I recently watched a video entitled ’10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman.’ The video which, as the title suggests, contains footage of an ordinary woman going about her day in the city, stirred up a lot of emotions for me. Mostly rage. It highlights the constant and relentless battle which many women face daily against street harassment. She is gawped at, whistled at, told rudely and aggressively that she should ‘learn to take a compliment better’ when she tries to blank catcalls. She is followed. It is an extremely eye-opening representation of a culture in which women are often seen as something to be freely and unashamedly targeted because, quite simply, they were born female. I will include the video at the bottom of this post for those who are interested in watching it.
As a female I myself have experienced similar situations, though thankfully none as intense and downright scary as those which went on during those 10 hours in NYC. My friends have experienced it. My mother has experienced it. There is something about a woman walking alone that tends to attract the attention of some men who feel obliged to comment upon her, whether to her face or in passing. It seems that a minority of men see it as their duty to acknowledge a woman based upon how she looks. These comments are often disguised as compliments – Many of these ‘compliment-givers’ would simply argue that they are being kind to a woman, uplifting her day with his appreciation of her beauty. But the main distinction between a compliment and a catcall is that a friendly compliment does not make somebody feel uncomfortable. A compliment is not overtly sexual or passive-aggressive. Catcalls are.
Catcalls and the equivalent are the type of passing comment which do not warrant a reply; they are usually not spoken directly to a woman, but about her. If a man wanted to brighten a woman’s day, a genuine smile thrown her way would suffice. In what universe does a shouted comment across the street about her body count as uplifting? It makes the receiver downright uncomfortable. It isn’t socially acceptable to comment upon people we pass in the street based upon their external qualities – We wouldn’t, for example, go along telling people that they have darker skin than us, or that they are in a wheelchair, or that they are elderly. So why is it ever necessary to explicitly point out a woman’s qualities or react to them in such a way?
I think the most important aspect of this controversial topic is the differentiation between catcalls and compliments. I don’t for a second believe that all men are out to make women feel uncomfortable or target them in the streets. Most men are respectful and genuinely would like to positively impact a strangers day with a kind remark. There is just a small minority who choose to use these interactions as symbols of their masculinity and self-perceived right to assert it upon women. The essential question to be asked is whether it’s really necessary to make that comment. Will your sexual observation on a woman’s breasts empower her, make her smile, make her day? Or will she hurry past tugging her jacket a little tighter around her because one flippant remark can in actual fact leave a person feeling exposed and dehumanized? If something really must be said, compliment her choice of shoes. You’ll be remembered as the charming guy who zoned in on her fashion sense; an outward expression of her personality, rather than the creepy guy who undressed her with his eyes.
My pet hate is one single word which some men seem to view as the holy grail of flirting – ‘Smile.’ I have been walking down the street completely content, or standing in a shop queue in a world of my own thinking of what to have for dinner, when a complete stranger has told me to ‘smile.’ Why? Why, as a mentally stable human who has a broad range of facial expressions, would I be constantly smiling? I can be quite happy without rushing around with a permanent grin on my face, in place just to assure concerned strangers of my well being. If everybody walked around smiling 24/7 (as lovely as that would be), it would be a little creepy. The annoying thing is that you often feel pressured to offer up some fake, grimacing excuse of a smile just to appease a stranger intent on knowing what you look like when you’re happy. On top of all this, it’s kind of weird to order somebody you don’t know to perform a facial expression. How is this classed as friendly flirting? If I saw a man walking along the street with a blank expression and demanded that he frowned because I had some perverse idea that I could control other peoples emotions, would that be okay too?
While there is a lot of generalization over men being the main perpetrators for catcalls and street harassment, it has to be said that I’ve never witnessed role reversal. I’ve never heard a woman crudely comment on a mans package as he strolls past, or seen a group of women licking their lips and circling a guy like predators as he rushes away. There is often an underlying tone of passive-aggression when a man makes a sexual comment about a woman in the street, almost daring her to react badly or reject him. I accept that there have been cases when woman have also acted this way towards men, I just can’t account for any of them or report having ever seen it.
Of course we are going to look at the people we pass, judge them, maybe be attracted to them, and interact with strangers in our day to day life. Some people just need to be more aware of the motive behind those interactions, and question whether it is a positive one or simply a thin disguise for sexism… Catcall or compliment?
Here is the video I mentioned at the start of this post: