"Good Morning" - Catcalls Are Not Compliments

"Good morning!" a truck driver said to me, beaming with a smile, as I made my way to the office. Not, "Hey sexy." Not "Oh hey Kimora, what you doing later tonight?" Not "Nice ass!" Not "Damn, girl, let me holla!"

"Good morning."

See, this is how to get a woman's attention: You treat her as a person, not a slab of meat you could see yourself having sex with. Good morning, as in, I hope you have a good morning. And I said good morning back. I meant it. I've been living in New York City for 2 months now, and that truck driver is among the few men on the street or men I've met in passing that talked to me like a human despite my being a stranger. For many men who happen to see me on the street, I'm not a person. I am an object of vision intended for their consumption.

"Wow, it must be so hard to be told you're sexy." Eyerolls and annoyance.


I don't have a problem with being told I'm sexy. I don't have a problem with the fact that I am / can be sexy-- because honestly that's kind of awesome. What I have a problem with is being objectified. What I have a problem with is the idea that I should "take it as a compliment" because "at least they're calling you pretty." What I have a problem with is that this is so commonplace that many women fail to realize that this is, in many cases, harassment. What I have a problem with is the fact that there is a cultural norm that tells men on the street that they are entitled to make sexualized commentary on what is mine, and mine alone.

1 in 4 women are sexually assaulted by the time they hit their mid-20s. And that's with rape being one of the most underreported crimes. No woman wants to step out onto the street and be treated like prey for hungry eyes eager to strip her of her humanity-- her thoughts, her goals, her family, her diploma, her career-- and reduce her to an object. 25% of women by around age 25-- with statistics like that, it's not a question of if for us as women, but when. When will it be me, or my sister, or my friend, or my roommate? Statistically, it will be at least one of us.

And in this way, catcalls, on the receiving end, are less like compliments and more like threats. Since coming to the city, I have had to be even more careful. This is not like the DC suburb I grew up in where gossip spread quick and everyone knew everybody else through at maximum, two connections. It is easy for anyone to fade into the anonymity of the crowded streets of New York. I have developed sharper hearing so I can hear those behind me, how fast they are going and how long that particular gait has been walking the same path as I have. I have learned to inconspicuously check reflective surfaces like windows, tiles, marble walls, and puddles as I walk to see who is around me and raise an internal alarm if someone has been following me for too long. I've learned to lose people I think are following me in grocery stores and convenience marts. So when a man on the street shouts at me about how doable I look that day, it's not striking me as a compliment-- it's striking me as a stranger telling me that he has decided he would have sex with me in the hypothetical, and maybe, he's one of those people who would take action so that such a scenario wasn't so hypothetical. 

That's not to say I think women should be afraid of men or that all catcallers are rapists. In this society, we're raised to believe that catcalling is a fact of life, and I'm sure many catcallers really do think they are paying me a compliment, because they've never looked at it the way I do, the way a lot of women do: as people for whom sexual assault is a reality that constantly lurks in the back of our minds.

What is really behind a catcall is a sense of entitlement to the bodies of women. "Women are meant to be seen and not heard." No one expects a catcall to turn into a woman turning around, shouting back "yeah, let's do this-- here's my apartment address, meet me at midnight" or even, "thank you for noticing me. Let's grab lunch sometime." It's not about hitting on me. It's not about getting a date with me. It's not about talking to me. It's not about me being a person with thoughts and feelings with which to react. It's about being visually consumed by another person. It's someone making lewd commentary at me with the expectation, even knowledge, that I'll just take it. I'll just walk away. They'll just drive by. Their words are not really about me, but about what they want to do to me or what they think about how acceptable my body is. Whether a stranger wants to shout at me that I've got a nice ass or a fat ass, it isn't their place to decide or voice that opinion, because they don't have authority over my body. 

Imagine a stranger, no connection to a child--not a parent, not a neighbor, not a teacher--walking up to this child and telling her how cute she looks. The child may not understand it, but the parents or guardians would be alarmed. "That is not your child," The parents protest as they take their daughter by the hand. "You do not know that child." The fact that this stranger is commenting on this child's appearance, uninvited, even in a non-sexual way is perceived at best as inappropriate and at worst an indication of sinister motives, whether or not he has them. The stranger is not entitled to talk to this child, let alone make and voice judgments on her appearance, just because he happens to be in the same space.

