropriation of catcalling does nothing for the rhetoric of equality, because it doesn’t give us legitimate power–it just gives us women who act like men. Maybe being the objectifier is better than being the objectified, but it doesn’t fix the problem. It just goes to show that only those who’ve always had power can play with not having it.
Illustration by Robert John Paterson