Erie posted this link a while back, in the comments, in reference or response or whatever to this article, which MBG pointed out to me and which infuriated me in a cute and funny way. Erie’s addition was less cute and funny. Here’s the update.
I’m moving to Rhode Island soon. I was kind of half-joking recently that the one thing I won’t miss about NY is the catcalls. But honestly, it’s kind of not a joke. I’ve had a lot of catcalls in this city. Last Friday, my office had volunteered with New York Cares to plant flowers at Marcus Garvey park in Harlem. (Unrelated aside – My boss: “Who is Marcus Garvey?” Supervisor: “I guess he owned the land at one time, and donated it to be used as a park.” Anyway- ) We planted flowers in the sun for about three hours. We were done by 4:30 or so. I walked from 124th St. and Madison to 125th and Lex (that’s about three block altogether, for those of you
who don’t know where Madison and Lex are). I was wearing a loose grey t-shirt, my “volunteering” jeans, now [even more] covered in dirt, and black Cons. I was sweaty and messy-haired. I counted my cat calls: four. The last time I was in Harlem, someone actually touched me, too. Just reached out across the sidewalk and tried to grab onto my upper arm. (Not like I’m trying to make this a “Harlem” thing, which I realize is just white-person-speak for a “black” thing – though I think there ARE color issues that come into play, in lots of different ways, and I’ll wander around to that at some point, too – it’s just that this happens to be where these two things happened.)
I didn’t respond at all to any of these four catcalls, just because it’s so much easier not to, in so many ways. Also, I tell myself: better, sometimes. Because isn’t the haughtiness of purely ignoring them one of the meanest things you can do to these people? Because they want a response from you, like the little boys who pulled your hair in the first grade because they liked you? Or, maybe more accurately, like the school bully? Who didn’t like you, but definitely fed on your reactions, anyway?
This is the reason I love my ipod. Not for the music, which is nice, but because it shields me from the catcalls. If it’s especially bad – say, I somehow DARED to wear a skirt in Spanish Harlem or – god forbid – buy an ice cream cone! – then I’ll add sunglasses, too. I have to take off my real glasses to wear sunglasses, so I can neither see these men, nor hear them. I don’t have to be embarrassed or impotently furious.
I used to joke that this was the perfect solution because this made us both happy – “They get to yell, and I don’t have to hear it.”
But fuck that. Fuck even joking that I’m making them happy. And fuck ignoring them, too. They need to know that this is not allowed. And if it’s not illegal (and of course it’s not) and if no one else is going to let them know that it’s not allowed, then I’ll do it my own self.
The reason Mildred Beaubrun got shot was because she and the girls she was with didn’t just ignore these boys. Once their conversation started to go bad – once the men stopped just asking for phone numbers and started taunting or shouting – the girls shouted back. After the men threw a batteries at them, the girls threw a cell phone charger back. They didn’t just give a fake number or smile coyly and say thanks anyway, and slink away and pretend not to hear the rest of their taunts. They were aggressive.
There have been times when I have been actually afraid to respond to somebody catcalling. It such a dumb, humiliating thing to have to pretend you don’t hear. I volunteer at a women’s halfway house in Spanish Harlem. On the walk there, the first time I went there, I walked through a group of maybe a half-dozen men standing on the sidewalk. They didn’t move for me. I had to weave between them, very near to their bodies. My ipod was out of power, and I hadn’t put it on, anyway, like I often do, to at least pretend, to at least have the excuse of not hearing you, even though it’s not on, even though I can hear you just fine. They all spoke in those low, insinuating types of voices, and they all spoke. They all said these low little things, “hey, beautiful,” “where you going in such a hurry?” “you want a ride?” “you look good today, sweetie.” And I had to just moronically pretend I hadn’t heard any of them. Because if I’d smiled nicely or acknowledged it, it would have been an invitation for more. And I was too afraid to say anything mean back to them, because there were a lot of them, and they were obviously egging each other on. You don’t want them to egg each other on.
One of the things I say, when I do say something, is, “Booooo-ringggg,” in like a sassy sing-song voice. Because I hope it bursts their bubble in the way that ignoring the bully does: “You don’t annoy me; you just bore me.” But also because it sounds like a joke, and it’s less threatening to them.
The thing I say most often, though usually only when I’m already in a bad mood (and, oh-ho, what does that say – that I’m most often already in a bad mood?) is just a really fast, bitter, “FUCK you,” with the emphasis on the “fuck.” Sometimes the boys laugh, sometimes they don’t say anything, sometimes they get angry.
