Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Male Privilege and The Cat Call

Every Tuesday at promptly 2 p.m., I pack up my things at my internship and call a cab back to my dorm. If it's nice out, I spend the five to 15 minute-wait on the sidewalk, which is most convenient for me anyway because my cab can't miss me. This is usually uneventful, unless you count the times during Snowmageddon that I had to wait over an hour to get a cab and nearly cried out of frustration.

Yesterday was frustrating for a completely different reason.

Yesterday, as I was heading toward my usual bit of sidewalk, I heard a wolf whistle. Instinctively, I turned to look in its direction and a disheveled middle-aged man was standing across the street. He waved both arms and cocked his chin.

"Hey, baby!" He was clearly approaching me, and quickly.

In a panic, I flipped open my cell phone and pretended to take a call as I rushed back toward the office building.

"Oh, hello? I just left, why-- I can come back!" I'm not sure why I thought this would help my situation.

When I got inside I hid behind the wall that juts out by the elevator and waited. He saw what door I went into, I thought nervously. He knows where I am. This door doesn't lock. If he wants to come get me, he can. I considered going back upstairs as if I'd forgot something to buy myself time, to lose him, but I decided against it. I scurried out to check if he was anywhere in sight. The coast was clear. I wasn't sure at this point if I missed my cab. I sent a text message to my boyfriend.

"A creepy guy just catcalled me and waved at me. I went back into the building to hide from him :("

":(" my boyfriend replied.

Of course, I got my cab several minutes later and I survived to write this post. And all things said, it wasn't that much of a terrible situation. I didn't get hurt. My office is in a busy-enough area that if this man had tried anything, someone would see-- and maybe that would have deterred him from going any further than calling to me. I tried all day to tell myself that this is no big deal. It's just a catcall, you might say.

But it isn't. When a stranger actively does something that makes you uncomfortable enough to question your safety, it is a pretty big deal. I don't see how any older man-- any man at all-- could imagine that whistling at, gesturing to, and swiftly approaching a young, solitary female would be a situation that wouldn't make her feel threatened, intimidated. I like to think I am tough and self-assured, but in those moments, I felt shaken, and I hid. I wasn't sure whether he would pursue me-- I didn't know that person, so there was no telling what he might do. Sometimes when you run you get caught.

You could call it paranoia, but I wouldn't go that far.

I would venture a guess that many women, especially women who live in cities, have been made to feel ill-at-ease by a male stranger's advances at one point or another. Sometimes, when I'm not alone, it's easy to brush off a "hey, baby!" from a passing car or a wink from a man on the street. When you're alone and it happens, you truly feel alone-- at least I did. Alone, and desperate, and trapped, not like the tough, independent woman I fancy myself to be.

What's problematic here is that this is a problem of privilege, one that favors men and victimizes women (and I'm taking the perspective of a heterosexual woman because that is the experience I can speak to-- but please share your perspective in the comments). If we were to switch roles, even if I were an older woman and this man a younger man, I doubt he would feel threatened by me hitting on him in public. I doubt that concern for his safety would take the forefront and he would hurry back inside. Whether men realize it or not in their everyday lives, they are privileged. 

My boyfriend is annoyed sometimes when I ask him to do things like walk me a few minutes across campus at night. He sometimes says that it won't make a difference for anyone's safety ("we'll just both get mugged!"), but I think that's just him being a man who hasn't quite realized his own privilege. When a woman is with a man, she is less likely to be harassed or attacked. As a woman, I do need to take my safety into account when going even short distances after dark. Is that letting the bad guys win? I don't think it is so much as it's realizing what could happen if I throw caution to the wind, and that, frankly, sucks. It shouldn't be this way.