Suddenly the child is a thirteen year old girl, her body is changing, and everyone has a say on her knobby elbows and scarred shins from soccer and how her breasts are developing and the way that acne and freckles populate her face. Now she's fifteen and every time she walks to the bus stop she experiences the commentary that was seen as so threatening at four years old when a stranger approached her in the park, except now it's sexualized. To the catcaller, she's not a human being with a future and fears and hopes anymore, apparently because now, she's a woman. A stranger's right to publicly direct sexual comments at her trumps her right to walk down the street without having to feel threatened by sexual remarks and uninvited commentary on her body.

I don't take catcalls as compliments the same as I wouldn't take a stranger grabbing my ass as a compliment. Anything sexual is deeply personal. It's not just about what is done, but who is doing it and in what context. No, I don't think that I should take it as a compliment that someone chose me to act upon their preconceived notions of entitlement to my body, like it was a gift from high heaven that a man even noticed me. A sense of entitlement to the bodies of others is the overarching character trait of domestic abusers. It is reinforcement of this kind of thinking that manufactures girls who continually fall prey to harassment and abusive relationships. It lowers their standards on how they should be treated and how they should value themselves. Those who believe that they should take what they can get-- he hits me, but he loves me, and where else am I going to find someone who loves me? He is sexually abusing me, but it's because he thinks I'm sexy, right? It bolsters the idea that men can do as they please to women without regard to how it makes them feel or under the misconception that as long as it qualifies as male attention, women want it. We want to be reduced to legs and asses and breasts like a designer jean ad.

Some men will think, I wouldn't mind being objectified every once in a while-- but those men don't have the constant threat of sexual violence breathing down their necks. We, as women, know it doesn't matter if we're in our most scandalous club wear in a city at 4am or walking the halls of our dorm in sweats to pee in the middle of the night. It can happen. It does happen. The key to the equation is men not understanding consent, feeling entitled to our bodies, and being told from a very young age that "boys will be boys" and they can't control their male impulses.

Catcalling is a practice that is symptomatic of a greater societal ill known as rape culture. The fact is, this is normal. It is status quo for me to, at any given moment, be shouted at by a man, or group of men, informing me that I look bangable. It is normal for me to distrust men at large for fear of a sinister motive.

A few weeks ago, I was dressed nicely, coming back from a concert by the New York City Philharmonic after dark, and between the subway station and my apartment, multiple cabs slowed down for me. Maybe they wanted to help me out since being in the Financial District after hours, they figured I was a long way from my neighborhood-- but all I could think was, how fast can I run in these heels? Should I lose them first, or would that take away from my head start if I had to run? How hard do I have to punch a man before I can make a clean get away? If I pretend not to notice, will he give up, or persist? There is no one in this part of town after working hours-- no one would hear me scream. No one would get the plates. If he follows me in his cab, could I lose him before getting home? Will he follow someone else instead? Several of them honked at me to get in the car. One even opened the door for me (I'm still not sure how he did it from in the cab) before honking twice at me to get in, and then speeding off, apparently frustrated that I had snubbed his services. This was all in the 6 blocks between the station and my apartment.

I think people need to stop telling me to take a compliment I don't want and start telling my catcallers that they're not entitled to sexualize me and make me feel threatened. It's not a compliment if it's not about how it makes me feel. It's not a compliment if it makes me feel unsafe or diminishes my absolute authority over my own body. I do not exist to be sexualized by onlookers.

"Hey, honey, why don't you come over to my place tonight!" as shouted by a man in sunglasses and shorts with a group of his friends who proceed to hoot at me, is not. a damn. compliment.

If you want to pay me a compliment, or make me smile, or get to know me, call me beautiful. Beautiful is about me-- not me in relation to you. Tell me that you like my shoes or that I am killing it in my dress. Smile at me, really smile at me-- it goes a long way. Tell me you want to know how I get my hair to look like that. Start a conversation with me, like that guy at the Burger Burger, whose name was something like Eugene, who told me about how sad he was about missing the Puerto Rican culture festival in the city that day, and asked me about how I liked the city, and smiled and waved at me as I left with my friends.

Or, just wish me a good morning.

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1 comment:

  1. Totally agree. It makes my day when a man just treats me with courtesy or offers a genuine compliment, instead of just jumping straight into bed with this remarks.

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