Once, waiting for a subway home from somewhere, there was a man standing near me, just staring and staring, hard. I moved away and he would follow. Eventually I turned and looked him in the eye and sneered at him and did my best punk-rock, “WTF, dude?” face. He smiled at me and nodded and looked me up and down again. The train was coming, so I rolled my eyes and shook my head at him, and I walked farther down the train and got on and hoped I lost him. He got on through a different door and moved down the (crowded!) car to stand next to me. Someone who was sitting got off the train and I sat down, squished in close between two other people. He was standing a few feet away, and still staring. I turned to him and asked him, very loudly, “Are you just going to keep staring at me for the whole ride? Because, seriously, it’s kind of fucking gross, okay?” He did the thing again where he smirked at me and nodded, with this fucking infuriating face that I can’t quite convey – condescending but also dirty, like he was trying to get my number in a trashy club – but he also kind of left after that, so there goes his fancy condescension. My heart was beating and I was all nervous and not making eye contact with anyone, but I saw out of the corner of my eye a young woman who was standing near me smile and nod her head, once, emphatically. The only reason I was able to talk back like that was because I was so safely surrounded by people. Though that was also I guess the most dangerous part of it – humiliating these guys in front of other people is the scary part. Like I said, you don’t want to egg them on.
Talking to a woman like they do is a show of power, dominance, masculinity. The kind of guy who has to do something like that isn’t going to react well to you showing your own dominance over him, especially around other male witnesses. That’s the kind of guy that will hit you or rape you or follow you in their car until they can pull up beside you and shoot you.
Ian’s old roommate Miles once said that machismo was an integral part of Latino culture. I lived in Spanish Harlem and should only expect to be affected by their dominant culture, which included being sexually harassed on the street. If I yelled back at them, then, I was infringing on their cultural rights.
That guy’s a fucking douchebag.
It’s easy sometimes to accidentally be flattered. If you’re dressed up, and you feel pretty, and it’s a nice day, and you’re in a good mood, and you’re in a non-scary environment where you don’t feel in any danger anyway, and if the guy is non-threatening himself. It’s easy to let yourself feel pretty and flattered. (Recently, I accidentally made eye contact and smiled at the kid with Downs Syndrome who works at the local grocery store and who always says “hi” to me. Now he’s started following me up and down literally every aisle and calling, “Hi. Hello. Hi there,” while I just ignore him.) But this is also an excuse that they hide behind, too often. If you yell back at them, they call you a bitch and ask what’s your problem, they were just being friendly, they were just giving you a compliment.
The absolute worst catcalls – or, the hardest to respond to, at least – are these. The “friendly” ones. The ones where some boy just says, “hi there,” or “hello,” or “good afternoon,” or “how are you?” and that doesn’t sound so bad when I type it like that and maybe you think I’m overreacting, too, but they say it in this way that sounds like their tongue, and if you ever so much as dared say “hi” back, they’d read it as an invitation for them to do any fucking thing they want. To follow you, to keep talking to you, to say much worse things to you, to touch you. The guy who tried to grab my arm was one of these. Was only saying, “Hey. Hey. Hey.”
I hope that doesn’t sound like overreacting, too. Getting so upset, so offended, just because someone touched my arm. But it was offensive. In a city where eye contact alone is a threat or an invitation, a physical touch from a stranger is an offense.
Another of the worst catcalls are the guys who don’t say anything, but just stare. For one thing, because it’s hard to be sure – maybe he just thought I was someone else for a second, or maybe he wonders whether he
should buy a purse like mine for his daughter’s birthday, or maybe he was looking at the poster behind me. And if you accuse them – if you make eye contact and say, “What??” and it wasn’t you that they were looking
at – or if they pretend it wasn’t you, anyway – then that’s humiliating, too.
(Though that begs the question – why? Is it humiliating because you guessed wrong? Apparently, girls are far more afraid of guessing incorrectly than boys are, according to a study whose link I am now unable to find and can’t be bothered with looking for any longer. Is it because you assumed you were some hot thing and were proven wrong, that he didn’t think you were all that, and girls are so NASTY to each other over shit like that? Is it because you’re doing something specifically mean to a man, and women shouldn’t? Or is it just because, you know, you accused an innocent total stranger of something pretty shitty?)
