tatum van dam
to all the men who have catcalled me...
I have trust issues. I have self-confidence issues. I have an internal anxiety that never seems to go away. I avoid wearing certain types of clothing, I avoid taking certain routes home, and I avoid confrontation. None of this is my fault, and there is nothing I can do about it. How can I ever feel physically and emotionally safe when there are strangers who invade my barriers on a routine basis?
This past summer, I went to a film shop to get a few rolls developed. I love the process of shooting photos on film; you never know what to expect after hitting the shutter until you receive (or process) your developed photo. Anyway, I had just parked on the curb about ten seconds walking -- approximately twenty steps, from the front door of the shop. As I parked my car, I noticed a man old enough to be my uncle, pants and face sagged alike, beer in hand standing adjacent to the shop with dark eyes darting directly at me. Naturally, as every girl is conditioned to, I kept my guard up as I embarked on the twenty step journey to the front door. To no surprise, the man catcalled me. To my surprise, he proceeded to trail behind me into the tiny cardboard box of a shop filled with at least four other customers. He then [very loudly] proclaimed, “Just so you guys know, there’s a sexy girl in here. Did you guys hear me? There’s a sexy girl in here.” I exchanged glances with the worker, who knows me as a regular, and his expression said “I’m sorry.” I quickly handed him my film and some cash then nearly ran to my car. What was actually twenty steps felt like a whole fifty yards. The man slowly walked out of the shop and watched me run to my car in absolute disgust and terror, without realizing the scarring effects of his words and actions.
This is not the first time this has happened to me. And it certainly will not be (and has not been) the last. Nearly all women have a similar story to mine, and instances like these have become so normalized. So normalized to the extent that men continue to catcall, while most women continue to remain silent (due to the fear of the confrontation escalating into something worse). It is important that the general public is educated on catcalling, given its damaging effects and larger implications. If the issue remains ignored, it will continue to occur, and victims, such as myself, will continue to live in fear.
Sexual harassment and catcalling tend to be used interchangeably; however, catcalling falls under the umbrella of stranger harassment. Stranger harassment is when sexual harassment occurs between two strangers. In their study focused on coping with catcalling in New York City, authors Sara Smock and Olivia Farmer extrapolate upon what constitutes a catcall:
“Stranger harassment, sexual harassment by strangers, is one of the most common forms of sexual harassment. More specifically, catcalling involves men using verbal and non-verbal cues to comment on a woman's physical appearance in a way that objectifies women. These behaviors can include unwanted whistling, staring, flashing, and/or persistence in request for a name or phone number.”
In its essence, catcalling typically occurs between a man and woman unbeknownst to one another, where the man makes unwanted and uncalled for remarks regarding the woman’s physical appearance. Though the definition is vague, it is not to be confused with other potential unwanted actions, such as flirting. In the situation of flirting, the man is hoping for a favorable response. Flirting generally occurs in an environment where it is more susceptible to happening, such as a bar or night club. On the other hand, when a man catcalls, it is my assumption that he does not care for the woman’s response, nor does he expect a positive one. It is performed as more of a guerilla action as opposed to a complimentary one. Women might want their bodies complimented, but likely only by the people they want to be complimented by; for the man (or, rather, the giver of the compliment), it is their job to figure out if they are that person or not. In the instance of a catcall, they are not that person; and they do not intend to be.
I am approaching the situation of the catcall as a man being the catcaller and a woman being the receiver of the catcall. In an angry attempt to get back all the men who have catcalled me, I put out a tweet saying “this is a psa to men who catcall: don’t” -- to which a man replied, “Can I catcall my guy friends??”
I understand that catcalling is a situation that can occur to anyone; however, it is much more likely to occur to a woman. A recent online survey done by Stop Street Harassment, a nonprofit organization, shows that 77% of women and 34% of men (aged 18+) have received verbal sexual harassment. And while there may not be evidence to suggest that women do not engage in catcalling as much as men do, cultural experiences and anecdotal evidence suggest that it is more commonly a male-initiated activity. Moreover, referring back to Smock and Farmer’s definition of a catcall, it is an occurrence between a man and a woman.
Catcalling can occur anywhere; however, there are some areas where it might be more prominent than others. A group of researchers from Long Island University’s psychology department highlighted past research. This research states:
Female college students experience high levels of stranger harassment, and women who reside in urban areas are more likely to experience harassment as opposed to rural areas.
I can attest to both of these findings. As a female college student who has lived in two major metropolitan cities, Los Angeles and Paris, I have experienced stranger harassment at least once a week since the start of my college career. One reason why it is more likely to occur in a big city, rather than a small town, could be due to the anonymity that comes with a larger population. In big cities, one is more likely to encounter people that they do not know and are less likely to see on a routinely basis. This is especially accurate with tourists in countries foreign to them. If you are a tourist, you are considered to be an “other”; you are an outsider, and therefore treated differently. In smaller towns, communities are localized. I come from a relatively small town just east of San Francisco. If anyone were to catcall me, there is a chance I know exactly who they are or possess a mutual connection to them.
