I don’t remember the first time I was catcalled.
Maybe it’s because I’m jaded from living and working in NYC, the catcalling capital of the world. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that catcalling becomes a part of a woman’s life so early on that it fades into the part of the memory where those types of meaningless milestones get buried and ultimately forgotten.
When you’re a woman in living in a big city, catcalling very rarely shocks you. Inevitably, it becomes an ever-present part of the background noise of the streets we walk down. We know it’s there, we hear what’s being said, but we keep moving in the hopes that the words somehow won’t touch us if we get far away fast enough.
This past fall, one woman walked the streets of NYC for 10 hours recording the catcalls she received from passersby, and compiled them into a video. She never stops to respond to these men or acknowledges what’s been said. She just keeps her pace as they shout “compliments” at her. As I watched the men in the video, I began to wonder if they’d also have trouble recalling the first time they ever catcalled a woman. How early does it start? Why do they do it? Does it ever work? And what are they getting out of it, anyway?
So during the coldest week of the year thus far, I decided to respond to every catcall that was said to me for a week in order to get to the bottom of these questions.
Catcaller #1: The married bouncer
It actually took me a few missed catcalls to remember that I had made this promise.
Retraining myself to stop, listen and hardest of all, be brave enough to strike up a conversation with the men I’d been working so hard to ignore for so long proved to be no easy feat.
As I was walking to meet a friend in midtown one night, I passed an older man who told me, “God bless.”
“Thank you,” I managed. “How are you tonight?”
“Oh you know, just trying to keep warm out here. Are you staying warm under that scarf?”
I almost walked away at this point but I had gotten this far and thought that maybe I could change the creepy course of this conversation by asking him to tell me about himself.
I learned that Tim* works as a bouncer at a bar in midtown, where he spends 8-hour shifts braving the weather and checking IDs of incoming patrons. He’s also married.
“Why do you catcall women if you have a wife?” I asked him.
“What else am I going to do while I’m standing out here for 8 hours?” he said.
“So, this is just a form of entertainment for you then?” I asked.
“For me it is,” he said, “It’s kind of like a game. Most women keep walking but I’ve seen a few smile. Mostly tourists.”
“Do you remember when you first started catcalling?”
Tim tells me stories of growing up in Chicago, where he and his friends used to shout things at the ladies passing by the store that his parents owned while he was in middle school. When I ask why his mom let him get away with that, he tells me that his mother wasn’t around very much.
I know that it probably won’t to change anything, but I want to explain to Tim why his “pastime” makes the majority of women extremely uneasy and that he’s contributing to a much larger problem here. That maybe he should try to think up another way to pass his 8 hour shifts aside from objectifying women and then keeping count of how many get visibly uncomfortable.
But I can’t summon the nerve. (I’m sorry for failing us, women.) Instead, I thank him for talking to me and continue on.
Catcaller #2: The teenage dirtbags
A few nights later, I was walking home after an early happy hour, when I passed by two teenagers standing on a corner. They couldn’t have been older than 17. One of them said something to the effect of, “Damn, she can get it.”
“Hey,” I turned and said to them, “Thanks.”
The taller one looked me up and down, and finally said, “Wow, you must be desperate.”
“…you catcalled me.” I said back to him.
“Yeah, but, what kind of dumb b*tch actually responds to that? Did your dad beat you or something?”
They both laughed.
“So the two of you walk around pointing out who can ‘get it’ but don’t actually want to get it from anyone you point out because that person must be desperate?” I spit out quickly. I felt like I was back in high school, fighting off bullies.
“Wait, are you offering to put out?”
I wish I could tell you that I took the high road here but at this point I was too damn angry to keep talking to these little asshats. So I told them where to go and how to get there, cut my losses and headed home.
I thought that my encounter with the teenagers would be as uncomfortable as things would get during this experiment.
I was wrong.
Catcaller #3: The Three Stooges
I was taking a long walk down Steinway Street in Astoria, past the section known as “Little Egypt,” where there are probably more hookah bars per capita than anywhere else in this city. I started to pass by three older men standing in a circle smoking cigarettes when I heard one of them say “sexy” under his breath.
“Are you talking to me?” I asked him.
His friend answered, “He likes you!”
“Thanks,” I said. “What are you all up to this afternoon?”
“Pointing out pretty ladies like yourself,” said the friend who blew his friend’s spot up about liking me.
Gus* the matchmaker was short, with graying hair sticking out everywhere underneath his baseball cap. Steve* who “liked me” was a little bit younger, maybe early 40s. Kevin*, the oldest man, didn’t introduce himself. He let Gus make the introduction.
Kevin made me uneasy almost immediately. It was clear he wasn’t happy that I was talking to the two of his friends. He remained silent the entire time I spoke to Gus and Steve about their plans for the day (which involved a lot of scotch and some hookah).
“So, how many women usually stop when you catcall them?” I asked Steve.
Gus answered for him, saying that I was the only lucky woman to respond to Steve’s mating call that day.
Then Kevin told his group sternly, “Time to go,” and motioned for them to follow him back into the hookah lounge. I asked Gus and Steve if they would be willing to take a picture with me before they went, which I wanted to include in this piece.
As they both nodded in agreement, Kevin stepped into my space, got an inch away from my face and screamed, “LEAVE!”
I was once told there’s such thing as a “fight or flight” reflex. I now believe that to be true, because when Kevin did this, I turned and ran.
After a week of responding to catcalls, I wish I could say that I had more concrete answers to the questions I set out to ask these strangers. I know now that some men catcall women strictly for entertainment purposes. I learned that for the most part, these men are not looking for a response or expecting you to actually stop and talk to them. But I don’t regret the fact that I didn’t try to make them understand why they shouldn’t catcall.
How can you explain to a stranger that a compliment makes us feel afraid? That words like “gorgeous” and “beautiful” sound like threats when we hear them whispered to us on an empty street late at night? That we feel uneasy, objectified and uncomfortable when you say this to us while we’re going about our normal routine, not asking to be judged on our appearance out loud? That this thing they do for fun is at the expense of our peace of mind?
That’s not a quick chat you can have with a stranger on a street corner. It needs to be part of a bigger conversation, earlier on, by the people who are in charge of shaping you into a respectable human. When we’re being taught as young women not respond to this kind of attention, we need to also be teaching our young men not to engage in this behavior in the first place.
If not, the Kevin’s and Tim’s and teenagers of the world will continue intimidating women for kicks, while women keep finding ways to tolerate it.
And we shouldn’t have to.