I want to thank Ann Friedman for this excellent post taking apart a new Washington City Paper spread on cat-calling here in DC. A coworker put the City Paper on my desk this morning and suggested I read the pieces, but I avoided doing so, knowing it would open up a can of worms. I do applaud the City Paper for tackling this topic, and yes, it will be good for men to learn that what a woman wears has little to do with how much harassment she gets on the street. But I agree with Ann that the pieces are overly sympathetic to harassers and too focused on women’s choices of where to live and what to wear…
A bit of a personal anecdote. A few months ago, in rapid succession, my boyfriend happened to be around three times within one week to see me get harassed on the street. Women usually get harassed when they are alone, or sometimes out with other women, so this was a rare series of events. The first time, we were talking on a park bench and a homeless man stumbled over to tell my boyfriend he should "treat me right" because "she’s the one who has to open her legs." It was creepy and disgusting, but as the man was clearly inebriated and in desperate straits, it wasn’t the worst.
Later that very same day, we stopped into a CVS. While my boyfriend waited for a prescription, I wandered the aisles, and soon realized a man was following me, murmuring about how "hot" I was and various things he wanted to do to me. I turned around to confront him and saw my boyfriend approaching from the other end of the aisle; the harasser was stuck between us. "Fuck off!" I said. And then the harasser turned around and saw my boyfriend walking toward me and did.
Time number three, bf and I were rushing to catch a bus and I crossed a street ahead of him. He was stuck on the other side while a few cars passed, and one driver rolled down his window to shout and whistle at me. This was in broad daylight, around 9:30 in the morning.
BF was shocked and upset by witnessing these events, and expressed a very natural impulse to respond verbally in some way when witnessing such harassment directed toward me. But I think it’s important to note that when women are harassed, they are done so as strangers, objects, and embodiments of female sexuality. It is irrelevant to the cat-caller whether the woman is single or coupled up, hetero or queer, amused or angry. In their universe, a woman in public is fair game. And the only way to turn their universe on its head is for women individually to respond (when it’s safe) and let them know their behavior is unacceptable. When I get harassed I don’t think, "Damn, I have a boyfriend, shut up!" I think, "Fuck off, I’m a human being, not a cow at the county fair!"
What can men do to help? Let women respond to cat-calling in the way they feel is safest and gives them back their individual agency. And if you are ever in a group of men where harassment is taking place, let your companions know they’re making complete and total fools of themselves. They’ll be lucky if they ever have sex again if that’s their method of talking to women.