Okay, watch this first. It will make your whole day. I promise!
(If the video doesn’t show up in your reader or e-mail, click through)
Do you remember the first time you were catcalled? I was in fifth grade, walking past the boys bathroom when a group of boys suddenly yelled (sung?) that line from a Michael Jackson song “Hey pretty baby, with the high heels on!” while hip thrusting and making awooooga! noises. One of them grabbed me around the waist and tried to, I assume, make some kind of lewd gesture. In reality it was more like the do-si-do we’d just been practicing in gym class. It was one of the most bizarre moments of my life.
First, I was wearing my white Keds (like every other girl in the late 80’s/early 90’s) not high heels so they weren’t even accurate. Second, I’d never really identified as pretty — already by that age I knew I wasn’t one of the pretty people. (I had big plastic hipster glasses back when they were still just nerdy. Does that make me retroactively cool? Let’s say yes.) Third, it was upsetting. My first reaction was to want to cry (HSP for life, yo!) but just as quickly I felt ashamed of my reaction. On one hand, weren’t they giving me a compliment? Kind of? But I felt a shaken, the way anyone would if someone jumped out of nowhere and yelled Michael Jackson at them. (Rule of life: You should only invoke the King of Pop when confronted by zombies or Pepsi.)
I didn’t know it at the time — because my parents wouldn’t let me watch that new-fangled MTV thingie — but the video they were referencing, “The way you make me feel,” pretty much is an ode to street harassment with Michael teaching Catcalling 101. (With bonus feature cool dance moves.) In hindsight, I think my 10-year-old (!) classmates were probably just imitating what they saw on TV. And probably a dare of some sort was involved.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot since Shape assigned me to write an article on street harassment. I initially thought that it would be mostly academic as I have so rarely experienced it. But as I thought more about it, the more the “incidents” piled up. Walking down Main street as a middle schooler and getting yelled at out of car windows. A teen at a drive-thru window yelling he’d give my friends and I free ice cream if we’d flash our (non) boobs. And then there was my first waitressing job. It was impossible to walk back through the kitchen without some kind of comment being made — about the length of my uniform skirt, my legs, what they wanted to show me, and especially my bra. Our uniform shirts were white and kind of see-through. SO MANY comments about my bra. I was 15. And all throughout was that feeling of not knowing whether to be complimented or completely freaked out. Part of me felt cool to be noticed by the chefs (who were all middle-aged and married, by the way) and part of me felt awful and tried to figure out what I was doing wrong. Never once did I say anything back to any of those men. It didn’t even occur to me I could, frankly.
The funny thing is I haven’t even thought about all that in years, not until I started researching for the article. And while I don’t feel traumatized today by the (admittedly pretty mild) harassment and it really isn’t something I deal with these days, it certainly was uncomfortable in the moment and I would hate for my kids to experience anything similar. Plus, I was surprised at how many times I was catcalled, even though I never was the “type” to get catcalled. So I thought I’d share my article (including the chunks my editor cut out for brevity) because the experts I interviewed were amazing and had so many interesting, helpful things to say.
Watch this first: (I’ve embedded the vid. Click through if it doesn’t show up in your reader or email! I have no idea why it’s showing up so small? Sorry! You can always full-screen it.)
Over the years most women will experience men hooting at them from cars, whistling at them on the street, muttering sexually explicit phrases under their breath as they pass by or copping a feel on the subway; it’s so commonplace that we don’t even keep track any more. “It’s constant, it’s inescapable and it’s hard to get away from,” says one young woman featured in a new documentary that aims to bring awareness to the nearly global problem of street harassment.
Mariah Wilson, the producer of the mini-documentary Street Harassment: Sidewalk Sleazebags and Metro Molesters (Catchy title, no?) , says she and her Vocativ team were inspired to make the short film after hearing Jen Corey, Miss Washington D.C. 2009, speak about a terrifying experience she had where a man followed her, trapped her and masturbated against her — all on a crowded metro car during rush hour. “I started to dart my eyes around, looking for help, silently screaming for anyone to help me,” she says. No one did.
“We locked eyes and he gave me this deep, terrifying stare that chilled me to the bone,” Corey says, “and I just immediately started crying.” The experience led Corey to make awareness of the harassment of women in public places her public platform and personal mission.
Crying is one common reaction to being harassed but women also say they feel angry, embarrassed, humiliated and scared. And as any woman who’s ever been followed down the street can attest, it can definitely be terrifying. You’re not in control of the situation and you have no idea where it’s going. Will he leave if you ignore him? Or will he escalate until you give him a fake number? What if he follows you all the way home? And we’re right to be scared. “Street harassment is on the spectrum of sexual violence and on occasion, it does escalate into sexual violence,” says Holly Kearl, founder of Stop Street Harassment and author of two books on the topic.
