I am slightly embarrassed by how easily I can be affected by another person’s words. Last Friday night, one of my closest friends and I were walking to Target to do some shopping. We had walked at most 100 yards from campus when someone honked at us and yelled profanities from their open car window. Although it was jarring and uncomfortable, it was a situation I was all too familiar with. We continued on our way and remained unhindered in our mission to acquire goods — after all, who could ever keep me from my precious Target? Without really reflecting on the event, I simply pushed it aside and moved on with my life.
The next day at dinner time, I passed a friend of mine in the campus dining hall. He looked at me and then said, out loud, “shawty got a fat ass.”I was shocked, embarrassed, and filled with shame. I looked around to our mutual friends for support, but everyone remained still and then turned away as if nothing had happened.
Regardless of their intention, I felt exposed, embarrassed, and I wanted to retreat from the world. These small events had snowballed to morph a confident, driven, fiery feminist into an insecure and scared young woman. I believe that it isn’t the specific words spoken that have the greatest affect on me, but the overarching message that I am an object of pleasure to these strangers. They have assumed the right to objectify me and assert their power from their moving vehicle.
These small events add up over time and can take a huge toll on the way a woman views herself in relation to men and the greater society at large. Being constantly caught in this power struggle can be destructive to self-esteem and could cause lasting damage.
How should we make sense of these events?
When catcalling first became a regular event in my life, I thought that it was my fault for dressing particularly provocative or revealing too much skin. However, I began to notice that it did not make a difference whether I was bundled head to toe for a Spokane winter, or in a California summer sundress. I have heard many people blame young women for the actions of men and it never fails to infuriate me. My winter coat and boots amply cover 97% of my body, yet I was still becoming an object of men’s critiques as I crossed the street. Obviously, covering up any particularly sexual body parts does not ward off unwanted attention.
If it isn’t my fault, then whose fault is it? Yes, each perpetrator makes an individual decision whether to call out to the woman on the street. However, the issue is bigger than just one or two jerks. If catcalling is a widespread phenomenon, then the issue must be altogether widespread. We must examine the culture at large. What about our current cultural state makes men feel the need to assert dominance over women they do not even know.
For whatever reason, many men have claimed the streets as their own. They can walk safely, knowing that the majority of their time they will go unbothered. I know that as a young woman, to be out late at night, regardless of my destination, could mean trouble for me. I have experienced very unsafe situations in my own life and have heard many stories of other young women becoming victims to violence at night. I believe that the daytime catcalling phenomenon is an extension of this street dominance. It is crazy to me that not only should I avoid walking alone at night, but that I cannot walk alone in the daytime without the possibility of feeling unsafe. But how is this remedied? It comes down to a necessary cultural shift. With discussion of the negative effects of catcalling and how it really feels from a female perspective, there lies the possibility of understanding the implications of the catcall. What may seem like a harmless compliment could be just another remark by a strange man that causes discomfort and adds to the list of street grievances. Women speaking out and telling their stories will help people grasp a handle on what needs to change in our street culture.
If you are a man that has engaged in this behavior, please know that what you might perceive as complimentary could be doing just the opposite. One remark that turns a woman into an object for your pleasure could change the entire trajectory of her day, week, or month. There is no way to know how many people in her life are also failing to recognize her as a person with thoughts, feelings, and fears. Please consider this. Huffington Post contributor Mike Reynolds clearly outlines the impact of catcalling from a male perspective in this article. If you are having a hard time really grasping what catcalling is and why it is considered harassment, take a looksy.
If you are a woman that has experienced some of these cruel words, please know that you are not weak for letting these things get you down.Please don’t trap these feelings inside. I have struggled with feeling helpless, insecure, angry, downtrodden, pathetic, and confused as to why strangers could have such a great effect on me. I believe that it is natural to get stuck in a mindset that you have no control in the situation and that “these things just happen…men are pigs…boys will be boys.” However, I would challenge you to have conversations about your experiences with the people around you. Encourage your male friends to rise above what is culturally acceptable, perhaps leading them to intervene when they witness inappropriate behavior in the future. I believe that this is an appropriate way to fight the catcall. Instead of shouting back at the stranger in the car and reacting in some reassertion of power, go home and write a blog post (what I did) or mention to a friend how it made you feel, and work through the emotional effects in order to minimize the damage that might incur.
Above all, recognize that your value is not contingent on how you are seen by strangers on the street. Your body and spirit are yours alone and deserve to be respected by those around you. No one has the right to take your safety and self-respect away, and I hope that in the future, we can all find strength in these situations and truly make a difference in our world.