One of my brothers was the first to alert me about the now famous video of a woman walking and being catcalled for 10 hours. Almost every (unsheltered) woman alive finds this behavior unsurprising. In fact, when he sent me the link, this is how the interaction went:
My brother: “[Link]”
Me: “The life of any girl over the age of 12.”
My brother: “God bless you. These guys are unreal.”
Me: “These guys are very real. I have taken to talking to random women on the street before, explaining the situation, just to divert their attention.”
My brother: “Wow.”
I have been catcalled and street harassed in almost every place I’ve lived, and country I’ve been to, by men who believe that a girl or woman being out in the world, owes them something for simply breathing. In fact, it is probably responsible for the learned default bitchy expression I have on my face. The hope is this expression will lead to avoiding such occurrences. But of course this just leads to some men insisting that I give them a smile. And the times I do get caught smiling, it is taken as the wrong kind of invitation for other men. I like smiling. But when there is a potential threat of violence a woman has to worry about – which in the presence of a man, she always has to worry about – she will think before she smiles, when she remembers.
Being a woman who not only participates in digital media, but writes on a relatively popular site, and indeed writes about the issues women face, I receive everything from verbally abusive to sexually suggestive messages and commentary. Being a Black African woman who often dissects issues of race, sex, and gender, the dynamics of the messages are sometimes unequivocally targeted at those identities. My response, at least online, to such harassment is often silence. Sometimes I block or report the men depending on the platform. But before I do, and indeed this is just a surface observation, I will look at the profiles of these men. They come in all colors, and they appear to be of different socioeconomic backgrounds.
One of my earlier pieces when I first started writing on Thought Catalog was about a man who I still run into from time to time. He followed me around the neighborhood, talking to me excessively to the point of harassment on several occasions. Eventually, I snapped at him and told him there would be less than pleasant consequences were he to keep this up. I still see him, but rarely. He hasn’t approached me since our confrontation but he seems to enjoy giving me disconcerting looks. He is a White, middle-aged man, and at least superficially, appears to not be working-class.
Lincoln Park, where I live, and where I presume he lives too, is a place that comprises primarily of college students at one of DePaul’s campuses, yuppies who often move here from college and stick around, and young families that are just starting out. It is a good neighborhood and I enjoy living here. But indeed it is mostly White, and mostly middle- and upper-middle class. There are many instances where I am reminded of how there are few people who look like me here. But none strike me more than when a (White) man is making a sexually suggestive comment about my Blackness and femaleness in an interaction. It is often disguised as humor but it is often not intelligent enough to be elusive.
I mention these instances and interactions because there seems to be this notion that catcalling and harassment is the prerogative of the lower-class and in particular, that of men of color. I challenge that notion strongly not only on the basis of personal experience, but on the observation that the way in which harassment manifests itself differs depending on class. But it does not necessarily go away the higher one gets on the socioeconomic ladder. Portraying harassment and catcalling as a pastime of the working class is making the poor appear to be people without morals and manners; it is making a pejorative of the poor. And as someone who aligns themselves with issues that concern the poor, and whose parents were born into poverty – a different kind, laid with particular African construction but poverty nonetheless – the suggestion that the poor are without morals is not only harmful but condescending. And our sensibilities need re-evaluation.
Catcalling and harassment is always about what almost everything sexual is about – power. And this type of power in these particular instances is not restricted by any socioeconomic privilege. So indeed you will find men in working class backgrounds showcasing this power. But to suggest that these men don’t know what they’re doing, or haven’t been taught any better because of their socioeconomic situation, is to equate poverty with immorality. And that is deeply problematic. Audre Lorde taught us that, “Survival is not an academic skill.” I would say the same thing for morality. Especially morality of the obvious kind, where the relationship between a strange man and a strange woman is always more apprehensive for her than for him.
The ways in which men of higher socioeconomic classes harass women is often more subtle and covert, than men from lower socioeconomic classes. But it is also harmful. In between their relentless pursuit in controlled spaces like bars and club, or their accepted “bro-like” behavior in which their objectification of women is argued as mere flirting, the big man of color with saggy jeans that you expect to be afraid of, is not around. But he is replaced with an often White, often middle-class man, with a polo shirt. And indeed this man, while not as obvious, feels just as entitled to a woman’s body and attention simply because she exists, and he wants it.
There are those who will say women are too sensitive, that a man “hitting” on you, in whatever capacity, is not a big deal. But I don’t know a single woman who has never felt unsafe in the presence of a man – strange or familiar. So I think most women would rather not take the chance. But I do think where this video goes wrong, apart from the rumor that many White men were edited out of the video, is that it portrays and reproduces a fear of men of color, and depicts the not-so-middle-class as unprincipled. It reproduces, therefore, some harmful and only half-true messages in society.
I come from a culture where strangers talk to you and men are far more aggressive about their designs on women, to the point where pseudo marriage proposals are not uncommon, but would undoubtedly be labeled as “creepy” by the average American woman, I always view these things from a multifaceted perspective. Cultures and subcultures are often in a struggle for what is acceptable and what is not. In all the cultures that I’ve been in, or studied, or observed, I find that is not so much men approaching women in public spaces that is fundamentally frightening. But the potential threat in particular situations where an after-the-fact reaction from her is not agreeable to him. Because let’s face it, at least some of the time, and depending on the man and the woman, the approach may be a positive thing. We cannot and should not negate individual assertions on these matters, or our cultural and subcultural differences, in our approach to deconstructing them.
What is definitely true however, is this: In all cultures, there are particular male bodies that women are taught to be especially afraid of. Even when it has been shown time and time and again that those who are in greatest proximity to you, in terms of physical distance from one’s residence, are always likely to cause you the most harm. The poor are not without morals. Context and culture and subculture always matters. Women are not without power. Men, for the time being, just as those in better socioeconomic situations, simply have more power – especially to shape conversation. So in our attempt to discuss these matters and to resist the powers that be, we must do so in a way that doesn’t negate individual and societal morality. And we must always be careful not to further disenfranchise the already disadvantaged.
The dark truth I suppose, is that it’s much easier to blame particular pockets of society, and to hold onto our notions about people of certain colors and class, than to deal with the fundamental fear every woman has: That in the wrong place, and at the wrong time, and regardless of any privilege and power a woman may hold or not hold, she can easily be at the mercy of a man’s morality; at the mercy of his power. How do we fundamentally solve that problem?