What’s Really Happening When Women Are Catcalled?

What’s Really Happening When Women Are Catcalled?

I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t sternly told him to leave. Most nights when I’m walking the streets of Buenos Aires alone, I have my guard up. I’m wary of how I come across – petite and seemingly vulnerable – so I walk quickly and confidently, hoping my pace will deter stares and catcalls.

But this time – it was broad daylight on a Sunday afternoon and a man decided to follow me down the street for five or six blocks until I managed to shake him off. He was subtle at first, before gaining the courage to walk faster and faster until he was walking right beside me. I quickened my own pace and tried to ignore him, but suddenly we were shoulder-to-shoulder with our feet stepping in sync. Mentally, I froze. Then out of nowhere, I found myself telling him to leave and somehow, thankfully, he did.

It’s been years since and I can’t stop writing about this incident because the feeling of his body against mine sticks with me. I can still remember the color of his shirt and his heavy breathing and the quickness of his step when he finally veered away. It was the closest I came to becoming another statistic, another woman assaulted or harshly harassed on the street by a man. I am lucky that today when I am catcalled on the streets of New York, it is just that – a catcall and no more.

The power dynamic shifts as soon as a man decides to catcall a woman. The man takes control by asserting his dominance through words. Call it machismo or sexism, it’s all the same manly, aggressive behavior. With the simple flick of a phrase or a kissing noise, I am no longer in control. No matter how strong or intelligent or kind I am, I suddenly become the object of harassment, a plaything with which he can taunt and jeer. He takes something away from me. Often I feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, and shaken from these catcalls. They stick with me. Each one, no matter how hard I try to forget. Whether he realizes it or not, he takes power away from me. Dominating the situation and proving his own manhood, he grants power to himself without my consent. It is never with my consent.

This global societal problem is so deeply rooted into our everyday lives that we must work to solve the higher-order problems before reaching this one. Street harassment expresses the truth of where we stand with gender equality today. It implicates so much of the way our society treats men and women: separate and not equal. What can be construed as “no big deal” in fact exemplifies the lack of gender equality and difficulty of feeling safe as a woman on the streets. It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing or how you present yourself, catcalling can happen to any woman at any time of day in any place.

The worst part, in my opinion, is that there is truly no escape from it. It doesn’t matter where in the world you go; put a woman on a sidewalk and a man will throw crude comments her way. I’ve experienced street harassment in my hometown, Argentina, and New York City. That’s my personal experience, which cannot amount to the many different places and many different women that experience catcalls every day around the globe.

Sometimes I wonder if men realize how much of an issue it is for women. Do they understand that it’s not a compliment to tell us we look beautiful from across the road? What makes them feel that they can control a stranger out of their reach, to be a punch line for a hot second just to boost their own self-esteem and stifle ours? It’s belittling to feel those words hit you unexpectedly, to feel smaller and smaller the more times they move through you.

Just the other day a boy, around the age of 10, was playing outside with two friends. Barely a few blocks from my own apartment, he decided to giggle and ask me for my number as I passed. Their adolescence pushed a smile out of me, no response, but it didn’t strike me the same way it does to be hit on or catcalled by older men on the streets. But this moment did concern me. Was he practicing flirting skills the only way he knew how, charming and innocent, or was this an example of how our media and surrounding environments have brought boys up to believe this is an appropriate way of grabbing a woman’s attention? Was this small situation highlighting the way we practice gender norms and perpetuate stereotypes that so many people are trying to break on what it means to be a woman or a man in our world today?

I don’t have the answers for that. The more we continue these conversations and spread awareness, the closer we will be to solving these issues. It will take time and patience, but moving the conversation forward is key.

I still wonder – why have we been taught to not respond? I know how to look the other way. I know to stare straight ahead and not flinch towards the perpetrator. I know how to bite my lip and swallow the words I want to yell back at him. Sometimes they come as a surprise, a slurred and quite “pretty” as I navigate through a crowd. Or from the second story balcony of a man in his mid-20s who wants to let me know that I am walking with a purpose. Or from the comfort of their motorcycle while waiting for a stoplight to turn green. Sometimes they’ll follow you down the road when you choose to ignore them.

I understand the implications of looking up or responding and how it’s best to mind one’s own business. But after a while, I get sick of pretending like the catcalls don’t affect me. I’m fed up with letting a man control me for walking innocently down the street, for taking a piece of me every time he decides to publicly harass me for his own satisfaction. For now, I still won’t respond to the catcalls. I don’t think that’s the answer – though I wish I had the right comeback to make them understand why it’s harassment in a short, succinct sentence they’ll hear. I understand the change in power and I refuse to allow a stranger to take away my natural confidence or self-worth by telling me my beauty meets his own quantifiable expectations. He cannot take away my dignity or my own belief that I deserve better. So do the rest of the women in this world.

Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock.