Catcalling

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by Randall S. Frederick

My friend Kristy and I were talking recently about relationships and the entitlement that men often feel, the anticipation they express, for a woman to give them attention, maybe love, but ultimately permission for sexual activity. As the posterboy for everything Feminism is suspicious of – a white heterosexual male in my 30s – I sometimes feel resentment towards women for the overt ways that they distance themselves from me. I am trying to compliment her – “Hey, nice shoes” – and a woman is offended by this. There’s also the way I tend to call people “ma’am” because I was raised in the South. I’ve been told on a few occasions that this is “offensive” since “it is part of a patriarchal culture that dismisses women.” So, admitting that sometimes I really am clueless to my privilege – again, as a white, heterosexual male – I put some questions to Kristy over the phone, who is a clinician for a Child & Family Services agency in Southern California. For her, an immediate concern with men was catcalling. It was really illuminating listening to her and, I have to say, humbling. It’s really important for guys to stand back and listen to the women in their lives to help them see how their behavior is received and interpreted through the eyes of someone else.

Okay, Kristy thanks for this. Let’s get started – what do you want to say about catcalling? Tell me what that experience is like for you, as a woman.

When I walk somewhere, I always wear headphones. A lot of the time, there isn’t even music playing because then I can have an excuse for not acknowledging when a man catcalls me or throws out a pick up line when I walk by. Take the hit ons that just happened in my 10min walk to whole foods after forgetting headphone: “Are you a model?”/”no”/”why did you quit?” “Can you purchase a chocolate bar for my basketball team”/”I don’t have cash, sorry”/”it’s ok, I’ll take your number instead. You’re fine!” A guy looks at me skateboarding and falls off his board, “Dayuuum! Guys better be careful around you! You’re a dangerous distraction.” Yesterday, I got “I’m jealous of your dress. It gets to touch you everywhere”. I wear the headphones – no wait, let me rephrase that. I have to wear headphones because it helps drown some of that out. I risk being called a name like conceited or a bitch if I ignore you directly by not wearing them. Do you know how often this happens? It’s part of how I manage my day-to-day life. No headphones? Ugh! Anxiety! Shit, I’m in wedges too, I’m going to get it rough today! Do guys realize the message this sends? And how terrifying it is if I let myself actually think about it?

I’m not sure that guys do. I mean, it’s easy for me to say ‘yeah, we get it,’ but as soon as I say that, it’s like I’m saying all men are consciously threatening random women. That is, I think guys either mean it as a compliment or no, they’re just oblivious to how it sounds or how it is received when they act like that. Personally, I think it comes from a place of cultural or emotional immaturity. I think, as a guy, it disgusts me because it tells me that this guy cannot control himself. He knows better – I mean, surely he knows better, right? – but then he tells himself ‘I can’t help it’ and so there you are. Feeling terrified. And it humiliates me, as a man, to know that this happens everyday because I know we can do better.

Do you ever feel like that? What is that moment like for you, as a guy?

Well, I’ve never been catcalled…

No, I mean, what is it that makes a guy do that?

Oh. Well, I guess if I really think about it, I would say that men don’t really have acceptable ways, or socially appropriate ways, to see and recognize beauty in the world. At least for me, growing up, if I said I liked a particular color or pattern, my dad would say, “What are you, a faggot?” and it would be this moment where I would internalize that. I would be ashamed that I saw something I liked and said something about it.

Then why do guys do that to women?!

No, see I think that’s the thing. The only place we’re allowed to say, “Wow! Something beautiful!” is when it’s a woman. That’s the only place that many men – heterosexual men, anyway – are allowed to say “I like this part of the world.” And it’s reinforced, you know? When a man catcalls, he not only i satisfying that desire to notice beauty, but it makes him feel more manly because it’s a woman. And so, when she rejects him or ignores him, it brings him back to that same experience I had growing up, where his masculinity is being attacked and, not only that, but his thoughts and feelings are being shoved back down.

I see that. But do you see what I’m saying?

Oh, totally! Like, 100 percent. Absolutely. I’m not defending it. Like I said, I’m ashamed when I see or hear men behave that way because I would like to think we can do better and be better. Anyway, moving on, let’s go back to what that’s like for you, as a woman. Let yourself think about it for a moment, terrifying as it might be.. What is it that you’re afraid of in those moments?

