I was fifteen years old walking down a Brooklyn sidewalk when a car slowed down beside me. A man in his twenties poked his head out the passenger’s side window and called out to me. I kept my head forward and ignored him.
“What? You can’t speak? Aight, FUCK you then BITCH!” he screamed as the car took off.
My eyes immediately filled with tears. I had never had someone speak to me this way. I remember it like it was yesterday. Since that day I’ve had countless similar experiences. Some days I snap back, “My name isn’t sexy/baby/slim/ma/shortie.” Other days the remarks are innocent enough that I even crack a smile.
And then there are days I’m reminded of that day on the sidewalk, over seven years ago, and out of fear for my safety, I don’t snap back, I don’t just smile, but I engage in small talk. I don’t dare tell him I’m queer because that can either lead to threesome requests or homophobic slurs. No. Instead, I let out a girlish giggle and say that I’m taken, hoping that will be enough for him to leave. Me. Alone.
But why? Why should we women ever feel like we don’t have a choice? Why should a catcall—a compliment that goes fatally wrong, that gets injected with objectification and degradation and vilified by overtly sexual innuendos—evoke fear? Studies even show the experience of street harassment has a direct impact on women’s preoccupation with physical appearance and body shame, and an indirect relationship with heightened fears of rape.
I’ve heard women talk both favorably and unfavorably about catcalls. I’ve seen them become both bashful and belittled by them. Many may think a catcall is a harmless form of flattery. But on May 3, it was more than that for a young girl in D.C. who was shot after refusing a stranger’s advances.
The college student who chose to protect her identity was leaving a party when a young man approached her for her number. “He told my cousin that he was gonna shoot at us if I didn’t give him my number, and then he started shooting,” she told Fox 5. The bullet remains lodged in her ankle and the perpetrator is still walking the streets. Streets just like the ones I walked when I was a 15-year-old girl. Streets just like the ones our daughters, our sisters, our friends…we, women walk every day.
Free speech is certainly every man’s and woman’s right. But an ego, a sense of entitlement or the right to harass or harm are not.
“Don’t Call Me ‘Baby” – Six Ways to Combat CatCalls:
1. Know when to draw the line: Remember that flirting should be enjoyed by both parties. If you’re uncomfortable, express that.
2. Hold the harasser accountable: The Street Harassment Project, a New York City based activist group, urges women to make sure the people around can hear and understand what happened: “Be clear and direct. Don’t say, ‘excuse me,’ ‘sorry,’ or ‘please.’ Use assertive body language. (Look into the person’s eyes. Don’t smile. Stand tall. Use a firm voice.) Make it clear that no woman deserves this. This is about rights. Demand the harassment stop, ‘now,’ and ‘from now on.’ End firmly and strongly. ‘You heard me. Stop harassing women.’”
3. Spread the word: Visit www.streetharassmentproject.org/flyers/porno.html and print fliers to hand out to hecklers.
4. Take a picture: Holla Back NYC is a blog-grass-roots movement that uses digital technology to combat street harassment. They urge women to take a photo when men hassle them in public and to make the photo public on hollabacknyc.com. He might end up in the “Holla Shame.”
5. Use your good judgment: If you feel unsafe, keep your distance. Marty Langelan, author of Back Off: How to Confront and Stop Sexual Harassment and Harassers, notes that while grassroots action is often necessary since street harassment is a difficult crime to handle legally, be cautious about photographing harassers who seem violent.
6. Trust your gut and choose an approach that’s best suited for you.