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Catcalled: The Cat Calls Back

Don't you love walking down the street, minding your own business, when some dude starts following you and whispers "Hey, sexy" or "Damn girl, you fine" or "Beautiful, mmm, you're beautiful" into your ear and won't leave you alone?

Also, by "love", I meant "hate".

From the site:

CATCALLED is a two-week long writing project by women living in New York on their experiences with being objectified and sexually harassed on city streets. Each of the 11 participants kept a daily journal over the course of two weeks in August 2012.


I became involved with this project through a friend of mine and have found these journals an angering, frustrating, enlightening, comforting read. Street harassment makes me angry like few other things in life do, because for me, catcalling is the ultimate expression of the deeply and insidiously ingrained sexism and misogyny in our society. Men can scream at me to suck their cocks in the middle of the street in public and nobody will even glance over. I have been propositioned, followed, physically harassed, verbally threatened with sexual violence—all sometimes over the course of one morning's walk of 10-15 blocks. This not only a source of rage, but also one of fear. I don't feel safe walking outside by myself in a busy street in broad daylight, let alone at night. I do it anyway, because I have a life to lead and I won't be cowed by a bunch of assholes and fuck them, but it's unbelievably exhausting to have zero sense of personal safety in your own hometown. It then makes it all about one million times worse when I relate my experiences to someone, and they tell me I'm making a big deal out of nothing and I should be flattered.

From A Softer World. The hovertext reads, "You're too pretty to stab me in the face with that knife," which is just a further indication that this panel was created just for me.

Not everyone shares my view, of course, and that's what I found fascinating about this project. Experiences run the gamut from flattered and amused to apathetic to threatened to afraid. The participants all come from different boroughs in New York City from a range of socioeconomic, ethnic, racial and sexual backgrounds. They examine such issues as race, class, privilege, trans* experiences, queer experiences, self-esteem, being made to feel crazy, etc., as filtered through the lens of street harassment and, inevitably, the male gaze.


American Girl in Italy, 1951. Photographer: Ruth Orkin. A great look behind the camera and in the head of the subject here—is the picture about harassment, or about a strong, fearless lady?


I don't know if it's just because I've been thinking about this project a lot, but all I could think about during last night's episode of Mad Men was this societal emphasis on how men perceive women—visually, emotionally, sexually. I do think it's purposeful on the part of the showrunner. At the very least, this discussion of gender has absolutely entered the public consciousness. Because not only has there been discussion upon discussion in the media on the treatment of women on Mad Men since the start of the show, but in this project alone, there are at least three separate participants that mention the role and oppression of women in Mad Men and in the 1960s.


While women might in some ways be subject to the same kind of bullshit from five decades ago, I think there is now an recognition, both on the part of women and in larger societal awareness, that there is something strange about that, that this is Not Right. We no longer accept wholesale the idea that our bodies and our lives are free for comment and judgment in the home or in the workplace or in the street. Although this intrusion into our beings does continue, we are now at least cognizant of its strangeness and critical of its very existence.

One of my favourite entries is inadvertently hilarious:

While walking near my apartment today, some dude hollered his phone number at me. But not the area code. So just seven numbers. I really don't know what to make of this. What exactly was he expecting from this? What did he think would happen? There weren't even other people around, so I don't think he was trying to impress anyone with his male-ness or whatever. Did he hope that I would remember it? And call him? Did he assume I would know his area code? Was it a cell phone number? If it wasn't, why would he give me his land line number? Do people still have land lines? And do those people think that most other people have land lines and thus would know the area code? I thought that you still had to use the area code in order to dial someone's land line, even if you live next door to them. Right? No?


This is definitely a kind of encounter that would throw me off and confuse me before making me annoyed. I think I would be too busy trying to figure out what the intention was to fully realize how annoying that guy was being, although the action was fairly innocuous.


The inimitable Liz Climo.

But there are moments that aren't innocuous at all, that leave you trembling and hurt and helpless. One of the participants talks about her experiences in public with her partner, a trans man:

But the harassment I face with my partner is a whole new level of scary that I can’t even place into words. We try our best to make sure we’re not holding hands or making too much eye contact on the train once we go past 86th street. We attempt to walk like friends if we’re anywhere outside of lower Manhattan, but when it comes down to it, men notice my partner, with his short hair and men’s clothes and breasts and hairy legs, and they lose their shit. They see a pair of dykes, and out come the slurs and glares and the movement of their bodies into our personal space in order to scare us. The balled-up fists and spats on the floor. It leaves me angry and full of anxiety, and sometimes feeling a little bit helpless, but I refuse to go back into the closet in order to feed the egos of the insecure, ignorant cowards we call men in our society. I won’t play straight again in my life for anyone.


And then there's the other side of catcalling, the side that affects those who aren't catcalled in the "right" way, the absence of which, somehow, is just as disempowering as catcalling itself:

There was an Onion article today that talked about a woman totally shocked by experiencing a day free of harassment. I am not shocked. I have at times wondered—does this indicate there is something wrong with me? I don’t think catcalling is flattering. I don’t at all envy my friends to whom it happens constantly. But it might be part of something that varies greatly between women. There has always been that tension, when some women are constantly objectified and sexualized, and others feel they are not allowed entry into the sexual, those of us who have been told we are ugly in one way or another...

I’ve been made to feel ugly in a hundred tiny ways since I was a child...I have a great respect for people who are confident in their own beauty and sexiness outside of patriarchal standards and traditional beauty metrics. Maybe they fit those standards, maybe they don’t, but their confidence and joy doesn’t come from there. That’s who I aspire to be.

In my experience, many parts of my culture are trying to get me to compete with my friends who get catcalled. I’m supposed to feel bad for not being deemed worthy of the attention of men on the street, or in bars, or wherever. And I do feel bad, often. But to me it’s all a part of the same coin, the same system. One function of catcalling may even be jointly about the target of the catcall and those who don’t receive it—trying to imbue the catcaller with the authority to judge and determine beauty.


The project as it stands is a collection of the personal experiences and voices of women (and sometimes their partners, if their voices happen to be included in the daily entries), but I think it would be valuable to eventually include a male perspective—both from the eyes of the catcalling and the catcalled. A lot of the discussion from the participants inevitable circles the why of catcalling, whether intention can be good, whether intention matters considering the consequences. I wonder if a catcaller's perspective can ever be helpful in that regard, or if we would end up automatically writing off such a perspective as "invalid".

There are lots and lots of blogs and sites and projects about this topic, and I think they're only going to increase. The most famous of them is probably Hollaback! which takes an awesome global, data-driven, grassroots approach to the issue. There's also Stop Street Harassment, which gathers and publishes troves of valuable information on street harassment resources. Jezebel has published on this in the past, and there are many, many twitter accounts and blogs that deal with this issue. While it's disheartening that this problem is so widespread, I find the proliferation of voices around this issue to be a big, positive step in legitimizing this as a Real Issue that needs to be addressed.


CATCALLED also maintains a blog that features user submissions of experiences with catcalling and thoughts about street harassment. If you have a story you would like to share on the blog, you can do so here (or, if you want to be anonymous, on the ask page). There's also a Facebook page, although there isn't a ton on it yet.

Have you ever been catcalled? Do you think it was informed by your environment, or is it an inevitability no matter where you are or who is around you? Did you think it was a big deal? How did you react? How do you wish you had reacted?


[ETA: Hello_My_Lover adds a good question: How old were you when you received your first catcall?]

Have you ever been catcalled by a woman?

And: have you ever catcalled anyone? Why?

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