As an advisory board member for Take 5 for Your Dreams, I wrote a blog post this week for the What's Your Brave? blog series on sexual harassment and sexual violence. I chose to write about catcalling, a very public form of sexual harassment that some people dismiss as "not a big deal" or even think is a compliment to women. You can view the post on the What's Your Brave? site here or read it below.
Last night, I left my apartment in NYC around 9pm to make a quick run to the grocery down the street. From the moment I stepped outside, I was very conscious of the fact that I was out at night, alone, and, most importantly, a girl. I told myself that I was safe—the streets were well-lit, I thought, and surely women in New York go to the grocery store alone all the time. Nevertheless, I walked quickly, avoiding eye contact with anybody I passed. No one gave me any trouble.
I got to the store and wandered around for a bit, looking for popcorn and paper towels. As I walked past the meat counter, I heard a low whistle and someone behind me saying “Nice.” I turned and saw the man behind the counter looking at me, grinning in a way that immediately made me extremely uncomfortable. I frowned at him and walked away as quickly as I could. Although I was upset, uncomfortable and scared, I acted like nothing had happened. I quietly checked out and left the store, fuming all the way home.
This is not the first time I have been catcalled. “Catcalling” is the act of whistling, yelling at, or making unsolicited comments about someone, often in a public place. I was whistled at on a trip to Costa Rica when I was 15 by random men on the street at night. My first week of college, three boys yelled at my friend and I on a riverboat cruise, calling her “red” and me “yellow dress.” A young man in my university’s cafeteria yelled at me from ten feet away, saying “Hey girl, I see you. I see you playing with your hair.” In fact, I was even catcalled when I was in middle school. Not because I reached puberty early, or because I wore particularly exciting or revealing clothing at that age. Being catcalled has nothing to do with me beyond the fact that I possess a female body. All kinds of women—of every size, race, age and sexual orientation—in all kinds of places—cities big or small—get catcalled. Last night was not the first time it has happened to me, and it is undoubtedly not the last. And every time it happens, I react the same way: I pretend like I didn’t hear, or I look at the catcaller quickly and walk away. Although on the inside I am angry, scared and uncomfortable, I always try to act like it doesn’t affect me.
Why do I do that? Why didn’t I tell the guy at the meat counter to back off, or at least tell his manager about his inappropriate behavior? Why do women feel like they can’t respond to this kind of harassment?
I think the answer to these questions is multi-faceted. First, I have to say that some women do respond; they tell their harassers to leave them alone or to back off. These women are brave—that is a hard thing to do. And here’s why:
- First and foremost, that kind of harassment is scary. For a woman, especially if she is alone, it is frightening when a strange man yells or whistles at her, and it is difficult to respond. When a man she doesn’t know is giving her that kind of unsolicited, unwelcome sexual attention, she will probably feel immediately unsafe around him and will not want to engage him further in any way.
- Second, society has told women from the moment they arrived on this planet that above all, they should be polite and not cause a scene. This idea has been so culturally reinforced throughout our lives that we, as women and girls, sometimes even risk our own safety in favor of not being rude or drawing unwanted attention to ourselves. When a stranger yells at us from across the street, instead of yelling back that he should keep his comments to himself, we might just walk a little faster and keep our heads down. We have been taught our whole lives that the worst thing a girl can be is aggressive and rude, even to harassers.
Being catcalled does not make me feel pretty or desirable. When a man I don’t know whistles at me or comments on my appearance, it is not a compliment. Catcalling women and girls is a way to remind them that when they are out in public, they are public domain. That when a girl is on the street or in a store at night, her body is not her own. I am an 18-year-old girl living in New York City for the first time. I have dreams, thoughts, opinions, and feelings. When I am out—night or day, alone or not—I want, like anyone else, to be seen as a human being. But when a strange man catcalls me, he is reminding me that I am first and foremost a female body that he and any other man has the right to access.
These messages to girls that their bodies do not belong to them but are instead public property are internalized at a young age. In my eighth grade all-girls health class, my teacher was talking to us about catcalling. She asked us if she were to come to school in nothing but a sports bra and track pants, would she deserve to be whistled at by male students? My class of eighth grade girls almost unanimously responded yes, of course: if she wants to wear revealing clothing, then she just has to deal with that kind of behavior from men. My teacher then explained to us that no, no matter what a woman or girl wears, she does not deserve to be harassed—she is not asking for the input of strange men, and she should not have to be subjected to their catcalling. Looking back on this class, it shows me how early in our lives girls are taught that it is our responsibility to control men’s behavior and that we do not ultimately have a say in what happens to our bodies.
One of the reasons men continue to catcall and harass women they don’t know is because this behavior goes largely unpunished. As I explained before, it is difficult for women to push back against this kind of harassment, and onlookers certainly don’t often jump in to help. Therefore, I would like to end this post with an open letter to men everywhere.
Dear Men Who Catcall Women:
Just don’t. She doesn’t want your input. She doesn’t want to know that you think she’s got a nice body. Her self esteem does not depend on the opinion of a (creepy) stranger, and her body is not yours to comment on, whistle at or harass. She is a human being, and her mere existence does not mean she owes you anything. To Men Who Catcall Women, from women everywhere, I say: Back off.
Dear Men Who Don’t Catcall Women:
I know that some of you do not immediately understand why catcalling is a problem, as it is probably something that has never happened to you. However, if a woman complains about being catcalled, do not challenge her. Don’t argue with her. Don’t tell her that it wasn’t a big deal, or that it was just a compliment. Women have heard it all before, and the truth is, it’s not your place to decide if it was a big deal or not. To Men Who Don’t Catcall Women, when a woman tells you that it is harmful: believe her. If you dismiss or belittle her experience—even if you have never catcalled a woman in your life—you are part of the problem.
To men and women everywhere who stand up for women’s bodily integrity and autonomy, I say: Thank you. Keep doing what you’re doing.
All the best,