It’s just a terrible experience, not being able to live your life or even be a part of your own world because you’re having to look down or look away or put your headphones in and drown out the world around you. You live with constant fear. And then these random moments can ruin your day.

I would say, for me, an alert goes off. Someone is declaring to me that my sense of humanity isn’t visible to them. When all they see is a shell of a female body, I realize that there is potential in the situation to be treated as someone would treat any other object. I’m just an object, and a disposable object at that. I’m not a person and, to a great extent, I think it communicates that I do not have worth or dignity. Guys say it’s about complimenting girls but that is such bullshit. It’s about power and entitlement over us as women. The facade of it being a compliment is foiled when she ignores him because – here it comes – I’m conceited, I’m a bitch. It’s like, Wait. Just a second ago, I was a goddess. What happened? Oh, I was just an object a second ago for you to admire and comment on. But now when I act out of my own humanity to respond based on my opinions of your comments, then it’s obvious. This isn’t about me. It’s about you.

Exactly. You’re not supporting him or his ideas, his version of masculinity, so you’re the enemy now. It’s not just you, it’s everyone who has ever tried to suppress him.

There’s also a safety thing here too. I feel safer when I give the message that I was “clueless” rather than the fact that I heard you and am intentionally choosing to blow you off. A guy expressing sexual interest in you and who now may be angry towards you is a combination that scares me, and I would guess, scares a lot of other girls too. That’s where the headphones part comes in. I don’t upset anyone, or at least not as much or as intensely, because guys can tell themselves that I must not have heard it. How sad is it that I accommodate them like this? And sometimes I *will* put on music- and up louder than I want- so I *don’t* have to hear it.

Oh, by the way, I got cat-called at least twice just while we’ve been talking.

***

Kristy’s experience is not unique. Women across America endure micro-aggressions like these from men every day, several times a day. Indeed, many of these encounters make Kristy’s seem tame by comparison. Charli Johnson had just started a career in hospitality when she says, “Two years ago, a guest asked me, ‘What time do you get off work, so I can get off on your face?’” It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened to her. “Before I was 21, guests would [ask] me to go out for drinks. I mean, I guess it was supposed to be a compliment, but when you keep doing it every night, it’s fucking annoying.” And her age is important to note because, “These men were like 50 years old and would beg me to go out with them” as she was doing her job. It was so frequent, in fact, that she had to find new employment because she feared for her safety. “I actually quit my job [there] because I was getting grossed out and there was an incident where a guest followed me home. I had to file a police report and everything.” Johnson now works as a front desk agent for a high-end chain of hotels in Baton Rouge.

Sara Marie Angella, a graduate student at Jewish Theological Seminary says, “In my experience, as a woman living in New York, there are two different types of catcalls. There’s the marginally innocent version of ‘Hey, mami!’ which is the awkward way of letting you know they see you. It’s usually more culturally based, but you recognize it from construction yards to street corners to the old men telling you, ‘God bless you,’ as you walk by. You’re all too aware there’s much more than a blessing being uttered.

“Those are bad enough, but then there’s the much more invasive version [with] sucking air through tight lips followed by some sort of barely recognizable animalistic grunt when they’re close enough for you to hear them, finished off with some sort of unimaginative adjective such as ‘Sexy!’ or ‘You lookin’ good in them jeans.’ You just know they’re imagining you in the most unholy of positions, naked and flayed before them like a Viking conquest.

“On the surface one seems less offensive than another, but when you get down to it, it’s an issue of gender power dynamics. It’s telling you, ‘you’re a woman, so I get to tell you what I think of you.’ On the more extreme end, it’s ‘Remember you’re a woman and I can overpower you, if and when I want to. You’re in my house, bitch.’ The thing that gets me the most is that it works. It works every time. I don’t feel complimented, I feel harassed. I don’t feel recognized, I feel objectified. Half the time I want to turn around and yell, ‘I get it! I’m a woman, you have the power, but you don’t need to yell it at me, you just have to look at our paychecks!’”

***

What stands out to me is how consistent all of these stories are. Los Angeles, Baton Rouge and New York are represented here and they’re not far off, which tells me men behave this way consistently across the miles, cultures, ethnicities, and age. The fact that each of these women had stories so readily available and insist these exchanges take place all the time, even every day, multiple times a day makes me feel disappointed with humanity. I can only imagine how hard it must be to step out your door into the spectre of misogyny.

