Originally published: 06.03.14
Let me tell you a little bit about what street harassment – or “catcalling” as you term it – has meant in my life. Perhaps it will help you understand why some women have found your VICE piece so disquieting, and if it doesn’t, well, all I’ve done is laid bare my vulnerable past and upset my mother, so NBD (sorry mom).
When I was about 11, a boy in my neighbourhood was in love with me and wanted to “go steady”. He was a very attractive boy and I was very flattered, until one afternoon he insisted on exposing himself to me. He just wanted me to “look at it”. I said no – I was scared and embarrassed and I didn’t want to look. I ran away. This boy and his best friend then turned sharply from admirers to haters: they started yelling abuse at me if they saw me on the street, sometimes chucking stones, and once they actually grabbed me, but that’s a story about sexual assault and not catcalls so never mind it for the moment
At about the same time, two other boys (why do they always work in pairs?) were also paying me and a (different) friend attention. At first we were flattered, they were older boys and I actually had a crush on one of them anyway. But then, during swimming sessions, they started to get intimidating. They would dive and come up between our legs. They’d playfully threaten to undo our bathing costumes. They’d corral us in the deep end and leeringly ask us personal questions. Long story short, I can’t swim to this day, and one of those boys, who lived on my street, also ended up yelling things and chucking stones at me. Stone chucking, it turns out, is a surprisingly common experience among pubescent girls. Leviticus was onto something.
These were probably my earliest introductions to catcalling and the interface between it and actual violence. They are only two among many more, but they stick int he mind.
You’re probably getting ready to say that my experiences are not “true” catcalls, that this is not what you were talking about at all, that the examples you gave are somehow qualitatively different from my experiences. I’d like to ask you – how? If there is a clear difference between what those boys were doing when they were menacing me at close quarters and what they and other boys and men were doing when they were shouting at me from a distance, what is it? Can you describe it, other than telling me that in some of the cases I was right to be afraid, and in others I was wrong, and should have been flattered?
But wait, that’s not the end of my story, so before we get into further judgements about how I should just relax and learn to like street harassment, let me just tell you that I grew up to love it. I reveled in catcalls; they were daily (and believe me, they were daily) reminders that I’m desirable, that I am seen, that I am noticed. In a world where boys at school would start hissing if I tried to speak in class, where my father and other men in authority explicitly told me I had no right to speak, being seen was at least better than being ignored completely. It was something. An indication, however small, that I am making a connection with people in the world. I treasured it. Some days, smiling back at a catcaller was the most genuine emotion I was empowered to express to a man. Not because I’m a timid shrinking violent, but because they were not listening. They only gave a fuck about what they wanted to, well, fuck.
What changed my mind, I bet you’re wondering? Was I eventually raped in some sufficiently filmic way that my attitudes experienced a redemptive turnaround? Did I get old and fat and stop being attractive to men, subsequently becoming embittered?
Well, not exactly. I did get older, of course, everyone does, but male attention mysteriously failed to disappear. I’d turned against the casual street Romeo a lot earlier than you’d think, though. It started when, aged 22, my then-boyfriend playfully ordered me to get up and take a twirl for a friend of his at a party. I was wearing a very short dress and looked, if I say so myself, fucking unbelievable, and he wanted to show me off. I did not know the friend, and felt shy. Without analysing my feelings, I said no. He went on badgering me. I said no again. He wouldn’t stop. It went on and on and on, without resolution. He was ‘nice’ about it, smiling and complimentary. Nobody told him to knock it off. The evening just trailed off like that – I don’t have a neat little parable of how we had a huge row and then broke up over it; we didn’t. It hadn’t been an avalanche, but the fluttering of a few snowflakes.
That was probably the first time in my life I consciously declined male attention. A man wanted to admire me and I said no. This was, to my surprise, not the winning answer. The second and more dramatic time was while I was working as an archaeologist in a small town up north. Archaeologists are not known for their glamorous work attire, but we – a visible minority of outsiders – were often remarked on and called at on the street. One night we were walking back from the pub and a car full of young men drove past and shouted something obscene at us. I don’t even remember what. I just remember I was tipsily flourished a middle finger at the car’s retreating lights by means of a mild protest.
The car screeched to a halt and went into reverse. It slam-stopped alongside us and the driver leaned out of the window and started threatening me: I’m going to rip your face off, I’m going to fuck your mother, you fucking ugly bitch; the usual. My colleagues quickly pushed me to the back of the group, not to protect me, but so that they could apologise to the obviously violent thug in front of them to make him calm down and go away. I was strongly given the impression I should shut up and not make any more trouble, before everyone gets the shit kicked out of them.
It was a scary and educational experience, a bit like the stone throwing; but even after that I didn’t start rejecting all catcalls. Sometimes they made me smile. Sometimes they were mildly annoying but no big deal. Sometimes, like a few years ago on New Year’s Eve, they quickly degenerated into open attempts at sexual assault in a public but dark and secluded space. But one thing is absolutely constant: if I reacted negatively, it escalates. Straight away. No exceptions.
Catcalls are a bit like make up (or any other synecdoche for femininity) in that respect: they are totes a choice, until you try to choose not to. Once a woman pushes back against catcalls, the underlying violence, the resentment and hatred simmering just beneath the surface, quickly becomes apparent. If you think that’s far-fetched, do a little experiment: next time you get “eye-fucked on the way to work”, tell the guy to stop staring at you. See what he says, or whether he continues to look at you with admiration. I’ve got a strong hunch that the response you’ll get will be a tad less than empowering.
If you don’t have the trauma of my pre-teens to teach you to be afraid of male attention, then I can only be glad for you. It’s not something I would wish on anyone. But it would make me challenge even more strongly your assertion that feminists who say that street harassment is harassment, and is not acceptable, are “teaching women to be constantly afraid”. Who are you to tell me what made me afraid? Of course different women will feel differently about this uninvited public attention, and that’s fine. I’m not trying to police women’s reactions to harassment. What I do insist on is that it is never a compliment, always a power play. Oh, you can “make a choice”, as one of your interviewees did, to be “empowered” by it (empowered to do what?). But you can not choose to avoid it. If you so much as question a man’s right to impinge upon your privacy in public, you’re in for abuse. That doesn’t sound like much of a choice, does it?
No one had to teach me to be afraid, really. No tales of Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf were necessary to instill timidity and caution in me. I didn’t read the Everyday Sexism blog 30 years ago and think “oh wow, all these hundreds of women really hate it when men yell at them on the street or stare at them on the underground, so I’d better get upset about the heavy breather rubbing himself against me on the bus yesterday!”. If anything, the problem was that the people around me refused to take my fear seriously, like you are refusing to take women’s fears seriously in your piece today, implying that your personal enjoyment of catcalls should erase or negate the deep-seated and perfectly reasonable fears of others.
Boys showed me that I had better be afraid, not feminists. Boys and men taught me that there is a direct link between violent speech and violent action. They taught me that if I reject their advances, I will be punished. They taught me that verbal violence does shade into physical violence, because it did. These were lessons I learned young, and I learned them well. That you choose to simply reject that view without offering evidence to the contrary is not going to change my mind. That’s my lived experience. It is just as valid as yours, and it is shared by many women. Please don’t tell us that to be afraid because bad things happened to us is “infantilising”. To be afraid of what is clearly an imminent danger is a mature emotional response that millions of women are entitled to have – without being snidely written off as insufficiently “sexual” by those who refuse to acknowledge our experiences.