When I was 17 I left for college; fresh out of the comforts of suburbia –a babe in the woods. I ventured the boroughs of New York City. Traveling from train to train, walking short-block radiuses from the subway to campus I considered myself acclimated to the hustle and bustle of city life. Though I had mastered the metro card and deciphering platform changes, I hadn’t quite figured out how to avoid catcalls.
I took it upon myself to try out different ‘defensive’ strategies. When alone, I often walked around with headphones in –like a staple of my outfit I refused to leave without them. More than not, my headphones played no sound, as to keep my wit sharp and aware of my surroundings. Other times I played the ‘phone a friend’ option; I would call up my sister, or mom, or a classmate –someone to talk to while I traveled and to keep outsiders from rudely cutting in. I struggled with establishing a poker face. I walked hurriedly, trading my usual friendly smile and stride for no eye contact and a stern shaped mouth. Ultimately I discovered none of those tactics alleviated the discomfort and aggressive attempts from male ruffians.
I’ve had many experiences with catcalls; almost too many to count –much like a startling number of women. I’ve been loudly addressed by the color of my dress, with the, “Hey girl in the red!” I’ve been called out by my position walking in my pack, “Ayo shorty in the middle!” I’ve been asked things, “Give me a smile”, “Can I walk with you”, “Where you going girl?” Men have even gone as far as to try to grab my arm or my friends’.
I remember I was flushed with a wave of warmth, a combination of annoyance, anger, and even humiliation that pulsed through my veins coming to head in flashes of cherry on my cheeks. I didn’t like the unwanted attention; especially when words turned to threats.
Frighteningly, I was followed when choosing not to respond to a man who shouted out, “Hey beautiful give me a smile.” My silence and unwillingness to comply was met with his anger as his tone quickly switched. He trailed behind me, his voice deepened with rage, “Okay you stuck-up bitch, I got something to make you smile.” His inflection –close and stern, hit the back of my neck, sending a chill down my spine. I could see the man’s dark shadow behind me, quickly melting into my own. I acted fast; making the decision to cross the block onto a more crowded street into a small sea of people, losing the man’s interest and position in the background. The muscle in my throat tightened, tingling like a slow burn of pins and needles as I held in my infuriation until I reached the door of my dorm where I was finally alone and finally safe.
After much reflection, I realized that my blueprints to avoid being catcalled was therein part of the issue. In all those circumstances, I did nothing wrong. I should not have been trying to avoid something that shouldn’t have been happening to me, or any woman, in the first place. In turn, it is the mentality and commonality of street harassment that needs to be discussed. Accountability, awareness, and an effort to end this type of behavior are of high importance. Digging into the layers of masculinity –the acceptable conduct of how women are spoken to and displaying decency and respect need to be unpacked to help prevent other instances. The fragility of the male ego does not make it right to react to rejection with such aggression and in some cases violence.
Recently, France has made news for their new approach to the cat-calling issue with a recent incident. On July 27, 22-year-old Marie Laguerre, was en route walking past a cafe when a man confronted her with lewd comments. Laguerre replied by telling the man to shut up. Just before she could go on her way the man slapped her across the face in front of a dozen of café patrons. In turn, Laguerre uploaded the disturbing CCTV Video footage to the YouTube platform, bringing awareness and stirring controversy over how we treat catcalling, and even the deep seeded issue of male fragility.
France’s Gender Equality Minister, Marlène Schiappa, who was appointed to President Emmanuel Macron’s cabinet May of last year, is and has been very vocal about keeping a conversation going about such harassment and establishing a new law.
NPR stated that “French lawmakers have approved a measure outlawing sexual harassment in the street, rendering catcalling and lewd or degrading comments a crime punishable by on-the-spot fines of up to 750 euros — or more than $870. The country’s Senate passed the legislation late Wednesday, August 1st, as part of a broader package of measures targeting sexual violence, which the lower house of Parliament advanced earlier this year.”
When I watched the video of Laguerre, and read the comments, I was brought back to why I feel especially connected to this issue, ironically because of a story about a young woman that I never knew. Her name is Tiarah Poyau and she was a 22-year-old scholar who was fatally shot in the face after telling a man to stop grinding on her, dismissing him to say, “Get off me,” according to a source. She was a St. John’s University student like me, she was attending a Caribbean festival in the city –like I’ve done before, and she was exercising her right to refuse unwanted attention like I’ve done.
Poyau could have been me; she could have been any of us women. Her story and Laguerre only reiterate why this social issue needs to be memorialized.
As France pioneers have sparked the conversation circulating around catcalling, I wonder if America will follow suit. Will society leave old ways of thinking in the past –that ‘boys will be boys’ mentality and misogyny, which often fronts as a scapegoat for acts of disrespect towards women? Laws and fines will undoubtedly make some progression in the attitude towards catcalling and street harassment, but that change will also need to come from home. There is a lot of work still to be done. Teach your children –your sons, to be respectful and to be kind. Have them imagine that the girl walking down the street is their sister, their mother, and their cousin. Exemplify the importance of equality, and how we all –male and female, should have the right to feel safe walking together, or alone.