I watched a video in which a woman named Shoshana strolled silently through Manhattan. She walked with purpose, doing nothing to draw attention to herself. It should have been a very boring, quiet video, but it wasn’t. Many of the men who saw her were decidedly not quiet. All Shoshana did was walk down the streets of her city—an activity not at all an uncommon for human beings to do—and yet, her presence was met with a constant stream of uninvited attention and comments from strangers.
I know that in the grand scheme of things, women around the world are facing far more pressing issues than this, but as a first world society, can we please just get this out of the way and agree to cut the catcalls and street harassment? Can we please agree to respond with vehement disapproval every single time we see this happen?
When I first saw this video, it was posted on a feminist website, and I thought, “FINALLY video evidence of how prevalent this is!” And then I saw it posted on Facebook, and I stupidly decided to read the comments. It was shocking to see how many people, both men and women, denied that this sort of thing actually occurs, or denied that the video shows any kind of harassment at all. Some even tried to skew what they saw as proof of oppression of men. I was astonished. And I’d like to remark upon some of the points I saw in the comments section.
A lot of people seem to think that the “good morning, beautiful”s were lovely compliments—just people being nice. But let’s be honest: after so many “nice ass”es and “I’d hit that”s–yeah, a full-body-scanning gawk and a “Hello, gorgeous” can feel just as gross. It’s just that, when I’m buying my morning coffee, engrossed in thought about an upcoming assignment, I am not asking to be assessed. It’s obnoxious to shout your opinion of my appearance at me as if I’m up for auction.
Even my generally enlightened husband, when I expressed my dismay about catcalls, said, “They’re annoying to you because they’re frequent. If a girl has been working hard to lose weight or something, and she gets catcalled for the first time, she’d probably be happy.”
Firstly, he’s wrong in thinking that catcalls happen only to conventionally attractive women. What’s more, street harassment often comes in the form of insults about a woman’s body, rather than “praise.” In my experience, most women want to look good, and for a variety of reasons. Many work out for their health. Some wear makeup because they like how it makes them feel. Some dress up nicely because of how they hope to be perceived by their friends, coworkers, or significant others. Very few get dressed in the morning and think, “I hope some strangers tell me my butt looks juicy today.”
Of course, I don’t speak for all women. In fact, a friend once posted a Facebook status about how it “made her day” when an old man at the gym stared at her ass and said, “I like the view from here!”
I thought, that guy didn’t know anything about you! You could’ve been a nun, or the princess of Genovia, or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but he felt it appropriate to comment on your ass? Let me be clear: no one needs to be any of those things to deserve respect. But if I had been there, I think I would’ve yelled back, “She’s a person! She is more than just that butt! She has a life filled with joy and heartache and dreams and loved ones!”
Men: yes, misogyny is so ingrained in this society that some women will take your disrespect as a compliment. But it’s much better to play it safe and not catcall, just in case. A different friend once conveyed to me a similar, yet very different, gym story. She was working out, and a guy came up to her and said, “Wow! I see you in here a lot—you really work hard, and it shows! Great job.” That’s so much better. He commended her for her effort and ambition, not just her ass. She sought out a friendship with him because of his kindness and positive energy, and they started dating shortly after.
They’re just being friendly! No ulterior motives!
I love friendly people. I LOVE having conversations with strangers. And I’ve noticed that there is a huge and clear difference between a polite, neighborly greeting, and a catcall. Even remarks that don’t explicitly mention appearance can have a clear intention based on their context. Consider two common scenarios:
In scenario one, you enter the crosswalk of a busy street, walking in pace with a large crowd. More people are passing you from the opposite direction. A man from that crowd sees you, and, singling you out, slows his gait in order to stare at you for a moment and say, “How YOU doin’?”
Scenario two: you’re crossing a somewhat empty street, and a man is passing you from the opposite direction. As he passes, you make eye contact, and he smiles and says, “hi.”
Which of these is a catcall, and which is a friendly greeting? It shouldn’t be difficult to tell. And when it happens to you, Lord knows you can feel the difference. Scenario one is demonstrated pretty clearly in the video at 0:39. Does it seem like that man genuinely hoped she would have a good evening, or did he just want to stare at her a little longer and make her uncomfortable?
When the motive is just to be friendly, it’s obvious, and it’s great. But when it comes to catcalls, the motive is often, “I want to stare at you.” It is sometimes, “I want to make my friends laugh at your discomfort and think I’m cool/tough.” It is frequently, “I want to catch your attention and incite any kind of reaction at all.” These are all annoying. But the motive can also rarely (but still too often) be, “I’m going to rape you.”
Okay, you’re paranoid. Just be friendly, or tell them to f’ off!
Many people speculated that if Shoshana would have just smiled and said “thank you” to the men in the video, she would’ve been left alone. It’s not true. I have whatever the opposite of resting-bitch-face is—even when I’m annoyed, I’m smiley, and sadly, that friendly smile is what often seems to invite the catcalls. Responding to a stray “You’re beautiful” with a friendly “thank you!” is what sometimes turns the creeper on the corner into the creeper who has now been following me for five blocks.
That exact scenario happened to Shoshana in the video, and for me, it was the hardest part to watch. (One Youtube commenter thought it was hilarious. How funny! That guy thinks that if he walks beside her, people will think they’re together!)
I am not a paranoid person. I don’t carry pepper-spray. Statistics show that we generally believe the likelihood of being violently assaulted is far greater than it actually is. However, if a stranger is following me for blocks at a time, inches off my heel, just far enough behind me that I can barely see him in my peripheral vision, you better believe I’m downright terrified.
As for telling him to f’ off? I commend all women who do this. It just is not always a safe choice. You have no idea what this stranger is capable of, but you do know he’s very interested in you sexually. So nine times out of ten, I’m going to try to de-escalate that situation as quickly as possible.
Here’s the thing: when you’re going about your daily life—walking to work, pumping gas, waiting for the bus—you do not feel safe when a total stranger calls you “baby”. It’s completely disconcerting. It brings the harsh realization that your everyday life routine is not your own; it’s actually being viewed, judged, and SEXUALIZED by people around you. Sure, if I walk down the street to Wawa, someone might notice my ass. But when they feel entitled to yell about it to me? That’s an intimidation technique. That’s someone saying: “Your ass is not your own. Your ass exists for my viewing pleasure.” And if they’re a particularly scary-looking dude, in the back of my mind, I can also hear them saying, “Oh, and just a reminder: I’m bigger and stronger than you–and, as proven by my shouting, impulsive! So if I decided to take that ass, there’d be nothing you could do about it.”
Women suck! You tell men to “be more confident,” then cry foul when they approach you!
Yes, that’s right: if you are trying to find a life-partner, you should muster the confidence to approach the women you find attractive! But when you do, please talk to them about anything other than their looks. So you’re both in the sauce aisle at the grocery store, and you want to get her number? Say, “Any idea if I can sub stewed tomatoes for tomato paste in my mom’s marinara recipe?”
Say, “This store is always mislabeling their pasta, I keep accidentally buying gluten-free fusilli.”
Say, “I see you’re buying one percent, you could be buying whole if you wanted to.” (Even THAT is better than “nice tits.”)
If what you say is clever, and maybe she looks at you and also finds you attractive, she will talk to you. You will have a conversation. There will be time later to tell her she’s pretty (after you tell her she’s interesting), because if she deems you cool and fun, she may actually give you her number.
If you yell “Hey, Sexy!” at her on the street, she will definitely, definitely not.