Thursday, May 2, 2013
Catcaller Response: "Maybe You Shouldn't Have Moved to Harlem."
I was walking my usual route on a beautiful May day and the same things happened. People scrambled past each other on the same narrow scrap of pavement. People boarded and exited the buses, blocking my way. People yelled stuff at me. Not all of the things people yell at me are bad. Sometimes people say I have a nice hat. But I get tired of people who feel the need to tell a stranger what they think of how she looks. I don't exist for you. At this moment I exist for feeling the hot summer sun on my skin or buying some milk because it ran out. At this moment I exist for perusing Essie nail polishes at Duane Reade, deciding I don't want any, and leaving. I don't exist to please you.
I was close to the end of my route. I was almost home. And then someone called out to me:
"You look nice in that outfit today. Damn."
It definitely wasn't the most offensive thing I'd ever heard but it was the last straw. All week I encountered men on the street who walked within inches of me, leaning forward, staring at my ass as I passed by, whispering not-so-sweet nothings to me. They muttered "compliments" behind my back, startling me. He was also walking behind me when he said it, and this startled me yet again. I looked at him. He was all smiles and sunshine as he walked jauntily alongside me. He didn't look menacing. But I was tired of it and I said:
"I think women just want to walk down the street without being bothered."
"What? I didn't say you look hot! I didn't say..."
"That's okay. Nevermind."
I was beginning to wonder if it was really worth it. I had better things to do than talk to this guy. I could already tell he wasn't going to take me seriously. As I turned the corner to my apartment, he kept yelling at me from afar.
"What? There's nothing you can do about it. It's not my fault. Maybe it's God's fault that he put you here on this earth. Maybe you shouldn't be in this neighborhood. Maybe you shouldn't have moved to Harlem!"
Wonderful. First he used flattery to persuade me to back down. You're beautiful, so it's not my fault I noticed, mean lady. But he really said "You exist to be ogled. God made you to be ogled because he made you into a woman. How is it my fault that you're a woman and you exist?"
Then he put down Harlem as a neighborhood. I have received catcalls in Harlem, the Lower East Side and Times Square. I may have received more catcalls in Harlem because that's where I live and walk on a regular basis, but for every one of him there is a man in Harlem who didn't catcall me or anyone else. Someone should stand up for those guys.
I wish I hadn't given up. I wish I had tried. But this gets exhausting. And some men still question if this really is sexual harassment. Some men think it's rude but that it isn't sexual harassment because the attention has to be unwanted, and how does the man in question know she wouldn't appreciate it? Just take a minute to think about that. You don't know for certain if a complete stranger wants your feedback on how she looks, but you're going to err on the side of "Yes." Why is that? Is it because you've been raised to think women always care about how their physical presentation affects you? Because you think this is vital information that she needs to know?
Catcalling exists because a) Some men truly believe that women care about their feedback on how they look by virtue of the fact that they are men and women exist to visually please men, among other things, b) They enjoy exerting power over women they don't know on the street because they can't exert power in other relationships with women, and this is what they settle for, and c) They're bonding with other men over their tastes in women like they would over a menu at a new restaurant they're trying.
There could be a myriad of other reasons that I didn't list, but "They like to give compliments." is not among them.
The next time I have this conversation with a stranger on the street, I'll follow through. I'll say the words I've been meaning to say for a long time but never had the courage to muster: "I don't exist for you."