In 2014, a two minute video titled 10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman went viral for a very good reason. The video was created by filmmaker Rob Bliss in collaboration with Hollaback!, a nonprofit seeking to end sexual harassment against women. It features a woman dressed in a black crewneck, jeans, and tennis shoes walking around the busy streets of New York from dawn until dusk. She keeps a straight face as she receives a plethora of catcalls, ranging from whistles and greetings to comments on her appearance. In fact, in those ten hours, she received a total of 108 verbal remarks, disregarding the countless noises and gestures (Butler). Some men trail alongside her for minutes, questioning her lack of acknowledgement to them. One man says, “Hey what’s up girl, how you doing?” and when she does not reply, a man next to him says, “Somebody’s acknowledging you for being beautiful. You should say thank you more!” It is astounding how delusional some men can be, expecting a response from a catcall, and even worse, telling a woman when she can or cannot use her words. No woman is obliged to respond to a man, especially if his words are intended to make her feel uncomfortable. The men in this video appear to have the assumption that the woman should take their unwanted objectification as complimentary.
Though catcalling has been around for decades, it has not been until recently that there has been a public outcry against it. Of course, nonprofits such as ‘Stop Street Harassment’ and ‘Hollaback!’ have brought the issue to the forefront; however, one movement has made its way into the mainstream media: the #MeToo movement. The movement began with a tweet from Alyssa Milano, an actress, producer, and activist. Just shy of one hundred and forty characters, she tweeted:
In ten days, Milano received nearly two million replies from over eighty-five countries (Gieser) -- and thus, the #MeToo movement was taking the world by storm. The movement intends to spread awareness of sexual harassment by placing a focus on the victim rather than the perpetrator. In her book, The Social Media Activism of #MeToo, Carly Gieser explains the mission of the movement: “to provide a safe space for sexual abuse victims to step away from shame and silence. She [Tarana Burke] wanted to open a dialogue where these women might find their voices in empathetic concert with others” (3).
Often times, when cases of sexual assault and abuse go viral, the media’s attention is focused on the perpetrator and details of the case that can dehumanize and further disregard the victim. The perpetrator’s identity is shown everywhere, while the victim remains nameless and faceless. In the case of Brock Turner, it was not until one year after the trial that the victim, Chanel Miller’s, identification was revealed through a personal memoir called “Know My Name”. The publisher’s summary states:
Her story illuminates a culture biased to protect perpetrators, indicts a criminal justice system designed to fail the most vulnerable, and, ultimately, shines with the courage required to move through suffering and live a full and beautiful life.
Up until the release of her memoir, Chanel Miller was known as “Emily Doe: the unconscious, intoxicated woman.”
On the same spectrum, #MeToo focuses its attention on the stories of its survivors, prompting an important conversation on the oppression of women’s voices and the frequency of sexual harassment and assault. Interestingly enough, the movement has revealed that certain people in power have no reason to be. Because it can, at large, cause people to lose not only their career, but their reputation (rightfully so), the movement seems to be discussed in the public eye more-so than its neighboring-nonprofits. Arguably, people begin to care about important issues only when their wallets are affected. For instance, climate change is, in part, caused by carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. The Carbon Majors Database 2017 Report found that 71% of greenhouse gas emissions originated from fossil fuel producers (A.K.A. large corporations). Climate change has proven to be a hot topic amongst politicians and business owners due to the fact that a lot of their money is at stake. Just as people in power are choosing to debate whether or not climate change is happening, perpetrators accused of sexual harassment, abuse, and/or assault choose to question the validity of the victim’s accusation.
In a recent press conference at the White House’s Black Leadership Summit, Donald Trump said:
“Under the 'MeToo' generation we’re not allowed to say it [call a woman beautiful]. So all of you young brilliant guys, never, ever call a woman beautiful, please. You’re not allowed to do it. And I’ve kept doing it and I’ve never been told by that woman never to do it.”
Just like the man who replied to my tweet, Trump is uneducated about what the #MeToo generation stands for. The #MeToo generation stands to end sexual violence. And sexual violence should not occur regardless of ‘generation’. No woman has ever asked a man to not call her beautiful -- by making such a claim, Trump is painting the “brilliant young men” as the victims; he is dismissing all the actual victims who have been brave enough to speak on their experiences with sexual misconduct. Not only is this type of mindset offensive, but worsens the issue by framing the victim as the true target. The importance of the #MeToo generation is that victims are mustering the courage to tell their stories; women have remained oppressed for far too long and their voices are ready to be heard.
