A recent piece in Slate's Broadsheet (Single Women Eat Babies!) led me to a rather funny article in the New York Post on catcalling, which, in turn, directed me to the activist blog, Holla Back New York City, a blog devoted to empowering women to confront the men who catcall on the street. When I first read about Holla Back in the Post article, I'll admit that I was extremely skeptical. It seemed silly. I thought: what's up with these over-sensitive, uptight women who can't handle being catcalled; everyone gets catcalled; I get catcalled all day; they should just get over it.
But then I reflected a little bit on the course of my day. The truth of the matter is that, although periodically it's nice to hear, "You are so beautiful," or "Gorgeous," said with a sigh as I saunter past, I also often find myself walking hunched, with my head down, trying not to make eye contact, concentrating on ignoring the lewder and more suggestive comments. Prettyboy makes fun of me for dressing conservatively (although I disagree on that point), but what he doesn't realize is that if I dress provocatively in any way, I can't walk down the street without blushing at the aggressive attention I receive.
While there's little wrong with a head nod, and true compliments can be nice to hear from a friend, to be heard from a stranger or an acquaintance (yes, you, creepy men who work at the desk in my office building), they're threatening and embarrassing and I don't know how to respond to them. If I ignore the men I see every day, am I being rude? I don't want to make a hostile work environment, I have to walk into and out of the building several times a day. I don't want to be labeled "bitchy" and my instinct is to smile and say "Thank you," but that just welcomes further familiarity and remarks on the fit of my dresses (and, most recently, a growl as I walked past). As for strangers, I don't want to welcome any further familiarity. I've heard enough scare-stories to know that there's a fine line between safety and danger. I think that that's what men on the street don't realize. They think that saying what they do is harmless. They assume that it's a comment that goes out into the ether, whereas my response is to think: is this guy going to follow me? is he a threat? should I be worried?
I don't mind the looks of appraisal; it's a free country and people are free to leer all they want. In fact, they're free to say whatever they want, too. That's the beauty of free speech. But what recourse do I have? I've realized that it's not that catcalling doesn't bother me, but that I'm so used to it, it's like so much other white noise in this city. So is that it? My only recourse is to ignore the bullies on the streets? Or I could carry around a camera, like filmmaker Maggie Hadleigh-West :
Watching this video, I vacillated between feeling glad that she was putting these men under the spotlight, making them uncomfortable the way that they make me uncomfortable, and wondering if she was going too far. Or if she was just going to be marginalized and dismissed, the way I feel when I speak up and I'm brushed off, out of hand, as a "harpy" or "oversensitive." Just because I'm used to this behavior doesn't make it acceptable. And just because it's not as bad as other horrible and violent things going on, daily, against women world-wide, doesn't mean that we should have to ignore the intrusion on our personal space that occurs repeatedly throughout the day.