by: Maggie Carr
A complete stranger barked at me once.
I was walking back to the subway after a long day of work, bumpin’ some Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, when a man leaned out of a garbage truck, made some lewd tearing-a-juicy-piece-of-meat-apart gestures, and yes, barked at me.
Here’s another one: “Ma’am! Ma’am! You dropped something!” Upon turning around to retrieve the item I allegedly dropped, he pouts: “I was telling you that you’re fine, and your rude ass wasn’t paying attention.”
Oh, I apologize for offending your delicate sensibilities! My bad!
Strange men have followed me around the block insisting I give them my email address, grabbed my arms, attempted to put their hands up my skirt, called me a chunky bitch, thrown kisses and still-burning cigarette butts at my legs, mimed cunnilingus at me on the N train. And this is just the highlight reel.
Catcalls are an inevitable part of being a lady in a large city, but here’s the thing: I’m fucking done with accepting them.
I don’t know if there’s something in the air or what, but the frequency of street harassment happening to me and my people as of late has been off the charts.
Wearing a skirt in cold weather, I learned this week, entitles your average guy on the street to comment that “cold air gets up in your lady parts and makes ‘em stop working.” This happened to not one, but two of my lady friends last week.
And you know what? This is bullshit.
Hollering at a woman you don’t know in public has absolutely nothing to do with a compliment—rather, it’s an extremely effective way to put a woman in her place. Catcalls demonstrate to her that even if she’s on her way to an important job interview or to kick some ass at the gym, she is still nothing more than the sum of her physical parts. Whether she’s rocking a short skirt or bundled up in a down jacket, her body is still public property. It can be commented upon, denigrated, sexualized and treated as a goddamn dog toy.
The defense is always—ALWAYS—that we should be proud that someone thinks we’re hot. Dudes can’t help it if they’re presented with a pretty lady who they want to bone. We should be grateful for the compliment.
Well, fuck that. I pass plenty of people on the street who invite commentary, but as an adult, I have the self-control to keep myself from yelling, “Yo, show me your rippling pectorals!” or “Perhaps you should have purchased a pair of pants that better accommodate your derriere!” at complete strangers. You can certainly try to attribute my zipped lip to female socialization, but I think it really comes down to respect. Decency. Not being unnecessarily aggressive to other humans. You know, stuff like that.
Speaking of the way that women are trained to stay silent, though: it takes a lot for me to bite back at street harassers. Just yesterday, some dude in my neighborhood suggested that I walk slower so he can “watch that booty shake,” and I think I was more surprised than he was when I told him to go fuck himself. You’d think I’d float through the rest of the day on an empowered, take-no-shit high, but I just stayed angry. That guy didn’t learn a damn thing by me getting pissed off. And more often than not, getting flustered merely fuels this kind of behavior. Showing anger shows vulnerability. They hit us where it hurts, and they love it.
Even worse than feeling ineffective in our retaliation is being unable to retaliate at all. In many instances, guys harass women when they know she can’t guarantee her own safety if she stands up for herself. A deserted street, a late-night train, the back hallway of a bar: she has nowhere to go if he doesn’t like the fact that she’s talking back.
So what can we do about it? Personally, I’m trying to be smarter about my hollaback. Obviously, my safety is of prime importance. I don’t care if it’s effective: I’m not going to engage in a nuanced conversation about the politics of manhood with some creepy piece of shit if it’s 2 A.M. and I’m alone.
I’m trying to find a solid response that attacks the manhood he’s trying so desperately to protect—a prepared retort that I can pull out of my back pocket when I feel like I’m in danger of losing my cool. So, far I have the following: Does this make you feel more like a man? I hope someone says that to your mother on the street today. (I know that sucks and is lacking in the sass department. Suggestions are welcome.)
In a broader sense, there are men (and women, too!) who want to contribute to a public space that’s not crawling with body-policing, sexually threatening skeevebags. If you want to be one of them, here are two simple rules to follow:
1. Just. Don’t. Catcall. It’s like that semi-new anti-rape ad campaign: if you don’t want to live in a world where women are assaulted or harassed, don’t assault or harass women. End of story.
2. If you witness an act of street harassment and your personal safety isn’t immediately threatened, turning the other way makes you just as complicit. It shouldn’t have to be the sole responsibility of the victim to fight back.
We all need to be accountable for what happens in our public spaces, and I think this oft-shared clip offers a great example of how we should respond to harassment. If we’re not that mind-bogglingly badass redhead hollering back for all she’s worth, we need to be the other people in that train car. We need to point fingers. We need to humiliate. We need to take out our iPhones and we need to post that shit to YouTube.
We all own the streets. It’s high time we take them back from the catcallers.
Maggie Carr is a feminist, actor, and sometimes writer living in Brooklyn, NY. She received her BA in English and American Studies at Boston College, where she was awarded the Janet James Essay Prize in Women’s Studies for her senior thesis on the performativity of storytelling in Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. Her interests—both in research and life—include pop music, cheesy musical theatre and vinyasa yoga. She tweets sporadically at @racecarr.