I think men often take for granted the fact that they can, most of the time, go from Point A to Point B without being disturbed. For women, it's different. And maybe some of the men who catcall and try to approach women on the street don't realize that what they're doing, for many women under a variety of conditions, will make another person feel afraid. This isn't a challenge they have to face, and certainly one I don't like thinking about. When I think about days like yesterday, I wonder if I can make it going to and from work alone in the real world. I wonder if I can be brave enough to go on the train or the subway by myself. The minority-- and I do believe it's a minority-- of people out there who want to hurt or scare people like me make me doubt my abilities as a woman to be an effective member of society. 

We are asking ourselves frequently now "should we allow women in warzones?" and I have to ask "why should there be any reason not to?" But when I think of that much bigger issue-- the horrible things that have actually transpired-- together with the littler things we as woman face daily, like I faced yesterday, I see the problem. There are men in this world who feel on some level that women are objects, that it is okay to come on to them, to harass them, to hurt them, to grope them, to make them, by way of sexualization, feel powerless and less than. And it's not okay. Never. Not even when nothing comes of it, like what happened to me yesterday. Not even a little.

Privilege exerts itself in a lot of insidious ways, and this is one of them. If women feel unsafe walking down the street, how can they be leaders? How can they be journalists? How can they be taxi drivers? How can they be government officials? How can they be anything? Maybe they should just stay inside where it's safe.

I don't know about you, but I don't want that to be the only safe choice.

Have you ever been catcalled or otherwise harassed in the streets? How did it make you feel? Did it make you change your routine? 

[Check out the Hollaback! Movement, a group that's pushing to end street harassment. There are a lot of Hollaback blogs for different cities and countries-- you can start here to find some or Google "Hollaback" plus your city's name]


Sam said...

I can really relate to everything that you have said. Since I've lived in the city i've gotten catcalls, guys trying pick me up as a prostitute (how they got the idea I was one is beyond me. I was walking to class in sneakers and an oversized hoodie), and called some really offensive things because I wouldn't give some guys the time of day after they said some pretty sexist things. The scariest thing that happened was on my first trip to Philly and a guy followed me for an hour forcably trying to kiss me, grab me, and telling me I should go back to his apartment. It wasn't until I got to the SEPTA station that I could get one of the security guards to get him to go away. The worst part was that I missed my train and had to stay in the station until 5am until the next train came by.
The way women are treated in this country scares me. It scares me even more that some people try to ignore that it happens or blame it on the woman. I'm not sure what to do to change how things are, but I do know that if I ever have a son I'm going to make sure to teach him how to treat people correctly.
I'm glad that nothing happened to you and you were very smart to get away as fast as you did.

Destined For Now said...

I've been there. I always feel angry with myself for not speaking out or letting them know it's not okay, but at the time it is hard because I feel so vulnerable.

amanda said...

I don't know of one woman who hasn't been catcalled (at the very least) -- and that's a disturbing fact.

I've been catcalled, verbally harassed, chased down the street, and groped. I travel quite a bit and I can tell you that it gets so much worse abroad. I was actually groped by my tour guide in Mexico City in front of the Boy and the rest of the tour; I shudder to think what would have happened if I wasn't with a huge group of people.

From my experience, whipping out a cell phone or putting in headphones can actually put you in more danger. I've always run into the busiest store or restaurant I could find and called someone from inside while I waited until the coast was clear.

Your point about men taking their privilege for granted reminds me of a story my friend told me. She's an attractive, young white woman and lived in India for about half a year with her boyfriend. She was routinely catcalled, groped, chased, had her picture taken without her consent -- generally harassed anytime she stepped outside of her apartment. Having men shout at her eventually became a part of her everyday experience. Her boyfriend on the other hand, was able to rent a motorcycle and ride from Delhi to the Nepal border, sleeping on the side of the road when he felt tired. He never felt as though his life was in danger. That, to me, encapsulates how dangerous the world really is for women.

boopnut said...

When I was younger (many years ago) a man was following my mother and me. It was very scary as if we crossed the street, so did he. You are so right. Men have a privilege a woman does not. They are safe just because they are men. Unfortunately, those women who are more attractive, get the harrassment.

