(Cat)Call it what it is.
I was recently at a party in Bushwick and found myself in a conversation that I NEVER expected to be in around my woke AF Brooklyn bubble.
To set the scene: I was the only woman at a gathering of 20 or so men. I didn’t know anyone there that well; I was invited by a friend of a friend. Surveying my surroundings, I felt totally fine—that is, until Gary* struck up a conversation with me (* name has not been changed—if you don’t want to be portrayed like a jerk in writing, don’t act like one in real life). Gary was much older than everyone else at the party, and he wanted to know why so many of “my generation” didn’t like being told they looked pretty on the street.
Yes, I’m serious.
“Well, Gary, that’s because that’s what we call sexual harassment,” I replied. In my mind, I sort of thought, ‘Wow, this could be a great learning experience for him. I’m about to drop some knowledge on this subject. Get ready to get educated, Gary!’
But instead, Gary laughed. He laughed at me.
“Listen, you just don’t get it. Back in the day, women liked being told they look good. That’s all we’re doing, is telling you that you look good. You ladies don’t need to get so mad nowadays.”
Well, dang, Gary—when you put it like that. (Insert massive eye roll and hard sigh.) This is around the time I lost whatever thread of chill I had been holding onto. I tried to break it down for him, explaining that as the woman in this conversation I had a better grasp on what it ACTUALLY feels like to be catcalled, versus the perspective that he was coming from as the catcaller. I also made note of the fact that just because something was socially acceptable “back in the day”, doesn’t mean that it didn’t make women uncomfortable then, too. And it also certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be actively working to challenge that narrative now—just like a plethora of other social issues that were normalized at one time.
And then, to my utter surprise, some of the younger guys at the party jumped in to have Gary’s back, and the mansplaining began. Even though I felt pretty shook at how quickly I was being ganged up on, I continued to hold down my point to what was now an audience of almost every dude at this party. Ugh.
“No matter what your intention is, you shouldn’t be approaching women or anyone that you don’t know on the street to tell them that they look good, ask them to smile, or violate their personal space in any way. Plain and simple, catcalling is sexual harassment.”
Gary and his supporters were unmoved. I left the scene amid a chorus of “It’s not like that” and “It’s not that serious”, but I didn’t feel defeated. Sure, the whole thing was a little unsettling, and no, I don’t think that Gary will be changing his ways anytime soon, but I still feel like I accomplished something by speaking up and sticking to my guns. That’s not something I necessarily would have done a year ago.
My own stance on catcalling has evolved so much over the years. I remember when I first started to feel men noticing me on the street, when I was 13 or so, I found it all a bit confusing but really not threatening at all. In my prepubescent mind, being catcalled or openly gawked at was flattering in a way, which makes sense: I felt so awkward in my own skin that it made me feel sexy, or wanted, or beautiful. This was long before I knew what feeling sexy, wanted, or beautiful even means, but at the time, I didn’t know any better.
This all started to change for me around the time I was 17 and was flashed by a completely unsolicited man in a train station. That was the first time it really sank in for me that being a woman in a public space can get scary, and definitely not the last time I would be reminded of that reality.
Ten years and countless Hey-Sexy-Why-Don’t-You-Smile-For-Me’s later, I’m over this idea that catcalling is something that we’re supposed to take lightly. Yes, I’ve had men flash me their penises in public. I’ve had men sit down next to me on buses, make eye contact with me, and start masturbating. Once, a guy in LA followed me down Sunset Boulevard all the way into the front yard of my home saying repeatedly that he was going to rape me. Yes, these are instances of open and explicit aggression, and catcalling may seem harmless by comparison, but it all fits into the same narrative: that men have a right to the women they see. We don’t have to smile for you. We don’t want to see your dick. We don’t have to be made to feel unsafe when we’re just trying to get home.
What I have to say to the “Garys” of the world is: as women, we all have a story like this. Street harassment and catcalling fosters an unsafe environment for women everywhere, and the notion that it should be taken as a compliment is offensive and false. As women, it’s not on us to fix this rampant problem, but calling out catcalling for what it really is can be a step in the right direction.
So stay safe out there, babes, and never forget that you’re powerful AF.