I don’t so much remember what he said, but how it made me feel.
Suddenly the streetlights went dark, replaced by an unwanted spotlight that was shining right on me. There didn’t seem time to breathe, let alone think about how my body would respond. I went with the first thing that came into my head:
Do you want to fucking say that again?
The words surprised me as much as they did him. They tasted like anger, sadness and disgust all mixed in with the Havana Club I’d been drinking. His expression made it clear that he wasn’t used to being called out. He was shocked – not as much as I was though – that I had the audacity to challenge him.
And that’s what I want to talk about. Challenging. Not just people, but ideas. Notions that have been ingrained into our society and our minds for so long that barely anyone bats an eyelid.
When I sat down to my laptop, I started to write about my “usual reaction” to being catcalled and approached on the street.
Doesn’t that just illustrate everything?
I have a usual reaction to strangers calling out to me on the street and giving me names I haven’t chosen, and don’t want, for myself. I’ve been conditioned to let them off with a heavy sigh and an eye roll, maybe an under-breath curse or even a middle finger if I’m feeling particularly pissed off.
And I’m not the only one – that’s what’s so important. Important and scary. This isn’t just my story; almost every girl I know has one just like it.
Something about this time was different for me, though. Maybe it was because, in the distance of just over 100m, my two friends and I had been catcalled on three separate occasions. The gang of boys who wolf-whistled as we crossed the road in front of them. The hooded group sat waiting for the bus. The boy who thought he was hidden on the corner.
When I told my mother about it, I half expected her to ask me what I was wearing – another conditioned response. She didn’t though, and I love her for it. She just apologised in a way should never have to.
It would be easy for someone – most likely someone who hasn’t experienced catcalling themselves – to look at the situation and make judgements. We were three teenage girls walking through town at 11pm on a Saturday night. What did we expect?
I wasn’t going to write this. But conditioning girls to play things like this down and not to react or stand up for themselves is damaging. Even more damaging than feeling like you can’t walk down a street in your hometown without being approached.
We are being taught it is through our own doing that we feel uncomfortable and vulnerable, like we should’ve been doing something different. Shouldn’t have put ourselves in that situation in the first place.
I ask you: what situation?
Later that same evening, whilst dancing with my friends in a bar, a man at least ten years older than me touched me without my permission. Three days earlier, whilst jogging in the park, two boys whistled and called me sexy. There have been times where both customers and managers have made inappropriate comments to me at work. There is literally not a single sphere in our society where this kind of thing doesn’t happen, and yet we’re the ones being told are to blame.
Where is it that I’m supposed to go to get away from this? How many scenarios shouldn’t I put myself in before the advice I’m being given is just not to leave the house so not to tempt anyone to make sexualised remarks towards me?
The way I see it, the more we try and place the blame on anyone but the catcallers themselves or try and make excuses for their behaviour, the more serious it gets.
I never really realised how bad it is until now, and even now I know lightly I’ve come off in comparison. There are millions of girls across the world that have to deal with a thousand times worse treatment every single day. Girls for whom this is their “normal.” Their always.
Why didn’t you ever say something to them? my mother asked me. I couldn’t help but hang my head in shame when I answered: I didn’t think I could. I wasn’t strong enough at thirteen when a man I was serving at work told me to drop something on the floor so that he could look at my ass as I bent over.
I sure as hell wasn’t strong enough at fifteen when a boy whistled at me and I took it as a compliment.
I wasn’t at seventeen when my only response to being overtly ogled by a group of men as I walked into a bar was to fix my eyes to the floor and make myself smaller. To take up less space.
I feel now though, at eighteen, I am strong enough. Or I’m starting to be.