By Shelby Heinrich
I want to talk about something that’s been talked about a million times, but still continues to be an issue. It’s an issue and an experience that I’m pretty sure nearly all women in the U.S. and countless other countries encounter daily. And in fact, it is in a way the namesake of this blog: catcalling.
Not just catcalling in itself, but all forms of street harassment directed at women. From the “smile, beautiful” to the “damn, mami, your ass so fine” all the way to following someone on the street without consent and the infliction of violence. It’s all shitty. It’s all wrong, and we all know it. We’ve all experienced it. And if for any reason you have not, due to your gender or anything otherwise, you should consider yourself very lucky.
You should consider yourself lucky because there isn’t a whole lot worse than feeling safe one moment and feeling completely defenseless the next, especially in a situation where feeling safe should be a given, such as broad daylight on a busy street. Women have been conditioned to constantly be on the defensive when it comes to interactions with others, but men especially. When a man approaches a woman to tell her that she’s attractive or even just to ask the time, it’s not uncommon for a woman’s mind to go straight into defense mode. They begin thinking:
How long is he going to try and keep me here? What does he really want? What’s the best excuse that I could give him? And, the most important questions of all: What will he do if I say no, and will he hurt me?
It’s pretty ridiculous to think that this is the norm, and I’m sure that to the outsider looking in it may seem dramatic. But in reality, it’s not dramatic at all. According to a national survey performed by stopstreetharrassment.org, 65% of women in the U.S. reported experiencing street harassment in their lifetime. Meanwhile, only 25% of men surveyed reported having such an experience. It’s also worthy to note that most of the men that reported being harassed identified as LGBT as opposed to heterosexual men, and that much of the harassment that they described involved homophobic/transphobic slurs as opposed to sexual innuendo.
So, long story short: no, we’re not being dramatic. What some people may not realize is that when it comes to street harassment, there are many different factors at work. When a man makes a pass at a woman on the street, he is exercising years of entitlement and misogyny perpetuated by society.
This became very apparent to me as I was harassed a few months ago on my way home from class in broad daylight on a Monday afternoon. The route from my university to my apartment is fairly simple: It’s about a mile-long stretch along one road, and takes about 20 minutes if travelling on foot. When heading back to my apartment one could argue that it runs through a bit of a sketchy area, but nothing too crazy. Just a few strip malls and a questionable Thai restaurant. It wouldn’t be uncommon for me to listen to music while walking home. Unsafe, I know, but it helped to pass the time.
As I passed by one of the strip malls, I thought I heard something beyond the beats and lyrics in my ears. It turns out that I was correct. I looked to my right and saw a man jogging next to me. I can’t say how long he had been doing this, because I had been pretty absorbed in the music and my thoughts at this point. I was surprised, and a little concerned. I stopped and took out my headphones in order to hear what he was saying.
It turns out that he had been shouting “Miss,” trying to get my attention. He started talking about how he simply had to talk to me because he thought that I was so beautiful. I tried to remain polite and said thank you, and he asked me my name. I can’t remember if I gave him my real name, but the notion of giving him a fake name definitely crossed my mind.
“My name’s Vinny,” he said confidently. “I’m a photographer.” He definitely looked older than me, but wasn’t middle-aged. Possible late twenties or early thirties.
“You’re too beautiful to be walking!” He went on to say. “What are you doing walking?”
An odd thing to say, if you ask me.
“…I’m walking home,” I finally answered.
It would have been clear to someone observing this interaction from space that I was uncomfortable. I found myself getting worried; wondering what was going to happen once I rejected him.
“Well, I think you’re very beautiful and I would like to get to know you better. I was wondering if I could take you out. Do you like Italian food? Do you like sushi?”
“I like all those things,” I said, “but I have a boyfriend.”
It should be noted that at this time I did not have a boyfriend, which is a problem in and of itself, because a woman should never have to hide behind the notion of already being with someone if she clearly isn’t interested. Once again, internalized and perpetuated misogyny. But, in a situation where one feels threatened, we tend to go with whatever works despite the societal undertones. So, I went the boyfriend route. It had worked in the past.
This is where things started to get a little interesting. Vinny, who probably thought that he had been of the utmost politeness and I guess what one would call “gentlemanliness” immediately turned on me. His face scrunched up in disgust, and his jaw tightened.
“You white girls with your white boyfriends…” he said.
This part really threw me. I know it sounds silly to say that I wasn’t thinking about his race, because colorblindness is definitely not a thing, but I really wasn’t. He wasn’t Caucasian. He might have been Italian or Hispanic, but I had genuinely been too caught up in deflecting him that it definitely wasn’t the first thing on my mind. I was a little confused. When did this become about race?
He went on to tell me about how white girls have white boyfriends (How did he know whether or not my fictional boyfriend was white? He definitely didn’t) and don’t understand how the races can mix.
His exact words were: “I thought that you were intelligent and open-minded enough to see that.”
He basically called me stupid for not wanting to date him. And he just kept going on.
Eventually I finally cut him off with “Look, I don’t know what to tell you. I have a boyfriend.”
AND THEN this guy has the audacity to come back with this: “But you don’t have any friends that you would set me up with? You wouldn’t set me up with any of your friends, would you?”
Once again, I couldn’t even believe it, and I felt myself getting agitated because this was scary and ridiculous all at the same time and I just wanted to get home.
“LOOK,” I said, cutting him off again. “My friend, also has a boyfriend.”
“Oh, so you only have one friend?”
Not my best comeback, but it was enough for him to saunter back to his car in a huff, and allow me to get away. Once he turned around I powerwalked it back to my apartment faster than I ever had before, without my headphones in so that I could hear everything happening around me.
I’m aware that it could have been a lot worse. I’m aware that he could have followed me home or physically hurt me. But that doesn’t diminish the experience, because it was still incredibly uncomfortable and fear-inducing. It also doesn’t change the fact that I spent the entire walk home worrying that he was following me in some way, and still felt a little uneasy even after I was inside my apartment with the door locked.
What it boils down to is that this guy basically threw a hissy fit because I wasn’t interested in dating him. He accused me of being racist and started to pout because in the end he felt like I owed him something. He felt like I owed him for stopping me on the street and commenting on my appearance. He thought I owed him for calling me beautiful. But here’s the thing: no one feels beautiful in a strip mall parking lot.
The fact that he reacted the way he did simply proves the ridiculous amount of entitlement that men feel when it comes to women’s bodies: The notion that if a woman rejects you, you are allowed to act irrationally and immaturely, like a child not receiving their toy. Furthermore, you can then to accuse that woman of having something wrong with her, because there can obviously be no other reason for why she rejected you. After all, you were nice to her, weren’t you? So what the fuck?
It’s going to be a long and seemingly impossible battle to stop female street harassment, but I feel like the crux of the issue does not lay in the harassment itself, but the entitlement behind the harassment. That is what we need to fight. That is what we need to educate people on in order to stop the perpetuation of internalized misogyny. Sad as it is, only then can a woman walk a mile from school to her apartment and feel completely safe.
Oh, and just to address the whole “well, what were you wearing” argument, I was wearing jeans, boots and a long sleeve sweater, so don’t even try.