Of course, the other really bad ones are the ones that do go wrong. When they do get offended and start yelling at you. Once one of them stood on a street corner as I walked away and screamed at me, “I hope your husband beats you, you stupid bitch.” Screamed this over and over and over (and over and over) as I walked the whole length of the block (head up, face poker-blank, strides long and slow, pretending, ridiculously, again, not to hear him) before I finally ran away into a store. Lots of people were around. (Actually, full disclosure: this guy wasn’t a catcaller; he was someone who had asked me for money. But it’s telling to see how quickly – it was immediately – he resorted to this sexed vitriol: wishing domestic violence on me, calling me a “bitch.”)
Did you know that it’s not illegal to take photographs up women’s skirts in public places, like a Barnes & Noble? Apparently, since you are not in your home, you have no reasonable expectation of privacy.
I’m too afraid to take pictures of these boys for hollabacknyc. I wish I was braver. But I’m afraid of what they would do, almost always. Hollabacknyc only gets a new entry a few times a month. I wonder whether other women are also too afraid to take pictures, or if they just don’t want to write about it after it’s done. I think hollabacknyc is, or could be, a powerful tool. Like conscouness-raising groups. I think that this is shockingly common.
I had never heard for instance, before hollabacknyc, black women say that they get catcalled more often. It makes sense and it’s not surprising, I guess – both because women of color get fetishized and sexualized, and also because they are seen as lower on a societal ladder and therefore easier or weaker targets – but I’d never heard it before. Specifically, it made me think about my own experiences in Harlem and Spanish Harlem. I hate to make it a color thing, because I’ve certainly been catcalled by plenty of white guys, but I get catcalled far more often in Harlem and Spanish Harlem than I do farther downtown. So I wondered if maybe the black women who say they get catcalled to more often are getting catcalled because of that Miles theory – if their culture’s males catcall more often, do their culture’s women just happen to receive those catcalls more often? Just because they’re the ones who are around? Or are black women catcalled to by white guys, the way that I am catcalled to by brown and black guys? Do these guys just catcall to women who are not of their race? Because they are an “other” and someone who is not a real person because she is not like their mothers or sisters or wives or daughters? She is something else and can be treated like an object?
I was thinking again about being flattered by it. I was thinking about an old post I wrote about this, and “how to do it right” (catcalls, I mean), and how stupid I think that is now and how mad I am at myself for having written it. I think that what it boils down to – when you’re flattered by it – is that you can allow yourself to be flattered when it’s unthreatening. But when is it ever, really, unthreatening? Mildred was with friends, in the safety of their own car.
Okay – so, meta-ly speaking: it’s a next day. I wrote all of that yesterday and was going to finish this today. But I just wanted to say: this morning, on my way to work (so, 8 in the fucking morning), I’m walking down my block in front of my apt on my way to the subway stop and I see, from the corner of my eye, a guy standing across the street watching me. (I think you learn these talents when you live in Spanish Harlem – or maybe all women just know them instinctively?) I can see him standing there and can see his head turn to watch me. I have on my super-blank face and my purposeful walk. He leaves my vision and I forget about him. Then suddenly here he is on MY side of the street, standing in front of me, half-blocking my way, and he says to me, “Good morning, beautiful,” and, remembering my new resolution, I tell him, “Fuck you,” in my boredest voice, and weave around him and keep walking, and he doesn’t respond. (Or, at least, not that I can hear – I have my ipod on.) So, there are two reasons I pass this along: one, because somehow this completely random stranger who means nothing to me has managed to put me in a bad mood. Not just because (maybe even just, “not because…”) he has violated some semblance of privacy that I thought I had by making a judgmental and sexual comment about me, but because he has forced me into the role of bitch, aggressor, angry person. I don’t WANT to yell at people at 8am. I don’t WANT to curse at strangers on sunny warm mornings. But he’s put me in that place: either accept his judgment of me and tacitly endorse it and others like it, or become an angry cursing bitch at 8am. And the second reason I’m telling the story is to show that this is SO FUCKING COMMON. Not even just “common,” but CONSTANT. 8am and this is happening! And not just this morning – nearly every fucking morning. I sometimes think that Ian doesn’t quite believe me when I bitch about this. That he thinks I’m whining or exaggerating. (Because, of course, it doesn’t happen when I’m with him.) But what if, EVERY FUCKING MORNING, as you are on your way to work, a total stranger just approaches you and tells you what they think of your appearance – and often in a derogatory, threatening (he didn’t just shout at me – he physically moved, followed me, blocked my path – and I don’t think it’s overreacting to think that a man purposely moving his body closer to a woman walking alone and obstructing her path can be construed as, if not an outright threat, then at least a show of physical dominance: “I’m bigger than you, stronger than you, and I’m less afraid of you than you are of me; I will approach you and you won’t do anything about it”), or overly-sexual way? It gets really fucking old, really fucking fast.
