I ain’t no hollaback girl

I’m not actually sure what Gwen meant in that song, but for our purposes here, I’m referring to catcalling.

Catcalling; what an awkward phrase! At some point I will have to look that up. You know what I mean, though. Catcalling is when someone you don’t know yells or says things to you about your appearance- what they say is generally sexual.
Now please, someone throw me a lifeline here. Why do people do this? It’s never flattering, always degrading, makes the person on the receiving end uncomfortable, and occasionally crosses the line into sexual harassment. I’ve never met a woman who actually was flattered by this. All that being said, I think it is safe to say that this has NEVER gotten anyone laid. Or a date. Seriously.

I bring this up because I get catcalled a fair amount, and I’m still trying to figure out how to handle it in a way where I can address it in a way that’s classy and doesn’t put me in a compromising position. Recently I was the object of a catcall, and my irritation got in the way of that whole classy/cool thing.

Note the wording I candidly used above. I was the object of a catcall. That is why I find this act so inherently offensive. One moment I’m a walking human being with thoughts and complexities, and with as little as a whistle or as much as a “mmmm look at that ass,” I’ve been rendered an object. Bam. Instant objectification.

Anyway, a couple of days ago I was walking in the mall, trying to get a caffeine fix during my fifteen minute break (don’t even get me started on how pointless those are) when I walked past a man and he did one of these; “Mmmm, looking good, yes, you are!” as he appraised my body up and down. I kept walking, but not before I turned around, gave him a disgusted look, and said very loudly, “Eww, Eww, Eww!” I am never this aggressive, but in the moment I was just so disgusted that I didn’t feel like being dignified at that moment.

Reading over that, I don’t know that I’ve conveyed the feelings of alienation and violation a woman can feel when this happens. If you’re a woman and you’re reading this, I’m guessing you get it. If you’re a man, maybe you do. I shouldn’t make assumptions, but a general reaction I get is that, hey, it isn’t a big deal; it’s a compliment. That assumption is wrong. I don’t even know where to begin. First off, it is dehumanizing. The fact that these men feel that women’s bodies are on display, and that they have the right to comment on them is amazing to me. This also has nothing to do with what you’re wearing. I’ve been catcalled wearing everything ranging from short shorts and a tank top to sweatpants and a hoody. It doesn’t seem to matter, and either way, a woman should be able to wear whatever she wants without getting verbally harassed. Showing skin doesn’t give other people license to act like that.

Anyway, the question I’ve dealt with over time is, how do I react to this? I don’t want to do nothing, because then I feel silenced, but saying something isn’t always necessarily safe. So, here is an overview of the stances I’ve taken, a range of well thought out, smart reactions to the utterly stupid ones.

Say nothing, don’t react

I can remember a very specific time when I did this. It was summer of 2009 and I was taking a walk around my new neighborhood in Erie, not the safest part of town, but hey, it’s Erie, right? So I’m walking in the afternoon, wearing gym shorts and a regular t-shirt and this man and a couple of his friends are washing his SUV and he starts commenting on my body. I honestly don’t remember too many specifics, but I distinctly remember how I felt. It felt like forever because he started talking when I approached and it didn’t stop until I turned the corner. It was mainly about my ass, and I just remember feeling really gross and wanting to say something but didn’t know what to say, and I was afraid that if I did say something it wouldn’t be safe because I was all alone and there were three of them and one of me. I think this is when I really started thinking about this issue because for a long time I felt so alienated and silenced and I wish I could have done/said something to change the situation. Because of the stewing I did after, and the fact that inaction is bad, I don’t recommend this.

“Hi! How are you?”

I’m pretty sure my friend Nessa recommended this to me, and I like it because it’s a good way to address catcalls like the above with minimal interaction and no confrontation at all. Basically, a guy would make a comment, and I would respond by making eye contact and assertively saying “Hi, how are you?” or some other variation of that. In doing this, you assert that you are not an object, you are not intimidated, and you will not dignify his harassment with a response. Stamp of approval for this one.

“Fuck off!”

This is somewhat self explanatory. Someone catcalls you, you respond with a plethora of curse words, usually including ‘fuck’. Throwing in the middle finger for good measure here is pretty common, too.  I think it goes without saying that this is a bad idea. One, you never want to put yourself in a position the opens you up to aggression. Hmm. I hesitate to say that, but in this situation, it isn’t worth it. Also, my objective is to get some people to stop catcalling and verbally harassing women. If I just curse at them and flip them off, no one learns anything. They’re just going to assume I’m a bitch and take their talk to the next unlucky woman on the street.

