The crisis of catcalls

A few years ago, I was taking a walk around my neighborhood in Southern California. It was early evening, and I had my headphones in. A man on his way home from work slowed down on a residential street and started shouting at me.

I thought he was asking for directions, so I pulled out my headphones. He was actually yelling that I was beautiful and asking for my phone number. I said no, put my headphones in and kept walking. He kept following me in his car, and again I said no and kept walking.

When he followed me yet again, I had the moment of crisis that many women have in that situation. Do you get more aggressive and risk the ire of someone who might be crazy or armed, or do you get more accommodating? I chose the second one, which I am slightly ashamed of to this day. I relented and scribbled a fake number on his scrap of paper, thinking that would make him go away.

Instead, he pulled the car over and started following me on foot. He spoke little English and seemed confused because I didn’t want to go home with him. He groped me and kissed me, and he pulled me toward his car until I was shouting no and taking my cell phone out, telling him I was going to call 911.

Fortunately, another man pulled into his driveway, and I asked him for help. He barked at the guy and got him to drive away, but he was visibly angry that he had to help me and rolled his eyes as he went into his house without a word to me. The guy who saved me from the situation made me feel a lot more ashamed than the actual harasser.

I got back to my house safely, but I was terrified. The next morning, my friend urged me to call the police, and when I did, they were perplexed as to why I hadn’t done so the night before. It had never occurred to me that I could. I wasn’t raped. I wasn’t beaten up.

There’s also the issue that I don’t look like the type of woman most people imagine that this happens to. First of all, I was walking in gym clothes and no makeup. Second, I am fat—no getting around that one. I had an underlying fear that the cops might not believe me or might even think that I should be grateful, which is the attitude many larger women face when it comes to unwanted male attention. Luckily, the officer who came to hear my case was very nice, and he took me around the neighborhood trying to find the right car, to no avail.

What’s the point in me telling you this story? It’s what I’ve been thinking about when I read the developing controversy surrounding the so-called “catcall video,” where actress Shoshana Roberts walks around New York City for 10 hours experiencing constant harassment from men on the street.

Director Rob Bliss, who worked with the organization Hollaback to make the video, has been criticized for deliberately leaving the remarks made by white men on the cutting room floor, claiming that they were all “in passing” or “off camera.” Couple that with some of the reactions to the video, such as Joyce Carol Oates’ assertion on Twitter that harassment is a “matter of neighborhoods” (i.e. stay out of the black ones).

I don’t know if Bliss is an overt racist, but the fact that he saw no problem with limiting the video to black and Latino men is certainly off-putting and suspicious. Of course, so is the slew of rape threats that Roberts has received so far. The catcall video may not be the best way to combat street harassment at all, and may in fact perpetuate some very unpleasant stereotypes, but the larger point is extremely important.

Yes, white men harass women on the street, too. So what if we eliminate the Bliss video from the equation? Cards Against Harassment is a more fascinating alternative.

A 28-year-old Minnesota woman who prefers to be known only as Lindsey went around confronting the men who harassed her on the street this summer and filmed her conversations with them. She got the idea after a man started flicking her hair on an escalator and promptly screamed at her that she was too ugly for him anyway when she asked him to stop. The fact that she would engage with men like this is incredibly brave to me.

All of the men seem to believe that if a woman doesn’t take catcalls as a compliment, she must have some kind of complex or self-esteem problem. They believe women dress up and wear makeup to attract males, and one man even claims, “Women were put on the earth to satisfy men, so if she doesn’t like that, she should have never been born.”

While attitudes like this are disgusting, the interesting thing seems to be that many of the men don’t come off as malicious predators. Even the ones who get angry seem deeply ignorant and misguided, and like they honestly have no concept of why their words and actions are offensive or why women might feel unsafe. This makes me feel like we should be addressing how deeply and universally misogyny is ingrained in our culture, especially in America.

This was not my first or last experience with street harassment, just the only one that resulted in police action. But the moment where I had to rely on a man who was obviously revolted by his supposed social obligation to save me from a potential rapist is what really shocked me into realizing how utterly degraded women are in society. It made me realize how we can be made to feel like less than nothing.

Then you have to deal with men asking you why you couldn’t just be friendly to someone who was only trying to say hello.