“When is it okay to Catcall a woman?” The answer is “NEVER”.
Catcalling is when a person, typically a man, whistles or yells a sexual comment to a stranger, usually a woman, passing by in the street.This is not an attack on males, because sometimes they too get catcalled, but in most instances, the person catcalling is a male and the person being catcalled is a female. In the perfect world, I’d be able to understand the reasoning of the people who catcall; but, because I’m a woman and it’s just 2018, I can only speak on its effects from the perspective of a woman who suffers from it often. Many people don’t pay attention to street harassment because it has become so embedded in our culture. They see catcalling to be inoffensive and encourage women and girls to see this form of harassment as compliments; to be flattered by strangers in the street who invade their personal spaces and disrespect their person. I personally find catcalling distasteful and extremely dangerous; especially for women who have survived a myriad of sexual violence.
In liberal parts of the world where you’d imagine a better societal system, women are seen and treated like people right up to the point where the control of their bodies are in question. Catcalling and all street harassment come from a place of entitlement. A man has to feel entitled to not only to a woman’s time and attention but to her body as well for him to stop her on the streets and insist she grants him an audience. This sense of entitlement that men have is entirely our fault as a society; we don’t tell men “no”. Society teaches girls and women how to say yes, even when they mean no, to protect the man.
I know many women, including myself, who get advise like “when a man calls out to you in the street, keep walking”, “dress modestly”, “watch how you walk”, and if a man still stops you after all of the preventive measures, “be polite and gently deny his advances,” etc. Even in fear of their safety, girls and women are taught to do everything but hold men accountable for their actions and measure their morals with the same standards reserved for women folks. What’s the reasoning behind this? Well, as they say, “boys will Always be boys”.
Catcalling, like other kinds of violence towards women, is about power. It is about the man’s need to exert an unearned power. I see catcalling as a way for boys and men to remind girls and women of their vulnerability in public spaces; to remind them that they do not have control, not of their bodies or their experiences.
To men, catcalling may be harmless, but I know from experience the fear that grips me every time a strange man yells at me or grabs my arm to ask for my number. The pounding of your heart, the anxiety of deciding whether to fight or take flight, can sometimes be paralyzing. I have had to walk countless miles trying to shake men who were following me, all the while sweating and trembling with fear and hoping I lose him, hoping he doesn’t pick up his pace, hoping I get home safe and sound. I experience this not because I’m showing cleavage or wearing a mini skirt; I’m ogled and sneered at merely because I’m a woman. I have to continually remind myself that in the case of street harassment, what I attract has no bearing on who I am as a person. I have to intentionally prevent the actions of strange men from affecting my psyche. The responsibility of protection and healing falls on my head and the heads of women who fall victim to street harassment every day, because society says it is never the man’s fault; “He couldn’t help it. It’s natural.”
Regardless of how bad this seems, I still have hope because I have received respectful compliments also. A man followed me a whole city block once before, and when I was getting ready to bolt at the corner, he caught up with me to compliment my outfit because I was wearing his favorite color, then wished me a good day and kept it pushing. I was flattered because I had put thought into my outfit and was happy that someone appreciated it enough to let me know. Black men call out greetings like “Peace Queen” and “Hello Sister” all the time, and it warms my heart when my response isn’t taken as an invitation into my personal space, but as an acknowledgment of another black body, I’m sharing space with.
The struggle here is that I never know when to greet back because a simple “hello” can have a man following you or cursing at you for not encouraging his advances. For example, a man greeted me in the parking lot of a store, and I responded with a simple hello and kept walking. Five minutes later, I turn down a side street and notice a car following me and low and behold, it was the guy from the parking lot. I repeatedly asked him to stop supporting me but kept my voice controlled so that he would not get angry. He eventually pulled off, and I had to circle two blocks before continuing on my route to make sure he really left. A man almost beat me up in a nightclub once because I wouldn’t dance with him and it was another man that talked him down. This guy felt that because I was sharing a public space with him, he had a right to my time and body, regardless of my opinion. The guy who rescued me was a gentleman and expected nothing in return, and he made sure I got into my Uber safely without even asking my name. I’ve prayed for that man countless times.
The fear of harassment keeps women from casual interactions with others and makes it difficult for us to relax in public because, at any time, a man could decide to make that public space unsafe for you and it is not much you can do. The good option in most cases is to try to escape because standing up for yourself often leads to a heightened intensity and or violence. I really feel like this is unfair it is and NEVER the woman’s fault. The comfort of men is not the responsibility of women. We fail our society and future generations when we let offenses against women go unchecked. We put the lives of our children in danger when we silently endorse sexual harassment and abuse against women, because “the women could be lying’ or “we don’t know them”. I cannot stress enough the importance of teaching consent and comprehensive sexual education at the early stages of learning. There is a need for men to learn about and understand the consequences of street harassment. We (both men and women), as a society, help make spaces unsafe for women by allowing men to exert control over bodies that do not belong to them. A society that is unable to protect the girls and women is a society that won’t grow! And until we hold ourselves and the male population accountable for their actions and words and question troublesome norms, women are fighting a losing battle.
Authored by Fanoraine Dohr
Featured picture Sierra Steffes