I walk to work fairly often. I do it to save petrol and for the exercise, because I live a brief ten minute walk from where I work.
Barely a day goes by when I manage to walk that ten minutes without one of the scenarios depicted above occurring. Sometimes more than once.
I’ve had guys try to get me in their car. Guys try to get me to come over and eat their leftovers (seriously). I have guys holler all sorts of random “compliments” my way. I’ve been pestered. I’ve been interrupted. I’ve even been followed.
More than once.
For men, this sort of thing is just a non-issue. (For the most part. I acknowledge and understand that there ARE cases of street harassment where the targets are male.) But it’s different when you’re a woman.
Here’s why this subject matters, and why it should be talked about.
I ought to be able to walk the ten minutes between my apartment and my job in peace. I have every right to walk down the street, across the road, and through the grocery store car park in order to get to work. When people yell things at me, distract me, interrupt me, and try to get me to stop my commute, they are saying that my time does not matter.
They are saying that I shouldn’t get to walk in peace simply because they feel like talking to me. That my minding my own business loses priority to their whims.
Let me be very clear. It’s not someone saying, “Excuse me, ma’am. Do you know what time it is?”
It’s “Hey sexy!” or “Damn, girl!” or “I’d hit THAT!” or “Where are you going?” or “You’re looking fine!” or “Hey, wait.”
Those are not acceptable reasons to engage my attention when I’m walking, minding my own business. Think it, fine. Keep it to yourself.
The message I hear is, “You should stop everything because I am giving you attention.”
I didn’t ask for the attention (and NO, being attractive is in NO WAY asking for attention), and I certainly don’t want it. What I want is to get from my home to my place of employment without being bothered.
It’s degrading also because I’m expected to take it as a compliment. I’m expected to be pleased by the attention. I’m expected to rejoice that some stranger thinks I’m hot. You should see a problem with those things. There is one.
If you don’t see a problem, imagine you’re at work, typing away, and someone barges into your office and sits there on your desk. It’s making you late. It’s taking your time. And when you politely ask them to leave, they get angry and tell you that they came in to give you a compliment. You should be pleased. You should be thankful. Never mind the fact that they interrupted you. Never mind the fact that they have now made your report late. Never mind the fact that you have your own autonomy. Theirs is all that matters.
I am hyper aware when I walk to work. It doesn’t matter if it’s in broad daylight. Sometimes I have to walk home when it’s dark, and then I am at threat level red. I usually have cash on me on my way home. I am alone. And even though I walk through the well-lit car park instead of down the darker street, bad things have happened in much more populated places.
So when someone yells, “Damn, I’d hit that!” from a vehicle and I’m by myself? Yeah. It’s threatening.
Once I had to walk home from the metro when I lived in College Park. Two men in an SUV pulled up alongside me and tried to get me to get in their car with them. They made sexual remarks about what I was wearing, stared me up and down, and when I moved to get away, they pulled their car in front of me. I jumped across a median to avoid them. They made a U-turn to try and catch me the other way, and when I crossed the median AGAIN, they (thankfully) drove away.
So when a man can’t recognise that yelling at a woman who is walking alone is threatening, it upsets me. It’s very threatening. It takes annoyance to the level of fear. Because if he decided he REALLY wanted to ruin my night, it could get ugly fast.
Catcalls make me feel unsafe because not only are they dismissing my right to get from one place to another and mind my own business, but they are a very simple display of dominance. And they are aggressive by nature. They DEMAND attention.
Just like the cartoon, I’ve heard those exact closing words from countless male mouths. “Oh, I’d love it if women would hit on me like that?”
No, you really wouldn’t.
You would not want to have someone violate your personal space solely because they want to. You would not want to have someone aggressively command your attention. You would not want to have someone follow you, touch you, fondle you, or stop you from going about your business.
It’s not sexy. It’s creepy, threatening, and degrading.
And yet it gets dismissed. If I tell someone to leave me alone, I get called a bitch. (It’s happened more than once.) If I hurry away, it’s “Why do you have to be like that?” If I say I’m married, it’s “It’s not about that! I just want to get to know you!” You DON’T know me, it IS about that, and you’re full of shit. If you are trying to meet friends by yelling at them across a street, you need to seriously work on your social skills. I’ve even gotten this one to the married response: “That doesn’t matter to me.”
Clearly. It doesn’t matter because you have zero respect for me, my husband, my time, and my personal boundaries. Again, I say fuck off.
But time and time again, if women don’t respond with pleasure to catcalls and their varying levels of ridiculousness, we’re the ones called bitchy. Frigid. Cunts. Ice Queens. With no sense of humour, who can’t take a joke, and who can’t even handle a simple compliment.
That is seriously wrong on many levels. That is what is called Rape Culture. That is what makes people blame victims.
It’s the simple denial of a woman’s personhood.
No, catcalls are not rape. But yes, they are related. Any time you force your presence on someone, any time you try and demand attention from them that they are unwilling to give, you are violating boundaries. Catcalls are a long way down that road from rape, but they are on the same road.
It’s not flirting. It’s harassment. And if you’ve never been on this side of it, it can be damn hard to understand. It shouldn’t be. I believe that it’s not that hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes if you squeeze enough and maybe try a shoe horn. But a lot of people seem afraid to do that.
Let me make something else clear: by declaiming street harassment, I’m not saying that all men are rapists, or even that all men who catcall women are assholes. What I’m saying is that catcalling and street harassment are products of a culture that values women’s boundaries less than men’s. A culture that continues to make these things permissible. A culture that continues to put women down for speaking out about it. A culture that undermines the sense of fear that can accompany street harassment, and that often does. A culture that essentially says women should just take it.
No. We shouldn’t.
Street harassment is just as wrong as any other type of harassment. There is no logical reason why women should have to endure unwanted sexual comments, yells, and advances from strangers. When you say that out loud, you have to wonder why anyone would argue against it. But people do, often unknowingly, every time they say we should take it as a compliment. Every time they say the harasser didn’t mean any harm.
What can you do if you notice someone being harassed? Acknowledge it. Male or female, ask the target of the harassment if the harasser is bothering her (or him). Look the harasser in the eye. You might catch some flak for it, but it sends a signal. An important signal. It says that what they are doing is socially unacceptable.
Making street harassment socially unacceptable is the only thing that will stop it. The only way to do that is to show that it’s not okay, to validate women’s rights to walk from one place to another without being yelled at, accosted, or grabbed. And for the love of Zeus, if you have a friend who thinks it’s fun to catcall, speak up.
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