From an outsider’s perspective, a catcall appears to be nothing more than a noise or phrase; however, its effects can be much more scarring (depending on the person, some worse than others). Several researchers from Stetson University's Department of Psychology found that catcalling is “associated with a number of negative psychological outcomes, including poor body image, symptoms of anxiety and depression, and lower levels of perceived safety, and increased fear of rape.” Furthermore, findings from Hollaback! and Cornell University’s international cross-cultural study on street harassment show that women will alter their daily routines to avoid street harassment -- including taking different transportation, changing their clothing, avoiding a certain geographic area, and choosing to stay in at night rather than go out.
Women live in constant fear that they are going to get sexually harassed by a man, and it is time that men check their privilege. Plenty of men are able to walk alone to their cars, get inside, and buckle their seatbelt without immediately locking the doors first. Men are able to walk alone at night, because no one is out to get them. Men are able to take a sip of their drink without eyeing the bartender who poured it, and men are able to go for a run wearing earbuds and no shirt. Men are able to go on dates without having to share their locations with their friends. I cannot begin to imagine living a life free of fear of sexual harassment.
Asia News Monitor’s anonymous newspaper article captures how a woman feels growing up in a world where women’s bodies are regarded as objects:
Growing up with our bodies as constant fodder for public comment affects the way we carry ourselves, the way we dress, and the way we navigate our place in the world. It affects our rights to dignity, privacy and autonomy as human beings.
Girls encounter their first street harassment during puberty (Hollaback!). That’s roughly between the ages of ten and seventeen. Being regarded as an object at such a young age stunts one’s developmental processes. No woman deserves to be sexually harassed -- let alone, a little girl who is growing up and beginning to adjust to the changes that come with being a woman. As a woman who grew up with poor levels of self-esteem, my experiences with random men viewing me for what I look like and not who I am has done nothing but worsen my self-perception and body image, and heighten my anxiety levels.
The Asia News Monitor is correct; all women have the rights to dignity, privacy, and autonomy. As a result of the combination of men being in power and women living in fear and oppression, catcalling has become normalized. It is time that change is made. There needs to be more awareness and education on sexual harassment amongst the general public.
Dr. Candis Bond, a feminist professor at Saint Louis University, taught the United States’ first college level course with an extended focus on street harassment (Bond). She participated in a student interview with the assumption that the interview’s purpose was to spread awareness of the course for the school’s newspaper. Instead, the interview was posted on The College Fix, a “right-wing conservative site,” and was framed as “Jesuit University Students Work for Pro-Abortion Group as Part of ‘Catcalling’ Course.” Following the release of the interview, the professor received hate comments, calls, and mail from pro-life students, parents, and organizations. Bond explained, “This story, while upsetting for the way it misrepresented the focus, purpose, and content of my course, were not especially surprising or unexpected.” What surprised Bond, moreover, was the resistance to a catcalling course being taught within a higher education institution. The fact that there is such an outcry against a course like this is the exact reason that it is needed. It is my hope that neighboring learning institutions take on after Bond and bring awareness to street harassment to college campuses, especially given the frequencies of its occurrence amongst college females.
On a positive note and larger scale, several governments have taken action to prevent sexual harassment. In 2016, TIME Magazine published a law brief, Where Catcalling Is Criminalized. The brief states:
Verbal sexual harassment is a punishable offense in Buenos Aires
In 2015, verbal sexual harassment was made illegal in Portugal, resulting in a fine, community service, or jail time if the victim is under age 14
In 2014, it became a crime in Belgium to insult a person based on gender or make intimidating sexual remarks in public
In Peru, 90% of women in the capital city of Lima reported street harassment in 2015, and a law against street harassment was strengthened to allow jail sentences of up to 12 years for men who target women in public (John)
Luckily, there are governments in the world who are acknowledging the problem of sexual harassment. There remains hope, and women will live to see a day where they can comfortably be themselves in public. Until then, the fight continues.
I write this blog post with the hopes that it will spread awareness to those who have catcalled, and bring hope to those who have been catcalled.
This is a message to the guy who followed me into the camera shop. To the parking lot man who whistles at me every time I walk from my car to my workplace. To the guy who walked up to my friend’s open car window while we were getting gas and demanded us to accept his not-so-complimentary “compliments.” To the guy on his skateboard who yelled at me from across the street. To the bar workers in Mexico who repeatedly touched my friend and I when we clearly did not want to be touched. To the guy on the Paris metro who pushed himself against me in the sea of people, and pushed even harder when I moved the few inches that I could possibly salvage. To the fraternity guy who covered up his lack of consent with sweet talk. To the guy who replied to my tweet, and to the current President of America.
This is a message to all the women out there who are victims of sexual harassment: you are not alone and we will fight this battle, together. From me to you, #MeToo.
& the sexual assault hotline can be found here.