17/ 10/ 2013

Do cat-calls make you feel uncomfortable? This post might, too.

UPDATE 10/19/13: I wasn’t sure if Hannah Price agreed with the write-ups of her series (which labeled these men as harassers and used other strong language to describe cat-calling) and reading her interview with NPR interview now, it appears she doesn’t. Cool–I like her series even more now. She also points out that she mostly photographed men who are the same ethnicity as she is (Mexican and Black). I don’t really see how that serves the series and it sounds a little like a convenient explanation, but only she knows why the demographic of her subjects are what they are. My comments on general subconscious racism still stand.

So an artist from Colorado named Hannah Price has unveiled a series of portraits taken of men after they holla at her on the street. Price basically walks up to these guys after they call out to her and asks to take their picture.

I love the idea. It’s hilarious, especially because their reactions are wide-ranging and some even look sheepish. But aside from exposing cat-callers, Price’s experiment sheds light on something else–the fact that a significant number of women feel deeply, deeply harassed when guys holla.

In this one write-up about her series by The Frisky for example, posted under the category “Street Harassment,” the writer calls the men’s behavior “disgusting,” and their view of women “appalling.” She expresses some surprise that these men “are human” and “not monsters,” but asserts that they must be confused human beings for making women feel “small and vulnerable.” I’m confused by this.

As a woman myself, and a vertically challenged one, I fully understand my own physical vulnerability. I am pretty sensitive to the presence of physical threats and am more aware than most people of my surroundings on the street. I am also overly-sensitive and probably overly-combative toward people who try to assert dominance or control over me, to the point of being neurotic. If you don’t believe me, just ask the last guy who thought it would be cool to “check in” on me every morning and night even though he wasn’t my boyfriend–he got an earful.

But I’ve never had this dramatic negative reaction, that other women seem to have, to dudes hollerin at me on the street. To me, it’s a pretty mundane part of everyday life. I barely notice it most of the time, and even missed it a little when I moved to Asia for a few years and NO one cat-called or even tried to make a little flirtatious eye-contact with me in public. Once, on a trip back home to New York, a truck driver going the opposite direction down the street honked at me and I was so happy and flattered that I honked back, rolled down my window, and had a full-on conversation with the guy. He was a perfectly nice, respectful person who was bored out of his mind sitting in traffic.

Before some of you get heated, hear me out. I am against ACTUAL harassment. I am not the person who will say rape victims were “asking for it” if they were drunk or wearing skimpy clothing. I think sexually or even psychologically violating another person is one of the most disgusting things anyone can do to another person.

There are definitely cases of women being harassed and threatened in the street (check out this NGO committed to fighting it called Hollaback), but I don’t think 90% of cat-calling is threatening. In fact I think it’s pretty disrespectful to women who are victims of serious harassment, or worse, to compare common cat-calling to what they have gone through. It’s also unfair to compare a man telling you he thinks you have a nice ass to a man who would chase you down in a dark alley and commit one of the most horrific crimes known to man. And though it should definitely be considered harassment if a guy actually says something obscene or threatening to you, most guys simply whistle, try to get your attention, or call something harmless out from a safe distance. In those cases, call him impolite, crass, uncultured, or whatever you want, but don’t call him a sexual offender if he isn’t one–it diminishes the crimes of real sex offenders.

I’ll tell you what I DO consider harassment, all of which I have personally experienced: Being groped on the subway. Feeling someone’s boner pressing into me on the subway. Being flashed. Being flashed when I’m ALONE in a subway AND a Long Island Railroad car. There was even an incident back in elementary school when I got into a fight with a group of boys, who then cornered me in the parking lot. I managed to kick one of them in the balls before a grownup came and sent them to the principal’s office.

Going back even further, when I was 5 or 6, I remember a creepy guy called my house one morning before my parents were up, and hearing a child’s voice on the phone asked me if I had a “hot pussy.” I had no idea what the f*ck a hot pussy was at the time, but my survival instincts went into overdrive, I knew I was speaking to a bad person, and I felt humiliated and paralyzed because I wasn’t equipped with the wit or the vocabulary to respond. He hung up before I could wake my dad up.

