Monday, June 2, 2008

Not So Nice Outside: Street Harassment Is The Rage This Season.

I’ve been wondering why the subject of cat-calling/street harassment has been on the uptick on several feminist/progressive blogs, and then i saw Jessica Hagy’s on point, simultaneously cute and groan-worthy graph. June is here! And though that brings a lot of us warm feelings (i’m a summer baby myself), it seems that there is also a downside to summertime that my male privilege does not expose me to.
It seems clear to me and most of my progressive fam that street harassment is a form of male entitlement to be in the space of a woman (or girl! i have read so many blogs about women getting really nasty catcalls from grown men at age 13), and that it is an expression of patriarchy, making public spaces a place where men can dominate and be abusive towards women, especially if they are rebuffed. Not trying to be alarmist, but unfortunately my research has turned up a really, really, effed up story where an 18 year old young woman in Florida was recently shot after a car chase... because she didn’t respond “positively” to a catcall. She is in intensive care right now. WTF?!? Luckily, this isn’t the norm, but i think this points towards the intensity of non-safety that women can experience when men choose to catcall.

But WHY?? What is the real motivation for men who do this? And I mean, how "effective" is it? Is it just an endless public theater of woman-hating half-assedly masquerading as woman-loving? Or does this behavior yield wheelbarrows of phone numbers...? The sad irony is that so many men conflate this behavior with “loving women”, and i often wonder if they are able to really have loving relationships at all, or if it is always around dominance. There seems to be an obliviousness that they have started an act of aggression, and then end up feeling like they were “attacked first” after “just paying a compliment” when they get negative reactions.

Almost decade ago, a friend of mine and i were walking down the street in NYC, and as some women walked by, my friend went into a catcall. I gave him a thump on the shoulder and asked him not to do that and associate me with that behavior. The women laughed and kept walking. Whew. My friend has NEVER forgiven me for that! I almost became the subject of “the rage of the rebuffed”, he felt humiliated in front of the women, angry that i had raised my hand to him, etc. A decade later, we have still not seen eye to eye on that incident. Which confuses me. I think its safe to say that most men who catcall and think its just fun and “complimenting” a woman would get HEATED if they saw some man say the very same thing to their mother, sister, girlfriend, etc. So there is a consciousness that it IS disrespectful, but that consciousness can somehow be conveniently bypassed. 

And its also not so cut and dry, because sometimes... a stranger can comment and it IS perceived as a compliment. In a post on Angry Black Woman’s blog, The Ins And Outs Of Catcalling, that very subject is talked about, and seems to get pretty far in fine tuning the parameters of what constitutes harassment and what constitutes a compliment. But of course, the experience remains subjective, and what feels like a catcall to one woman may feel like a compliment to another. And of course, culture and class influences so much of this as well. Hetero men from oppressed groups may be acting out a way to reclaim power, but what’s the deal with privileged white frat boys then? Just relaxed into their entitlement and all that privilege i guess. It would also be interesting hear some same-sex experiences around catcalling too.

I wanna leave with my new fave catcall rebuff story. I had lunch with a good friend last week, and i was sharing some of my research with her. Later she rode off on her bike. I was later informed that as she was riding, some guy said “hey lil mama whats yer number” complete with a flick of the tongue (ewww.) My friends response as she rode away? Raising the finger and saying “One”.


I am sad to add to this post that Mildred Beaubrun, the 18 year old young woman who was shot for rebuffing a catcall, died in the hospital a few days later. This was reported in the Orlando Sentinel. It is tragic & infuriating that this young woman lost her life because some man felt THAT entitled to a particular response from her. I hope that this gains national attention, and that this starts a larger conversation around street harassment, masculinity and patriarchy that leads to greater action around these issues. Blessings and light going out to Mildred, and her family.


Cinnacism said...

I gotta be honest, I don't get the outrage. This might be because I'm a cynic, but...I've gone over it many times in my head, and my conclusion is that some people are assholes and a person knowingly subjects himself/herself to the risk of being harassed by an asshole upon leaving the house. It could be catcalling, some jerk stealing your cab, scary-offensive body odor on the bus, or an unnecessarily rude salesperson. I guess the caveat is that I've never truly felt threatened by a catcaller--only exposed to his desperation, stupidity, or boorishness.

I fully admit that I might be indifferent to the practice of catcalling because I am complacent about the status quo; i.e. not progressive enough and simply trained to ignore the misbehavior of men. I'm also willing to buy that my experiences with catcalling have been less disturbing than is typical.

Whatever the reason, I'm not quite convinced that this douchey behavior is worse, or merits more of MY angst, than any other douchey behavior.

