If you are a woman and you live in a city, you have been cat-called at least once in your life. Maybe it was a whistle, a man beckoning you to smile, or a more sexually explicit outburst from a man across the subway tracks.
The first time I was harassed, I was about 15 and someone in a passing car screamed “slut” out the window. My second experience was the bold proposition by a group of seniors that I take my clothes off because an item on their senior scavenger hunt list was to have a picture of a naked sophomore. As if their request was not demeaning enough, they didn’t even demand this of me, but rather asked my boyfriend at the time for his consent.
Society continually makes excuses for these lewd behaviors that plague our city streets. Those who wish to weaken women use slut-shaming tactics to paint harassment as the cost of wearing a tight dress or walking unaccompanied at night. The truth, of course, is the only requirement for being a potential victim is being born with two X chromosomes. I have been harassed when walking alone and with friends. I have been harassed in a mini-skirt and in a turtleneck and sweatpants. I have been harassed in broad daylight and at night.
There has always been this stigma when discussing the issue as a society, as if cat-calling was a horrible inconvenience caused by patriarchy, rather than a direct threat to personal safety. Two weeks ago, the feminist blog Jezebel reported that a woman in San Francisco was stabbed after responding to a sexually explicit proposition from a stranger. When the woman rejected the man, he slashed her face and stabbed her arm. Despite the frequency that encounters like this translate into direct violence, I’ve always found it surprising that you never hear politicians or police giving advice to women that amounts to more than “Hide ya kids, hide ya wife and hide yo husband cause they rapin’ everybody out here.”
When I moved to Boston from a quiet suburb in Long Island, my mother lectured me on all of the things good mothers do. She warned to not make eye contact on the street, to not walk with headphones, to avoid certain streets at night. Although she was just doing her job to worry, it always blew my mind that instead of parents teaching sons to not rape or objectify women, too many parents teach their daughters to live in fear.
Due to the prevalence of the issue, I’ve never really understood why street harassment is not at the forefront of the mainstream feminist agenda. I believe that issues like choice and equal pay are monumental for equality, but so often we combat policies rather than the societal attitudes on which these policies are based. The fact that street harassment is not under the same category as stalking and other violence against women is setting the bar for women’s safety too low.
There are some organizations that have created a strong cultural backlash to the constant berating and abuse women take for daring to exit their homes in the morning. Hollback!, an international movement to end street harassment, gives women a platform to map, document and share their experiences to help them feel more powerful over their oppressors. They rally people to pledge to intervene when they witness harassment, empower women to share their stories and encourage individual efforts in order to create a community of support for women around the world. Slutwalk, a protest walk originating in Canada, takes a different approach by reclaiming the word “slut” by dressing as a typical “slut” would and protesting victim-blaming. Women march in these “slut walks” to raise awareness and create a dialogue around the way survivors are treated because of society’s attitudes toward women.
Despite these valiant efforts, we still haven’t made much progress regarding societal acceptance on this feminist forefront. Many people see cat-calling as a non-universal issue affecting young urban women disproportionately. Personally, growing up in one of those middle class suburban towns where nothing ever happens, I found that cat-calls could not be confined to city blocks and that the sexist logic behind this behavior, the concept which labels women as sexual objects waiting to catch a man’s fancy, ran rampant among my peers.
Many of my guy friends don’t seem to quite understand what it’s like to be treated like a piece of filet mignon. When I was living in D.C., one of my acquaintances and I got into a debate about whether African-American men or all women have it worse in today’s culture. I tried explaining what it was like to live in constant fear of harassment and he could not understand that type of vulnerability. He couldn’t relate to being followed to work or grabbed inappropriately on the street. That presence of constant disrespect didn’t register with him.
After living in Boston and Washington D.C., I can say that street harassment evolved from isolated instances to a part of my everyday life. I often struggle with how to react: whether it’s wiser to ignore them or to defend myself, weighing the costs of social change against safety. It’s so hard to combat this behavior that is intrinsically tied to the patriarchal ideals surrounding women.
For some, they feel empowered when confronting a cat-caller, while others feel empowered by not giving the harassers the satisfaction of any reaction. The way I’ve learned to combat this inequality is to make it a conversation. When I get approached on the street and one of my guy friends is with me, I use it as a teachable moment. I never feel the need to change my lifestyle or my choices to better remove myself from these situations. I call out slut-shaming and victim-blaming when I hear it. If I’m alone, I tend to keep my head down and ignore it. In my opinion, it’s not worth risking my well-being just for my lecture to fall on deaf ears. I’ve found that most street harassers, despite all the kicking and screaming I could muster, would re-offend seconds later since there’s no retribution for their wrongdoings.
The problem of course is that there needs to be a balance between the fight for social change and safety precautions. So many women, like that brave San Francisco woman who stood up for herself, become victims. We, as women, must remember that real cultural change happens at the grassroots level. It happens at organized protests where allies stand together as one entity. It happens over coffeehouse conversations and through personal connections. It happens when women refuse to be silent victims and become advocates. This year, I challenge each of you to stop brushing these encounters off and start reclaiming our streets and cities one story at a time.
Sadly, no matter what we do, I’m not sure that women will ever get to live in a utopian future where there are no ignorant people trying to oppress them. Yet, I hope that one day it will be as socially taboo to whistle at a woman walking down the street as it is to drop the n-word. I hope that my daughter is never afraid of the darkness and can feel safe walking home alone. This change will require more awareness, more political prioritization and a great deal of time due to the gender-based socialization that’s drilled into our heads as children.
The real activism in this field will most likely happen through progressive parenting. If more parents can teach their sons to respect women and treat them as equals, then less men that will grow up to view women as purely sexual objects. If more parents empower their daughters to believe that they have the innate right to walk the streets without fear, then less women will grow up to accept this sort of harassment. These changes may take time, but without the driving ideals that make cat-calling acceptable, the behavior itself might finally disappear.