Cat-calling, I’ve found, is somewhat universal. At least, from my experiences it is (whether or not the Amhara of Djibouti experience this phenomenon is unknown to me). It varies a bit across countries, like sit-coms: the Italian ones are cheesy, the Americans are a bit vulgar, the English ones are kinda lame, and the German ones are non-existent.
At home, I kind of don’t have a problem with it. Or, rather, if I have a problem with cat-calling, I know how to deal. Once, while walking through Westlake Center (a mall and courtyard in downtown Seattle), a huge, imposing man (he must have been at least 6’2″ and pushing 300 pounds) leaned in and said, well …
Let’s just say he complimented my reproductive organs.
And I might have freaked out. While I can’t precisely remember what I said (or I can, but don’t want to repeat it), it was something about how he should be fruitful and multiply (with himself), and that I doubted his opinion on female reproductive organs, because he probably hadn’t seen any but his own mother’s.
He was shocked into silence for a good 30 seconds before he started spewing a litany of curses and threats. By then I was a block away, and his words were echoing across the courtyard and garnering him a lot of unwanted attention.
Of course, it was eight in the morning, it was daylight, I was in a populated part of town that I knew well, and a large number of cops and security guards mill around that area because it’s so touristy. So running my mouth off at some jerk-munchie, in this context, is pretty safe. I know what I’m getting into. Ditto for New York (where they seem to expect it).
In Italy, the game changes a bit – I’ve found men will say some pretty raunchy things, and the second you give them a stare, and they realize that you speak Italian, they usually back-peddle, and often apologize (I found the same thing with Spanish-speakers stateside. Once a guy was emphatically trying to convince me he hadn’t said anything wrong, and I told him he knew full well he had – and the whole conversation was in Spanish).
But for some reason, in the U.K, the cat-callers freak me out. It’s probably because it’s just so shocking. Like I’ve said, I usually expect the Brits to be, well, better-behaved than that. I realize it’s just my cultural misconception, but still. Also, I don’t feel as comfortable mouthing off, which is probably a good thing – I generally think that unless you know exactly what you are getting into, you should probably keep quiet.
And take a photo.
I can’t take credit for the idea. Hollaback NYC was launched a few years ago, designed to empower New Yorkers to “holla back” at street harassers. Submitters snap photos of their harassers and post them online. I remember hearing an NPR interview a few years ago with one of the women who started the site. She said she was at a bar watching a friend’s band, and a group of guys came up to her. One started making some really aggressive/harassing comments, and so she pulled out her cell phone and snapped a picture of him. In that second, she described how the power balance shifted, and the guy immediately shut up and walked away.
Which is fantastic, because I have a submission for that last one. Behold:
This douchebag was standing in the Waterloo subway station, drunk off his gourd, telling his friends in graphic detail what he’d like to do to a woman were he to encounter one.
“Like this little thing, here”, he said as I walked by, leaning way too far in.
Gaaaah! I cannot begin to tell you how infuriating and upsetting that sort of thing is (though I suspect a few of you, especially those who’ve spent a lot of time in big cities, already know) I kept my rage in check for a couple of reasons.
- We were in a tube station, and really, you shouldn’t start running your mouth in such a dangerous environment. Tempers flare, and who knows when someone might snap and push you off a platform. I’m only sort of kidding here.
- He had a huge group of friends with him, and while they looked kind of mortified that I had heard him, I was still woefully outnumbered.
- My husband was with me. If I said anything, I felt like I’d be dragging him into it. And he is clearly a lover, dear friends, and not a fighter.
- I had no cultural cues of how to evaluate the guy. Was he sorta drunk, or totally wasted? An asshole? A frat boy? Potentially violent? I honestly couldn’t tell.
Instead, I grabbed my camera. I did so just as the train arrived, and took a quick photo before hopping onto separate car. In those moments, a few of his friends looked alarmed. It was entirely empowering. And kind of nerve-wracking.
Of course, I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t have a quick escape route, and if I wasn’t in a crowded station full of lots of people. As always, be careful. But if you feel like you’re in a safe place? Snap away, and holla back.