Fuck Off 2.0

This is a hilarious situation which could have ended horribly. The night before Thanksgiving is apparently the biggest drinking night of the year, a fact I wasn’t privy to until a good friend of mine asked me to join her for a couple drinks. Well, a couple turned into several after we received free drinks from random people, and before we knew it we were properly smashed. Early on in the night when we switched bars, a couple guys made comments to us which prompted a drunken discussion on catcalling. We talked about how we should maybe handle it, our judgment deeply skewed by the vodka tonics we’d been consuming. So surely enough, at the end of the night a couple guys got way more than they bargained for when they started telling me and Sable how sexy we were (God, it feels stupid even typing that!).  This basically ended with us walking up to them saying something along the lines of “Oh my God! Do you want to go have sex, like right now?! Can we seriously go hang out?” Our sassy drunken response was met with confusion. Now, while I do actually think these guys will maybe hesitate before commenting on a stranger’s awesome legs again, this was obviously a stupid, stupid thing to do, and I don’t endorse it at all!

Socratic Method

Alright. Normally I’m all about asking people questions to make them question their beliefs, or norms, or attitudes. I try to force myself to do this too in a lot of situations; why do I care so much about blah blah blah? Why does such and such matter to me? Why I am I doing A, B, C. Good stuff. In my experience, though, this totally doesn’t work with catcallers. I’ve asked guys before things like “Why would you say that to me? You don’t even know me.” And the reaction is typically something along the bullshit lines of “Oooh can’t I compliment a pretty woman?” Or they say they don’t know. Or they get defensive. I can’t find it online for a title, but I saw a documentary a few years ago about a woman who questioned every person who catcalled her and the reactions she received varied from indifferent to violent. I’m sure this was partially due to the fact that she had a camera with her but still, I’m not putting myself in that position!

Personalize it

This would be my favorite of all responses, and I learned this from an amazing woman I met at the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership. She suggested asking a question of the guy that catcalls that personalizes you. This makes perfect sense and I think it’s really effective in other topics too; people who are homophobic usually start to chill out a little bit once they realize they know someone who is gay. People who say girls who are drunk and then get raped deserve it (or somehow put themselves in that position) usually back down once it happens to someone they know; a sister, friend, girlfriend, etc.

Recently I was on my way to the doctor’s office. My appointment was at 3:30 and close to a school so a ton of teens were bustling around. I walked past five high school guys and one of them made an inane comment and the others chuckled. I stopped walking for a moment and asked very seriously, “Do any of you have a sister? Would you like it if strangers were making lude comments to her like that? Because I’m somebody’s sister, you know.” Almost immediately one of the guys, not even the one who made the comment said “I’m sorry.” A couple looked taken aback; I’m sure that isn’t a response they get very often, and a couple just gave a sheepish “Pshh” like, who does this chick think she is? Regardless, I felt really good afterwards because I know I made at least one of them think. Sure, I lied; I’m an only child, I’m not literally someone’s sister. But when these comments are made, they are made to a sister. Every woman you see could be someone’s sister, mother, girlfriend, daughter, friend, etc. How would you like it if someone was making them feel alienated and uncomfortable? And there you go. Ask a question that forces them to personalize the situation.

So, there we are. If someone else has another effective way they handle this, what is it? What are some guys’ take on this?

2 Comments

  • Tayler S.

    You know, I love Penn State, and I’m loving State College, but one thing I’m not such a big fan of is some of the college guys. Note the use of “some” – not all are this way. But living in a major college town, I get catcalled at least once a week: walking to class, walking home at night from the library, getting coffee, grocery shopping, you name it. I totally get what you’re saying, I feel the same way about it. It almost makes you feel embarassed, and why should anyone feel embarassed for simply living their life? I enjoyed the story about you and Sable too, it made me laugh 🙂 But I also really appreciate your willingness to share your experiences and your Personalize It approach. I would never have thought to say something like that. I’m definitely going to try that the next time some guy yells at me on the street, and hopefully he’ll keep his mouth shut the next time he spots a girl on the sidewalk.

  • You know, I love Penn State, and I’m loving State College, but one thing I’m not such a big fan of is some of the lcolege guys. Note the use of some not all are this way. But living in a major lcolege town, I get catcalled at least once a week: walking to class, walking home at night from the library, getting coffee, grocery shopping, you name it. I totally get what you’re saying, I feel the same way about it. It almost makes you feel embarassed, and why should anyone feel embarassed for simply living their life? I enjoyed the story about you and Sable too, it made me laugh But I also really appreciate your willingness to share your experiences and your Personalize It approach. I would never have thought to say something like that. I’m definitely going to try that the next time some guy yells at me on the street, and hopefully he’ll keep his mouth shut the next time he spots a girl on the sidewalk.

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