No disrespect to those who disagree. And yes, the street comments in New Orleans are particularly charming.

richard said...


wow...! your response is a testament to the huge diversity of reactions to the phenomenon of catcalling. you seem to have distilled the issue into a kind of equalization of all assholery. kudos for putting it out there.

you said:

"I fully admit that I might be indifferent to the practice of catcalling because I am complacent about the status quo; i.e. not progressive enough and simply trained to ignore the misbehavior of men."

the bit about ignoring the misbehavior of men intrigues me! Some of my female friends report the necessity of walking through the world with a kind of "filter" that lessens some of the impact of being ogled, harassed, etc. Would you associate your "ignoring" with this "filter"? And is ignoring the misbehavior easy for you? Do you think you would have more energy for other facets of your life if you weren't spending time having to ignore assholes of the catcalling kind?

i am glad to hear that you haven't experienced severe street harassment! may that continue to be your experience.

Thanks again for writing!


Cinnacism said...

Yeah, I suppose it is a filter, but I neglected to mention that I have to ignore the misbehavior of women, too. Perhaps life would be smoother with less hassle from my fellow men and women, but I am not an idealist and I see humanity and beauty in unpleasant things sometimes. I'm not saying that catcalling is a noble act (quite the opposite), but I think I tend to interpret as a kind of ignorance/impotence to indicate interest in an appropriate way. So my reaction is, "Aw, look at the poor socially inappropriate loser trying to unnerve me into noticing him."

D'ja like my use of the word "impotence"?

By the way, a few years ago I traveled to Mexico City and moved to Japan in the span of two weeks. In Mexico City, despite being with my gray-haired mom, I couldn't walk twenty feet without being catcalled in English, Spanish, questions, statements, or guttural sounds. In Japan? I lived there an entire year and didn't once get an appreciative glance. My existence was virtually neuter for the first time in my life.

richard said...

"Aw, look at the poor socially inappropriate loser trying to unnerve me into noticing him."

i LOVE that!! haha! great re-frame/filter,it makes the catcaller pitiful instead of enraging. it makes more sense to me that you can stay sane when people catcall :)

and yes, great usage of the word "impotence." excellent usage actually.

culture and catcalling is a tricky one. its interesting you mention Japan, because i have a female Japanese friend that reports feeling "safer" here in the US walking the streets at night than there in Japan. i would say more, but i wanna see if i can get her to comment for herself lest i misrepresent her.

Gina said...

I think catcalling is more a performance of masculinity men perform for other men. It's a way of demonstrating your masculinity, virility, bravado, whatever...

Ashley said...

gina-- good point. I think street harassment serves a dual purpose, which explains why they harass even when other guys aren't around... Women have a certain kind of 'power' through the male gaze when they're pretty, so men who want to feel powerful feel they gain power by getting a woman with that fabulous male gazey power to notice them... So other men don't actually have to be present to see the harassment--just that imaginary man the harassers picture watching them at all times. I think Richard's point about guys attempting to regain power lost through oppression fits in that way as well--though the power analysis on the part of the harasser is obviously effed up in some ways.

Cinnacism, I can't relate! Is the harassment not as bad in NO? I know I was amazed when I moved to a smaller city and guys didn't comment when I walked past, and the level of harassment varies from neighborhood to neighborhood, depending on a lot of variables. Maybe it is just the NYC neighborhood I lived in for eight years (a comment at least every block, and often more like a gauntlet), but now I feel like every guy I pass is evaluating my body and thinking disrespectful/violent things, even though I don't hear comments very often anymore (through a successful combo of moving to a smaller city, wearing sweaters in the summer, keeping my head waaay down when walking, and cutting my hair short). said...
This comment has been removed by the author. said...

Hello there...

I am so sorry to tell you that Mildred died yesterday and it was reported on the blog, Essential Presence, who is a distant relative. It is terribly sad that this teenager lost her life and the suspect is still on the loose.

This is deeply tragic and very troubling.

Peace, blessings and DUNAMIS!

Anonymous said...

That's horrible!! I didn't hear that she had passed and it's truly horrible that it had to happen over some guys feelings of entitlement. My heart goes out to her family.

I personally have been through this whole ordeal of catcalling since I was really young too. Easily since I was 13, if not younger! I live in Miami, Florida and have done so all my life. We have this festival here called "Calle Ocho" (8 street) which started off as a celebration of Cuban heritage but has turned into a Latin heritage celebration. When they first started throwing these street parties, I used to go with my grandparents because they liked to listen to the music and eat some of their fair foods and things like that, but even from a really young age I would walk through the crowds and get my ass grabbed by men! The last time I went to this I had to have been like maybe 12 or 13 and I refuse to go for that very reason.