Feministing, in their commentary on this story, referenced someone else’s commentary (And, in yet another aside – I noticed that hollahbacknyc has linked to the story also. I’m glad that this is getting so much blog coverage. I haven’t seen anything about it on the national news. But I think it’s important that people know that this isn’t just an “annoyance,” that it’s NOT flattering or flirting – that it’s serious and dangerous.), where they said something about how violence is “connected to” the fact that guys think they have a right to approach and talk to women that they don’t know. This is a little extreme, I think. Because first of all, I believe that most American women DO also believe that that they have the right to “approach anyone” (for, say, directions or the time or to ask them for help in getting something off of a high shelf, or whatever). But I think that maybe what they meant (or, at least, what they should have said because I think this makes way more sense) is that one of the causes of violence against women is because both sexes believe that it is only guys who should do the approaching, sexually. That fifteen year old boys ask fifteen year old girls to dances, and not the other way around. That guys approach women in bars for phone numbers and not the other way around. That guys ask their girlfriends to marry them and not the other way around. This system makes it so that dudes never learn what it’s like to have to say no, so they have a harder time accepting a “no.” It makes it so that women never learn aggression, so they can’t use it when they have to. It makes it a contest or a game to be won for the dudes, competing against each other with women as the prize. But this is such a very fundamental and base mindset – how would you even begin to change something so fundamental?
Grumble. This is getting way too long, and I’m starting to get bored and tired of this so this is going to start making way less sense. But there’s one more point I wanted to make:
It’s an old joke, but it deserves a serious answer: why do guys even do this? Why catcall? And the joke answer is that if you catcall to 999 women, the 1000th one will have sex with you on top of the garbage truck. (What’s that from, anyway – the garbage truck reference?) But this is a serious question and I’m pretty sure that the serious answer is: for power. Guys do this for power. To scare and intimidate. And I think that this is about power in exactly the same way that rape is about power (rather than sex). So – is catcalling just the first step, then, on the way to something like rape? Is this how rapists start? Another blog pointed out that this was NOT the first offense for the men who killed Mildred. This was something I hadn’t thought of. It’s terrifying and it’s absolutely true. These people started smaller than murder. They started somewhere else. Did they start with this? Something as “annoying” and insignificant as catcalling? What could have stopped that stupid, annoying, insignificant habit of their from growing up into murder? Surely not me rolling my eyes and telling them, “fuck you.” Maybe their mothers could have taught them better than this when they were five? Maybe we can teach our sons better right now? It’s cheesy, but what else is there?
And, sigh, again – just to continue to slowly, painfully grind home the point that that it IS CONSTANT (and, er, also to reveal how lazy I am about getting around to actually posting these entries sometimes when they’re long) – it’s now my third day writing this. Last night, walking home from work, I broke my resolution about always responding from now on, because it was one of those particularly infuriating ones that are so hard to respond to. Some guy just sort of softly and insinuatingly, as I walk past: “Hello, there, miss,” which, I know, I know, typed sounds stupid and like I’m overreacting, but fuck that – he knew the way he was saying it, I knew what it meant, but even so – I can’t respond with a “fuck you,” because it’s so vastly an incorrect response to “hi,” you know? And then on my way to work again this morning, one of two young guys standing on the sidewalk: “Hey, baby, how are you?” I rolled my eyes and trilled, “Booo-riiiiingggg…” and keep walking. The both of them start shouting after me, and I barely hear it (ipod), something about, “Tell me what you want,” and “What can I do for you, then?” or something like that. (Hey – perhaps they were actually curious. Maybe I should have just directed them to this post?) I’m not sure whether they were mad, or bemusedly still flirting. Halfway down the block, as they’re still shouting at me, a man standing there is chuckling and says something like, “Those young men are playing you.” Good one, cocksuck. Awesome. And just so you guys don’t think I’m, like, bragging or anything – this happens to me no matter WHAT I’m wearing or what I look like. This isn’t about looks or flirting.
I just noticed a comment in some other blog that called Mildred Beaubrun’s murder a “hate crime” against women. That makes me sad. I think it’s probably very accurate, whether the guys who murdered her knew it or not.
So. There’s all THAT.