The catcall, it turns out, is to New York City as the masshole is to Boston. It probably won’t show up in a guidebook, but it’s everywhere, and, apparently, you just have to deal with it.
Catcalls, in case you’re unfamiliar with the term, are sexually explicit sounds or comments usually made by men to signify their approval of a nearby woman’s appearance. They’re like mating calls that are only ever met with silence or the middle finger. Yet, somehow, they permeate New York City culture.
Catcalls come in many forms. There is the classic “how are you, baby?”, hurled at women by men on the street, in their cars, or waiting for the subway. There is also the subtle, but just as dedicated grunt, when a man makes a suggestive sound as a woman passes. And, of course, there is the literal cat-call, when a man makes a repeated “tsk” sound as a woman walks by, as if he is enticing an actual cat to come closer so he can pet it, or in this case, have sex with it.
For more variations of the catcall, feel free to ask any woman who is alive.
Of the six-hundred-and-something catcalls thrown at me since moving here, I’ve responded with silence to most of them. It isn’t my ideal tactic. Ideally, after getting catcalled, I’d summon every piece of killing know-how and creepy scripture quotes I learned from Pulp Fiction, and channel my inner feminist Samuel L. Jackson. (Incidentally, Feminist Sam Jackson would make a great band name).
The upside of reacting to catcalls with silence is safety. If I don’t engage, I don’t risk an unwanted interaction with a potentially threatening person. Maybe the man making crude remarks has a weapon that he enjoys using. Maybe one of his hobbies includes following women to their homes at night. These are hypotheticals I never want confirmed.
However, the downside to remaining silent is the toll it takes on my self-worth. Getting catcalled, in my view, is a basic form of harassment. The female body attracts unwanted attention on a daily basis and women have little to no power over it. Yet, we are expected to say nothing as men degrade us in public.
Catcalls seem to erase whole identities, and replace them with new ones, whose sole mission is to play the role of Sexual Fantasy. There are many roles I hope to assume in my lifetime. Right-hand woman to Hillary Clinton. Right-hand woman to Beyoncé. President of the Zack Morris Fan Club. But, Sexual Fantasy to strangers is pretty far down on the list.
Admittedly, every so often I do break my silence. I recently frightened a family of tourists when I yelled at a man behind them, who instructed me to thank him for telling me I looked nice that night. I explained to him between curse words that telling me I look nice is not a compliment, but a cheap way to assert dominance. I did not ask for his approval of my existence, nor did I want it. Granted, my yelling and cursing distracted from my main point, and the man simply called me a bitch repeatedly and walked away. So much for dialogue.
A lot of women may disagree with my assessment of catcalling. In a recent conversation with my friend, Val, she told me she harbors little resentment towards men who catcall. She usually pays no mind to their remarks, and she’s even found their comments empowering in certain circumstances.
Val’s perspective got me thinking. Had I been looking at this all wrong? Was there a way to interpret catcalling so I could walk away feeling unthreatened, or even empowered?
I tried to take on her approach. In the days that followed, I mustered every strand of self-esteem I had and stood tall as I heard familiar mutterings on the street or the subway platform. I tried to receive comments as I would from a friend. Why, yes, this is a flattering dress. Thank you for noticing, sir.
Still, after several days of attempting to reshape my views on catcalls, I couldn’t shake my initial feelings. The fact was, those comments were not coming from a friend. They were coming from straight men who didn’t know me, yet felt entitled to express their opinions of my physicality. I wished I could take on Val’s perspective, but I continued to feel weighed down.
There are certain places where openly noticing someone else’s sexuality is socially acceptable, like bars or clubs. However, public spaces, like the street or the subway are meant for everyone to walk freely, unencumbered by the unsolicited judgment of strangers.
That said, I recognize that many of the men who catcall don’t realize that their actions may be construed as offensive, or even dangerous. They were taught that calling any woman beautiful, or commenting on her body is a compliment. Why wouldn’t a woman want to hear she’s beautiful? Or, that she looks “damn sexy” in those shoes?
In these instances, men are simply unaware of certain hardships of life as a woman, such as the ever-present threat of rape, or the history and status-quo of sexual violence and discrimination against women. They may not realize that for some women, catcalling represents a view of gender deeply embedded in society, which says that women are fair game for the men who want them.
With that in mind, the issue of catcalling in New York, or anywhere else, becomes about communication. How can we convey to the men who do not understand the consequences of their actions that their behavior causes many women to feel degraded or threatened? Do we enforce laws against street harassment as we do with sexual harassment in the work place? How would that look exactly? Should we arrange a city-wide mediation workshop, where mediators could facilitate dialogue between people on both sides of this issue?
Whatever the decided strategy is, turning catcalling into an opportunity for dialogue and education could affect widespread change. However, real change takes a long time, and even if this cause gains communal support, daily catcalls will still exist in the meantime. So I wonder, what do I and other like-minded women do in order to improve our daily experiences? How do we reconcile advocating for real change with feeling harassed and disrespected?
The truth is I have no concrete answers. I suppose we could forgive these men’s ignorance while fighting for change with local government or community groups. We could also continue to get mad about it, and deal as we’ve dealt for years. If you have ideas, I’d love to hear them. All I can say is that if you feel constantly burdened by catcalls, whether in New York City, or anywhere else, you are in good company. Let’s try and do something about it together.