Steffi said...

It happens all the time, in some cultures more than in others (Mediterranean countries, I'm looking at you!). I don't feel scared/offended/anthing but mildly annoyed to be honest, in 99% of the cases, guys don't mean anything with it. But usually helps and gives me a great boost of confidence is to react in a way they don't expect at all - i.e. flirt back (very effective when I was traveling on my own in North Africa- they didn't see that coming!) or reply with something mildly offending. There's a group of guys waiting at a bus stop that I pass on my way to work and they kept cat-calling and undressing me with their eyes. For some days I kept staring back at them in disgust, and the next time one of them said something I said 'Good morning ugly old sexually frustrated men, how are you today?'and smiled. Now THEY avert my eyes.

Anonymous said...

It's happened to me several times and I'm sort of a loudmouth so they pretty much get an earful when it happens. It's not always the smartest thing to do but it certainly makes me feel better. Also, for some reason, men also think its cool to catcall when they're stuck in traffic, I guess because you're stuck too and sort of have to listen to it.
I also wanted to comment on what you said about your boyfriend. Of course, I don't know him and he's probably a nice guy BUT why would he be annoyed about walking with you a few minutes for safety reasons. "we'll just both get mugged" is a really rotten thing to say. Wouldnt he rather be with you if God forbid that were to happen? And if I were to text my BF and tell him that I had to hide from a catcaller because he scared me, he better damn well ask me if I'm okay or if I want him to meet me somewhere to walk with me. A sad frown face would not be acceptable. No offense, but there are a lot of really good guys out there who would go out of their way to make you feel safe.

The Shopping Forecast said...

Quite off the point here but it's strange that I'm reading this when my brother-in-law's friend Sian O'Callaghan's body was found today. Sometimes catcalling can be harmless, but in this case it was tragic.

Miss Peregrin said...

The scariest thing to me is that you can't tell the difference between a "safe" cat-caller and a dangerous one until you're tied up in the trunk of some stranger's car. I might over-exaggerate, but really how many men even have to consider the possibility that talking to a stranger might have those consequences? Cat-calling, street harassment, and aggressive pursuit (even in the "you know you're coming home with me later baby" way) just make me feel uncomfortable and unsafe. I try and make my boyfriend come with me everywhere at night, and if he can't make it I get a male friend to pretend to be my boyfriend/brother so that guys leave me alone. Still, it makes me angry that I even have to go to such lengths just to enjoy a peaceful night out with friends.

Anonymous said...

I ride my bike everywhere. As much as I try to be free and enjoy my ride, I think about getting kidnapped, or something similar. So many cars honk, and so many people call me. It is very annoying and scary. I'm thinking about buying pepper spray.
But really, how can we be something if we live in fear.


Corrine/Frock And Roll said...

Yes, and ooh-weeeeeeeeeee does it leave me seriously ticked off! I think my annoyance is due to the fact that a) a guy (or guys) think that it's okay to do that to women, without thinking about how it might make them feel; and b) when it happens, I kind of feel powerless.

Always Something said...

"And maybe some of the men who catcall and try to approach women on the street don't realize that what they're doing, for many women under a variety of conditions, will make another person feel afraid. This isn't a challenge they have to face, and certainly one I don't like thinking about."


I don't get catcalled as much anymore, but that's because I seldom take my noise cancelling headphones off! I have a perma bitch face and just train on through. It's not easy sometimes, but I really don't wwant to hear what anyone may have to say during rush hour.

Anonymous said...

I'm a guy so you can freely dismiss anything i say in this culture. Now that that is up front i have two comments. 1 Anyone who is terrified to be alone in public places hasn't got what it takes for combat so all your worries about soldiers objectifying you are pointless. 2@Sam, i don't know you and am not making any judgments, just an observation. Many of today's styles look like something a hooker would have worn when i was younger. that may, I said may, have been why you were mistaken for a prostitute.

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