Then when I was a little older I was leaving a mall here when a man on a bicycle felt the need to expose his "manhood" to me. I laughed and pointed and he left me alone, but I went and grabbed security to inform him that this guy did this to me and to keep an eye on him.

It's scary how men feel that they can get away with this type of behaviors against women simply because they're men and they think they can. I have never portrayed myself as a helpless girl, I've always been very independent to the point of fixing my own car and knowing what I'm doing, and it pisses me off that women are looked up as if they're objects and the moment that we show any kind of independence from men, violence and/or name calling occurs.

Cinnacism said...

Ashley, I would imagine that I have never been subject to that kind of hardcore, block-by-block catcalling (except in Mexico City). It would probably really bother me if that were my regular experience. I lived in Dallas for eight years and got a lot of that when out barhopping at night. One time, someone shouted to my friend that he'd like to do something lewd to her, and I froze in my tracks, marched back twenty feet, and said something like "Excuuuuuuse me?!? That is my FRIEND you are talking about! You need to apologize to her!!" I think he was a bit sheepish about being called out, and he apologized. I don't even know what got into me...I know this could be considered unsafe, but I have a tendency to be reckless sometimes.

So yeah, if that was happening several times a day, I can only imagine I would have a stronger opinion on it. BUT, I'm still not sure I would isolate it from the other "daily hassles of the big city."

richard said...

That is very sad news, the passing of Mildred Beaubrun. May she be able to find rest, and the people who killed her be brought to justice. I have faith that some kind of justice will occur.

The news link above is appealing to the conscience of the other men in the car to come forward as witnesses. Wow. That would be incredible. I hope this story gets national attention, and that Mildred Beaubrun becomes the catalyst for a deeper discussion on street harassment, and creating legislation around it.

thank you, all of you on this thread for really bringing your truth. your diverse testimonies of psychic survival and resistance (including scolding and spanking these clueless boys..!) are really humbling to read, they are all stories i can have knowledge of, but not wisdom. i thank you all for sharing the experience of your personal wisdom, walking through this patriarchal world.

Michelle said...

For any folks in the Bay Area, who are interested in self-defense, check out Girl Army ( I've definitely felt threatened by catcalling & been meaning to take self-defense for years. Went to a class this weekend and it was powerful. A couple of things I noticed--how hard it can be initially to speak out against someone harassing you (even folks just playacting), but then how amazing it is to be able use your voice to get folks to back off. And damn, it was fun to yell.

Lucho Luchon said...

Hello Richard,
Thanks for the words on our blog. ( I think i was able to fix the pdf file situation. but if you still cant open the file. let me know and i will gladly send you hard copy. if your able to read the zine, i would really appreciate some feedback if you got any. we are thiking of doing something more plan, with a bigger vision, more collaborative in the next project. maybe this is something you might be interested in??? let me know:
en solidaridad!

njeanty said...

Funny, I thought about this post on Sunday afternoon.

So maybe Cinnacism lived in some weird small town. Or maybe she's butt ugly. Or maybe, like the play on Saturday, she's one of those women who's learned how to feel validated by the comments.

Honestly, I've learned and toned down my outrage. I realize some men don't know better and accept the shouting as a backwards compliment. However, there are other times when I'm outraged and disgusted. Other times I'm bone weary with trying to understand and/or rationalize these responses from my so called brothas and retreat into this shell which often yields responses like, "Why are you so mad?" After this recent experience at the BART station, I accept that my angst, frustration, and fear is familiar and hella regular. I remember in elementary school the way my sisters, cousins, and friends would band together after school to avoid (or ignore) the Mexicans on the corner shouting in Spanish. Just a few years ago, I recollected being molested by my uncle and accepted that I was indeed raped by my friend's brother. (For years I try to convince myself it was just painful.) In light of this (heavily editted) history, I'm trying daily to remind myself that men and boys are not my enemy and penis is not a weapon. But it's hard, and most days I gladly entertain generalizations and discrimination because they can protect you from so much.

I think about that song by Tupac, You Wonder they call you Bitch, and seriously think he missed the point. In fact it would be beautiful if someone came out with a rebuttal and new title, "You Wonder Why YOU call me Bitch?"

richard said...

Thanks for so deeply sharing your truth njeanty. I salute your resilience and your ability to have not given up on us guys during your journey, walking this planet as a woman.

I often wonder what kind of experience men would have to go through to have their empathy restored, and their objectifying lens removed...