Another thing that stands out to me is that while Kristy and Sara share stories about what they’ve experienced on the street, or a transitional location between home and their destination, Charli’s experiences were at work. A study by Michael M. Kasumovic and Jeffrey H. Kuznekoff in the interdisciplinary journal Plos One concluded that “Gender inequality and sexist behaviour is prevalent in almost all workplaces and rampant in online environments.” In other words, there is no safe place if they can experience aggressive male behavior in their own home as soon as they get online. The study revealed that one in four women, between the ages of 18 and 24, experienced a sexually harassing tweet or online comment.

Kasumovic and Kuznekoff’s hypothesis in the study was that “female-initiated disruption of a male hierarchy incites hostile behavior from poor performing males who stand to lose the most status.” Their research bears the hypothesis out, that men with lower self-esteem are more likely to attack women online than men who felt good about themselves. To conduct the study, they had 163 groups of men and women play a video game against each other. The only thing they knew about the other players was their gender. When the men performed poorly, their attitudes toward other men playing stayed the same. When they played against women, they began to say “nasty things to or about the female players.”

The way I read the findings of their study, sadly, doesn’t surprise me. Rather, I think the study affirms what too many of us already know to be a reality. What is new, at least to me, is that according to the study’s authors, men who began losing the game were not just annoyed, they actually felt threatened by the women. The authors noted in their conclusions that “low-status and low-performing males have the most to lose as a consequence of the hierarchical reconfiguration due to the entry of a competitive woman.” The implications of this fit the tidy assumptions we might have about gender, but I keep zeroing in on the word “threat.” The men felt threatened by women. This indicates both a measure of motivation for poor behavior, like catcalling, as much as a warning light for potentially destructive behavior, like physical and sexual violence. No wonder, then, that all of the women here noted that they do not feel annoyed, they feel threatened by men – that is the correct sensation that they should be feeling since the men in this study were not annoyed, they were threatened by the women. What remains then, when we remove the matching intention and received messages are the looming threats of physical and sexual violence. Women are not intimated by men’s words or actions, they are threatened because they are preternaturally aware that an angry and threatened man can turn on them with no warning with unpredictable (though typically violent) behavior.

Finally, what stands out to me is that women are more brave and resilient than they are given credit for in popular media. Bridget Ervin, a manager for Barnes & Noble in Glendale, CA, had a sense of humor about her experiences, though there was an edge to it. “Stop telling me to smile!” she said. “Or that I would look prettier that way! Maybe I don’t want to look prettier. Maybe that’s the way my face is. Maybe I’m feeling depressed and would like to wallow in it. Either way, I’m not your property so don’t tell me what to do.”

Another manager at the same store, Amber Shaw, said that when she lived in New York “it was a fairly regular occurrence, but I do remember one guy blocking my path in order to comment on my breasts. I walked hunched over for the next few weeks. It never made me feel good about myself.”

Meanwhile, Corrigan Vaughan, a doctoral student at UC Santa Barbara and writer for The Electric Feast, shared with me that, “I once had a guy drive next to me for a full mile while walking to school trying to convince me to let him give me a ride. I was 22.” All I could say was that I wasn’t sure I could have handled something like that. Having experienced trauma as a child, I am especially wary of people I do not know following me and, in a similar situation as the one she described, would have likely dialed the police. Her response? “Guys started whistling and yelling at my friends and I as we walked to 7-Eleven when I was 11. If women called the cops every time someone offered to abduct or assault them, we’d do little else.” But, as insulting as it might be when moments like these happen, there is a strange validation in it. “It’s the weirdest double edged sword. It feels awful to have it happen, but when it doesn’t, we start to feel undesirable,” Vaughan continues. “We spend our entire lives learning we’re useless if we’re not attractive, so no matter how much we hate being sexually harassed, it’s a form of validation that makes us feel worthless when it disappears. It’s the absolute worst.”