Corey’s story is sadly familiar. “There are still misconceptions that only certain women are harassed and that it’s ‘just’ whistling or ‘nice legs’ type comments.” Kearl says. But, contrary to popular belief, any woman can become a target regardless of age, race, clothing, makeup or other physical characteristics. Getting unsolicited comments about our bodies is just part of being a girl today, unfortunately. (True story: I was once catcalled while wearing my flannel pajamas and buying tampons in the grocery store. It doesn’t get less sexy than that.)
And just like there isn’t only one type of woman who gets harassed, there isn’t just one reason men have for doing what they do. “Street harassment is a symptom of other forms of inequality: sexism, homophobia, transphobia, racism, classism and so forth. And a consistent factor is they feel able to because women are valued and respected less in our society than are men,” Kearl says.
She adds that men may harass women as a power play (for example, to keep them away from a basketball court that men want to use), for male bonding or as a joke (like a group of men harassing women from their car or the street corner), for sexual gratification (like men who flash or publicly masturbate) or for some kind of perverse challenge like the recent news story of a man who said every day on his commute in NYC he’d try to grope a woman on the subway. In addition they may just be acting out what they’ve seen other men do, they may be pressured into it, or because they think she’s “asking for it”. No matter what men may say, Kearl says it’s very rare that a man is doing it to actually try and get a date with the woman.
Men often object at this point, saying that they mean no harm and even mean it as a compliment. And some women say they like hearing it:
One of the most liked comments on the YouTube video reads, ” . . .alright, rant time. Definition of harassment: aggressive pressure or intimidation. It means that someone is aggressive and insistent on you, either to insult you, intimidate you or get something from you. Whether or not this is aggressive or insistent behavior is debatable. I’d understand it if men were coming towards them to cop a feel or to try to pull them aside or something, but ultimately they’re just saying stuff and going about their way. Men think they’re complimenting you. You don’t have to take it seriously if you don’t want to. and believe it or not, some women ARE flattered by the hooting and howling they get when they pass a construction site. It’s just like when women shout out to men about how nice their muscles are or about how cute they are. Men don’t see this as an attack: they see this as flattery. They have certain qualities and they are acknowledged by them, maybe even appreciated or celebrated for them. and i can’t STAND that “just because i dress this way, does not mean blah blah blah” crap. You chose to wear it. You understand what it implies about you. If you don’t want to send the wrong message, know what sends that message in the first place. That’d be like if I hated Superman but wore Superman shirts all the time.”
So does catcalling fit the definition of harassment? Is it really just grouchy women looking for an excuse to complain?
Kearl has a good answer to this: “I think most people like a genuine, respectful compliment that is not sexually objectifying,” she says. “The problem is when it’s not given as a compliment or with respect or consent and when it’s objectifying. So, saying a stranger has a nice smile or a beautiful shirt on is different from telling someone they have a nice ass or calling them baby, though the tone of voice and actions afterward matter too – giving a neutral compliment and then demanding someone’s name or phone number, touching or following them is a problem.”
But for me, the real issue is not knowing if “they’re just saying stuff and going about their way” because sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t and it escalates and since I am not a mind reader I don’t know what their intentions are. Which is scary. (Case in point: There was one time I was walking through a crowded dance floor in a club and brushed off a guy who was trying to say something to me. I said “no thanks”, pushed his hands away and just kept walking. He followed me back to my table, grabbed me by the arms and lifted me out of my chair all the while yelling obscenities at me. I was terrified.)
But both women say there are things we can do to fight back against street harassment and the main one is to talk about it. (Which, I suppose, is why I’m posting this here as well.) “If harassed women regularly told all the upsetting things that men say and do to them and how it makes them feel, it would really raise the awareness of their friends, family, and peers and those people in turn would be more likely to look out for harassment and try to stop it,” Kearl says.
Raising awareness of the seriousness and lasting effects of such a common experience, and giving women an outlet to talk about it, is why Wilson made her documentary. “I want women to know it’s okay to speak up, and tell your harasser that what they are doing is not okay, provided that you feel safe doing so. Letting them know that their comments aren’t welcome is a good place to start.” She adds that she’s a big fan of Hollaback, a website where women can report incidents of street harassment that are then mapped, to show harassment hotspots. Hollaback also collects data on these incidents to bring to elected officials whose districts are especially plagued by harassment, to encourage them to enact legislation to combat the harassment.
Kearl says that calmly replying is often enough to surprise the man and make him rethink his actions. “Don’t harass women” (the phrase she uses), asking the harasser to repeat himself, handing him a card like these Cards against Harassment, or asking him if that’s how he wants his mom, sister, or daughter treated on the street are all good options. It’s also important to have another sister’s back. If you see someone else being harassed, asking if they’re okay can go a long ways toward interrupting an incident and helping the person feel supported. It also signals to any other bystanders that this behavior is not okay.
“Street harassment is not trivial, rare, or something that women are “asking for”,” Wilson says. “Everyone has the right to feel comfortable and safe in public spaces.”
What do you guys think about catcalling – is it “street harassment” or no big deal? Do you remember your first time? How do you react when it happens to you now?