Several months ago, I was catcalled.
It’s happened nearly every day since, but this particular instance sticks in my mind because I did something some experts advise against: I responded.
Three of my female friends and I were walking to a comedy show in Chelsea before midnight. For some reason, I lagged behind the group, and as I passed two men on a street corner, they decided to tell me how good I looked — and smelled.
After a few moments of hesitation, I pivoted on my heels and faced them. Companionship and a few drinks must have made me brave.
“That makes women uncomfortable, you know,” I stammered, my heart racing. The last time one of my friends confronted a man on the streets of New York City, he grabbed her arm forcefully.
The guys muttered some type of explanation but no apology or acknowledgment of my perspective. They just wanted to talk to me, damn.
“I don’t exist for you to look at,” I persisted. “I’m not an aesthetic.” I remember because I wished I had said the same words hundreds of other times.
“But you put on that dress,” the more vocal of the two argued, taking a step toward me. As my friends pulled me farther down the block, I tried to process his logic.
This week, the internet went crazy over a video of a woman walking around New York City for 10 hours. That might not sound like viral material — but men reacted to her in strange and disturbing ways.
The verbal harassment she experienced ranged from “Hey baby” to “God bless you, mami” to one guy walking silently beside her for more than five minutes. That last one put my friends’ stomachs in knots.
In the instance that bothered me the most, however, one man chastised her for failing to respond to him. “Somebody is acknowledging you for being beautiful,” the anonymous voice said. “You should say thank you more.”
The fear that accompanies street harassment is a real, tangible thing. As I mentioned, a random man grabbed one of my best friend’s arms after she didn’t respond well to his sidewalk advances. I immediately shoved him off of her, and we started running. You just never know what someone is capable of.
But people can’t let that fear consume them. Not every man or woman who tries to talk to you is a sociopathic rapist or murderer. Although no one should ever have to worry about their safety, the fear isn’t what bothers me the most about catcalling.
What I hate most is the sense of entitlement the people committing it must feel.
The two men before the comedy club that night used my dress as an excuse for making me uncomfortable. That man in the video wanted to be thanked simply for noticing, and commenting on, a woman’s appearance. He thought it was flattering. I’ve heard and read many people defend that perspective.
Based on my experience though, some men feel their “right” to speak to a woman supersedes her desire to just walk, or think, or exist without being bothered. It’s unnecessarily invasive and downright sexist.
I’m never afraid when a man tells me to “smile.” Usually, older guys, even grandfather types, have said that to me. They probably mean well. But their words aren’t any less problematic. I highly doubt a man would ever tell another man to “smile” if he looked upset.
If any of these guys truly cared about my emotional state, they’d ask me why I wasn’t smiling. They’d engage. But they don’t care. They want me to smile so I’ll look prettier. My furrowed brow ruins the aesthetic. They don’t understand one important detail though: I don’t exist to look attractive for men.
That false licence some men give themselves — thinking they have the “right” to engage verbally, sexually, romantically with a woman — can lead to tragedy. Because when women violate that supposed liberty, when we say “no” or ignore advances, some men kick, punch, strangle, or even worse. That’s where my fear creeps in.
As it turns out, my friends and I took a wrong turn on the way to club that night. We had to turn around and pass the two men a second time. I insisted we walk on the other side of the street though. They just laughed as our heels clacked quickly across the pavement.
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