Being Offensive and Being Offended
I’m out for a walk at 2:30 in the afternoon, on my way to drop my rent check off. Ten minutes away from my house I notice a man down the street walking my way. I’m never sure what to do when passing people in the street- having grown up in a smaller town where everyone says hello, I know a smile and wave might label me as a target for the people more used to urban living.
I wait to look up at him until we are about to pass each other, so that as little time as necessary is spent acknowledging each others’ presence. If you nod hello too early, it could invite conversation, if you nod too late you might seem skiddish or rude.
I raise my head and smile up at him, mouthing hello as I listen to my music with my earphones in. He smiles and says hello as well. I casually raise my hand in acknowledgement as I pass, and he says “excuse me.” I realize that I might have looked like I was pushing him away, or holding my distance from him with my hand motion that was meant to be an act of camaraderie and acknowledgement.
I feel bad. He’s my age, but twice my height. I don’t want him to think that I’m scared of him. I resolve within myself that I should acknowledge the next person I pass in a more assertive way, not thinking about the situation so much. We’re all just people.
But, the magic rule of 1 in 2 holds true. Five minutes later, I pass another man who I make eye contact with and nod at as I continue walking past. Suddenly I hear him shouting behind me to get my attention. I stop walking, and turn around.
“Can I ask you something?” he asks me.
“Sure, what’s up?” I ask in the most non-feminine, casual way I can. It’s a way of putting up my defenses. If anything were to go wrong in an interaction, I want to make sure I cannot be accused of “leading anyone on.” If you ask most any woman, she will probably tell you that these thoughts filter throughout her mind while she is meeting new people as well. This is because we live in a culture of shame, and victim blaming. If a woman is attacked or assaulted, the police and society first ask 1. what was she wearing 2. did she invite the interaction 3. was she being responsible for her own safety
The thing is, we never ask the men in these situations if they were thinking about the safety of the woman, it’s the woman that is supposed to look out for her own safety. So much for the myth that women need men to protect them; the men are most of the time the ones threatening, accusing and condemning the women. And that’s not to say women don’t do this to other women as well, but my point still stands. All of these thoughts go through my head when I am interacting with a man I don’t know.
I’m resolved not just to ignore men, because I want to feel safe and feel I deserve the right to own the space around me in public just as men do. And because the man I passed five minutes ago seemed really nice and I think I might have accidentally snubbed him. And I don’t want to prejudge a whole gender based on an idea I have.
But, unfortunately, this second man reminds me exactly why I have that idea. He pauses for a second after I turn around, as if he’s surprised I did. Then he asks with a leery smile,
“What’s your name?”
I was expecting something like, “which way to the gas station?”. Or “how do I catch the bus?”. Or “did you just see what happened down the street?” No. He’s leering at me and asking me my name. And I realize how complicated this issue of catcalling is, and why it’s so prevalent in society. Why women face cat calls on the streets everyday of their lives, unwanted comments, asking for women to “just smile,” even reaching out and touching a woman. This is all a play for power, a power of the space. It’s a way to make women feel uncomfortable being out alone, as if a way for men to reassure themselves that the patriarchy still exists, and if she’s not at home cooking, she must want to have sex with you.
There is a difference between being flirted with, and being cat called. Catcalling generally occurs when women are alone, and are somewhere outside- usually walking down the street. One of the big differences between flirting and cat calling for me is that flirting makes me feel respected and good, and cat calling makes me feel invaded and threatened. Flirting generally happens in safe spaces where other people are around- like in coffee shops or in bookstores. Cat calling happens when you are walking alone down a street, and are just trying to get to your next destination without someone looking up and down your body and attempting to remind you of what they want, and what you don’t.
Also, flirting for me is nice when it’s someone my age, but when it’s someone twice my age, that’s personally gross for me in most every situation. I remember starting to have strange men call out to me in the street when I used to walk home from middle school. Looking back, I find that should definitely be reprehensible by law. Maybe you can’t prosecute someone for catcalling a 26 year old right now, but I definitely think you should be able to prosecute someone for catcalling a 17 year old. And maybe if that became a common practice, men would start taking less chances on who they called out to, reached toward, and intimidated in the street.
Immediately after I realize that this guy is not going to ask me for any useful information and the situation will probably just deteriorate from here, I turn around and walk the other way. I don’t owe this guy any conversation. It’s one thing to be rude to a man who is just walking down the street, and then it’s another thing to acknowledge when a man is being a predator. And I’m going to say it: men who catcall women in the streets are predators. And they need to get used to hearing this so that our culture can begin to change, and they can recognize how they are upsetting women who are just trying to go about their daily lives.
Later that day I’m at a bar getting a drink with my feminist friend, and I ask her the questions I have about the cultural practice of cat calling. How I don’t want to be rude to men or prejudge them, but when I fail to do so, I tend to get some nasty surprises.
She tells then that she is pregnant, and she is really hoping to have a boy. She feels like we are raising our girls to be more empowered and fearless in the world right now, but we are not raising our boys to be mindful enough of other’s perspectives, and how their actions might make others feel.
I think this is a great point and realize that, more than me and other women figuring out the solution to catcalling, it’s a question of also educating men and the next generation of boys what is and what is not appropriate. Finding the solution doesn’t always have to fall on us as individual women to figure out how we will survive in a world that constantly seeks to remind us that we are second class citizens, but should begin to share that task with men, and expecting them to help solve it as well.
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