I can remember the first time I was catcalled. Growing up in a small, religious community where I was rarely allowed out into the world, I was almost oblivious to catcalling. Almost. I knew about it but hadn’t experienced it for myself then. The first time it happened was in Nicaragua. I became acutely aware of how a man, a stranger, saw my body.
Oooohhh Morenaaa. *whistles* Baby!
My skin crawled and despite being violated, I felt torn. If I yelled at him, would he attack me? If he became aggressive, it would be my fault for saying something, but I didn’t want to keep walking with my head down and in silence.
I am not alone in this. I was inspired to finally speak on this topic because of Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, the woman creating the art series Stop Telling Women to Smile, which is amazing. Tatyana Falalizadeh is an illustrator/painter based in Brooklyn who creates portraits of women with captions to address gender-based harassment and posts them in public spaces. STWTS has started in Brooklyn in the fall of 2012.
It is an on-going, traveling series and will gradually include many countries and many women participants.
It’s fearless and, although I may not be able to do exactly what she’s doing, I can tell you the perspective from women here, in Nicaragua…
Here, catcalls are called piropos, meaning “compliments.” I can tell you I am not complimented when I hear, “Hola, Morena,” which means “Hey, brown girl.” I don’t feel great when Nicaraguans tell me how great I will taste or demand I give them my number. They make hissing sounds at me, like ssss ssss, to try and get my attention. As a matter of fact, I take it as a high offense when I hear, “Oy, Negrita.” I’m sure you can imagine what that means. They say it under their breath, knowing it’s not okay to say. Yet, they defend catcalling, citing it’s their culture and I cannot understand it because I’m a foreigner. I think my favorite excuse so far has been, “If I don’t tell you that you look nice, how will you know?”
I fight piropos in my own way by flipping the catcall on its head. If a man says to me, “Hey, sexy,” I say, “Hey, ugly” in the exact same tone and voice right back. Usually, it shocks him into silence. In my site, where I live, I confronted the men in my community. By men, I mean young men and sometimes school boys. I said, “My name is Janae. Not ‘Baby.’ Not ‘Morena.’ I live here. I work here. You know that. Call me by my name. You don’t have to say that to me. I am here to help. Respect me.” Would you believe that they did? I do not get catcalled at all in my site after that and it’s wonderful, but anytime I traverse outside the small town, I am reminded again that I am seen first for my body and as a human second.
Street harassment is a problem that’s experienced worldwide. The largest study of its kind has shown that 84 percent of women, across 22 countries, experience street harassment before the age of 17—and that figure is even higher in Britain. A woman in New York City recorded over 10 hours of footage, which shows her being catcalled 108 times. Then, after the video was posted, she received rape threats.
Street harassment is not a gender problem as male volunteers have stories of being harassed as well; however, it is definitely a heavier weight on the shoulders of women.
In Mexico City, a group of women calling themselves Hijas de Violencia (Daughters of Violence) are “fighting street harassers with confetti guns and punk rock.” Literally, when someone catcalls them, they pull out a karaoke-like mic and start singing “Sexista Punk” and shoot guns of confetti at their assaulters.
These men know what they’re doing is not appropriate, cool or appreciated. Read what this man says about it. However, maybe their judgment is faulty because if the roles were switched they would enjoy it. Don’t believe me? Watch this woman reverse-catcall men. Terra Lopez, a Sacramento-based artist and lead singer of Rituals of Mine, has released her project, This is What It Feels Like, an audio art exhibit in which participants walk through a dimmed hallway to the sound of men catcalling them, with varying levels of harassment and objectification. She says men have left the exhibit in tears.
Catcalling is invasive. It’s disrespectful. It’s UNwanted. It does not add to a woman’s day. In fact, it’s a repressive blanket of negativity on a woman’s self-consciousness and attitude. It’s not a compliment. It’s a violation. The idea that catcalling a woman will in some way make her give her number or drop her panties is both delusional and concerning. If I were to ask a man how many times his catcalling has been successful, I am almost positive the answer will be zero percent. So why do they do it? I have no idea.
Street harassment is illegal here, but no one calls the police on the men who still do it. Women feel it’s easier to ignore it or it’s just too ingrained in the culture. In the States, it won’t be marked as a criminal offense for fear of violating the First Amendment, but that doesn’t mean women should roll over and take it. We are not obligated to like it, accept it or acknowledge it. To believe it’s okay for men to catcall and get aggressive when they’re ignored or that women should be appreciative is sad and you need to read this blog post again.
Catcalling is street harassment. There is no other word for it and street harassment is a social problem. How do we rid the world of this social problem once and for all? I can think of one answer: education. It’s probably difficult to squeeze this topic into seminars or conferences that reach the grownup audience and for it to be taken seriously, but it can be easily discussed in schools and taught to younger, more receptive minds. It’s not too late for grown men to understand though. The proof is in the museum and the men who join the feminist movement, but we need to teach children too. They are the future and educating them will guarantee, at the very least, that there will be hope for the next generation.