***

I think, for many men, that is their motivation. Men know that women value each other and themselves by appearances. When a man compliments a woman, it is meant to say “you have value. I see you. I notice you. Yes, you are very attractive, very valuable – at least to me.” We learn growing up, as males, that the only place men are allow one another to express and celebrate beauty is where it concerns women. The most popular artists of the last century were popular because, you guessed it, they painted nude women. The patriarchy of Academia leans towards crowning Picasso as the greatest artist of the 20th Century, and one has to wonder whether this is because of the merit of his work or because of his reputation as a lothario. Anything else is “queer” or, as my father put it, what a “faggot” would do. Many people often assume, even today, that I am gay not because I publicly kiss other men but simply because I resist these scripts. I am reserved and do not compliment someone when I should, possibly. I will often wear colorful scarves and can be very vocal about the beauty I see in the world – including other men. And I do this intentionally not only because I happen to like wearing colorful scarves, but because I take amusement in the tikkun olam of subverting a restrictive idea like this where it’s “not appropriate” for a man to wear a colorful scarf. As I got older, I suppose I began to exit that “lower self-esteem” circle that Kasumovic and Kuznekoff studied, or at least it is no longer as fragile as it might have been when I was a little boy. I do not derive my primary worth from whether I am “a man” but rather a good person and the strength of relationships. But for many men, their self-esteem remains precarious because it is so intrinsically wired into their gender identity, into their sense of physical self and sexual reputation. This is not a judgement of them, it’s more of a sympathetic “Oh. That’s why. Okay. Now I understand.” And, what’s more, these narratives about “being a man” also define, for men, what it means to be a woman. Men are this, women are that, and we judge one another on these terms even as we participate in othering. I suppose, again, this is why my father associated my love of art as something a “faggot” would do, as it was not something he accepted as a “male” behavior. By default, I was a women when men are supposed to be strong and express an unspoken creativity with our hands. We are producers. It doesn’t matter if we are attractive, which is why men can laugh at other men’s bodies – their large stomachs (a clear indicator of higher risk for heart disease, diabetes, cholesterol and numerous other health risks) or worn faces. What matters is whether a man has muscle. Can he produce things? Is he a good laborer? Does he earn enough money?

Flipping that, are women attractive? Are they consuming the fruits of a man’s labor? If this is the only measure of their worth – and again, as Vaughan said, women hate misogynistic comments but it is one way they are assured of their worth – then, as their beauty declines, they “owe” men something else, something more, in a kind of economic trade-off. Men bring the goods, the production, the labor, and the capital… now it’s a woman’s turn. What will they give me?

If it hasn’t become clear already how this primitive economy works, women are forced to give the only thing men want. Their bodies. When a woman denies him this, she is subverting the entire economy that this self-esteem, this valuation of identity, is based on. When a woman expresses independence and dignity, when she seeks to exit that economy and redefine life for herself, she immediately becomes “the bitch” who is ignoring a man. It is broadly gendered as much as it is specific – she is ignoring this man, but she is also acting as though she is better than all men, when we know all she’s good for is her looks. In extreme cases, a man will beat her to “put her in her place” and strip her of whatever authority or autonomy she might have. As the horrors of foreign atrocities rolled out of the Nineties and Aughts, the world learned that women were being brutalized in Africa, enslaved in Russia, aborted in the Asiatic Rim, and hundreds of other acts of violence every day, a testimony to how prevalent this attitude truly has been. The worst part is, those stories have not abated. Rather, we have become numb to their cries for relief and accepted it as “a culture” instead of an injustice all while believing ourselves to be somehow better than the savages we denounce in every other arena: food choices, political regimes, whatall. What has remained constant is the denigration of women by an unjust patriarchy.

As Vaughan pointed out, men are not the only ones who live under this kind of ideological economy. Women are consistently held up for their beauty. Women, like basketball stars, are poached out of high school into modeling contracts. Like all capitalistic entrepreneurs, men are always looking for an opportunity not only to seize an asset, but to turn that asset – the woman – over for a higher return on their investment. A woman’s body is not only a source for male-to-male valuation (ex: “Paul and his hot wife” increases Paul’s worth in the eyes of other men because he can “get” a hot wife), but a source of self-esteem (ex: Paul will tell himself, “I have a hot wife, therefore I am valuable. All of my hard work has paid off.”) Because, to a great extent, these transactions take place in the mind when a man imagines having sex with a woman, she “owes” him before she has ever met him or had a real encounter with him. It is nothing less than slavery with men acting as predators under the belief that “I’m just giving you a compliment!” and “Why are you being such a bitch?!” Women rightly ignore it, avoid it, fight back, and press charges where necessary. Catcalling is a direct and immediate threat to their lives, both in and of itself, but also to their long-term access to opportunities. The ever present threat of slavery for a woman means, ultimately, sex without their consent and, going further, this can change the direction of their lives substantially and immediately.