All of these things still make me quake in anger, even 25 years later. I never got a chance to confront some of those creepy men, in some cases because it happened too fast and in other cases because it was more important for me to get out of harm’s way than to give them a piece of my mind. But if I ever do see them, I am fully prepared to punch them in the face. With brass knuckles. Trust that I would not hesitate to fuck any of them up, especially that disgusting prank caller. So I know what it is to be disgusting, appalling and threatening, and I don’t think the majority of my random street admirers fit the bill.

With all that said, I need to say something now that will piss some people off: I think the fear some women feel stems from a very subconscious, deep-seated racial prejudice.

I know no one in the U.S. in the 21st century likes to be called a racist, I’m sorry it sounds ugly, and I’m sorry you’re offended. But as Brent Staples can explain much more eloquently than I can, we do not live in a color-blind world. Racism comes in many forms, not just in white robes and KKK masks. Even the most liberal woman, of ANY race, or whose “best friend is black,” etc. etc., has been known to cross the street or lock her car door at the sight of a passing Black man. I’d add Latino man to that sentence, too. Now take a second to look the sampling of Price’s photos again. What’s the racial makeup?

Yes, it’s true that white guys are less likely to holla in the same way–they generally do not, just like non-white Americans generally do not make out with random strangers at bars (Note: I said Americans because I have learned in my travels that Brazilians of all races and socio-economic backgrounds make out with random people all the time). But I’m willing to bet that at least some of the women who would shrug off or run away from a Black or Latino man trying to stop them on the street would actually pause if a non-homeless looking white guy did the same thing. If the guy opens with “Excuse me, miss,” they’d probably wonder if maybe the guy was helping them with something they’d dropped on the floor, or if the guy needed directions.

Let’s say the guy is actually attractive himself, and opens with something more obvious like shouting “hey beautiful,” “hey sexy,” or “hey (insert compliment).” Many of the same women who would bow their heads down, clutch their purses closer, and shuffle by without even looking at a Black or Latino “harasser” would probably stop and smile, exchange some flirtatious banter or even phone numbers with a White “admirer.” If you are one of these women, and you’re not offended that I’m pointing this out to you, take a second to examine yourself–the words “you’re beautiful” can sound very different coming from a guy you see not as a person, but as a faceless part of a group of people (who for whatever reason make you feel afraid), than coming from a guy you view as an individual person and equal.

Now let’s take race out of the equation and consider something else. Say some guy dressed in a suit standing ahead of you in line at Starbucks notices you and chats you up about the weather. Would you think that is threatening, appalling, or disrespectful? Sexist? Probably not. But how is it any different than a guy hollerin at you from the street? Both of them are interested in you because of your looks, so neither is objectifying you any more than the other. And both are equally likely to be serial killers or serial rapists trying to get your attention. IMO, the guy on the street is LESS intrusive because at least in his case I have no obligation to even acknowledge his advance, and he’s calling out to me in a setting where my guard is up. He’d also be a pretty stupid serial rapist if he thinks he’s going to bag a victim by calling out to them on a public street. So I’m probably more vulnerable to being abducted or attacked by a stranger who approaches me in a “safe” zone.

Personally, in the 9 times out of 10 that a guy whistles, makes kissy noises, cat-calls, etc. that aren’t physically threatening to me, I evaluate it on a case by case basis. If the cat-calls are boring, or if the guy(s) are ugly, I lift my head up high and walk by like I’m boss–a sort of silent way to acknowledge their compliment while blowing them off like, Yea–you wish. They expect it. It’s part of the fun. If they actually say something funny or interesting, I might respond–Yes, I can be ratchet if I need to be. And if they’re hot, I’m not gonna lie–I’ll stop and talk to them, and I may even give them my number.

To sum up, The Frisky writer says “Price’s photos remind us that these men are human.” And all I’m saying is, DUH!

2 responses to “Do cat-calls make you feel uncomfortable? This post might, too.”

  1. […] But while I am against sexual harassment, I am once again dismayed about people who hysterically lump all kinds of cat calls in with harassment. I’m also really f*cking angry at the increasingly apparent element of racism and classism involved in these reactions (read more about it in my earlier post here). […]

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I'm a 30-something multimedia creator from New York. I do videos on Youtube centered on open discussion and co-mentorship. Once a month, I host a Q&A with inspiring people from entrepreneurs to athletes and more on The itsme Podcast. Be warned: I can be opinionated. But it's all love! Please follow and subscribe, it would mean a lot! :)

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