Put another way, women are often afraid of men because men will either accost them, abuse them, rape them, impregnate them, or kill them. Their fears are well grounded.

That is a hard statement for me to make. I like to say I am a Feminist and hide behind “oh, I was just giving you a compliment!” as well when my advances are rebuffed, but the truth is I am aware of how my actions are seen, one, because I am male and more or less want to be validated every bit as much as the next guy, but two because I know other men will support me in this. After all, a threat to one man’s maleness might be overlooked, but we can’t allow this “bitch” to tell us what men are worth. That would shine a light on how unjust the system of male privilege really is. In a dark corner of the mind, I am aware of male privilege and it terrifies me. I’ve heard these stories and seen how they play out, growing up for the last three decades. I vividly recall the time my parents bought a house and my mother sat on the back patio to sunbathe only to have a car drive by and honk at her. She never sunbathed on the patio again and this event precipitated a rather severe eating disorder. Or the time I helped a woman leave her boyfriend after he had slammed her head into a concrete floor because she was on her period and didn’t want to have sex with him. The list could go on for years, and I would still only be speaking of my immediate friends and family, not the hundreds of offenses women endure each day. This is probably why, when they recount their stories, women will ask me for an explanation. “Why do guys do that? Don’t they know how that makes us feel?”

The cold reality is that many men don’t care. They know how it looks, they understand the threat to your safety, and – as the women here have already indicated – a woman is not as important to a man as his own interests. Returning to this economic lens I’ve been using, men feel that women “owe” them something and debt collectors often dehumanize the debtor. Their humanity, their context, the unique happenings of their lives do not matter; what matters is “you owe me, now pay me.” A woman’s body is the avenue of that payment. And it is hard to subvert an entire system like this. It takes time that many women too often do not have.

And I think that is one of the keys to preventing catcalling and other acts of violence towards women is reminding men of the stories they already know about. The insulted mothers, the raped sister, the world they want for their daughters. The idea of gender, the concept of a patriarchal economy that benefits men, must be challenged and confronted with real lives, real women that they know and love. Most men, I would like to believe, would never intentionally hurt or disrespect their mothers and sisters. Women, outside of the sexual economy I have been presenting, are still idolized by men. Early in my dating life, when I was young, women would become jealous of all of the female friends I had. One girlfriend said she felt it was hard to date me “because you think of your mother like a superwoman and I can’t live up to that.” Two years ago, a girl I was seeing came over to my apartment for a “quickie” while I was waiting for one my best friends, a “sister” to me,  to come over to pick up a book. When my friend knocked on the door, I jumped up not because I wasn’t interested in the girl I was having sex with, but because my “sister” meant more to me than sex. The emotional, mental, and spiritual connection with the women in my life, the way they are amazing on their own merits, the joy they emanate separate and apart from my valuation of them, all work together to make these women, regardless of gender and sex, a priority for me. And I would like to believe that many men, even men with low self-esteem, feel similarly. That they are capable of respect and admiration outside of the sexual realm and, using this as a mirror, can see the consequences of their actions. After all, if they would never violate the trust and love they have for certain women, then it is possible to extract a more appropriate answer from, “What would you think if I said those things to your sister, your mother?” and be better men towards all women.

But even here, notice the way I am leveraging this assumption, this hope. The benefit of better behavior benefits men, not women. Too often men will likely seek “the right thing” for themselves, but not for the woman who has been offended. The sad truth about the story of Dinah in Genesis, for example, is that men will do the right thing when it is an assault on their honor. Justice and the pursuit of morality, “the right thing”, can still get lost in to the patriarchy. And men need to be told throughout their lives that there is a difference between being a man and being a good person, an individual capable of distinguishing between doing what is right for oneself and what is right for someone else, even the world.

I suppose I am idealist for believing that men truly do want this, but do not understand how to get there. Like a small stream, it is natural to run the course with what is familiar and what has been marked out already even as we want something broader, deeper, fuller, richer, and better. But I believe it is possible. Studies of sexual education programs in Europe, especially Sweden and Switzerland, show that the earlier issues like gender and respect for self and neighbor are presented in an social and academic setting, the more sexual and gendered violence can be prevented. In fact, part of the social upheaval taking place in Europe right now is concerned with the influx of immigrants from the Middle East and Africa who Europeans are concerned will set back the advances they have made in preventing violence – an issue for another time perhaps, but one that makes sense in light of the sexual advances that have taken place in the last quarter century.

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