The trouble with “cat-calling”

There’s a “cat-calling” video making the internet rounds right now. If you haven’t seen it, it features one woman wearing a black fitted tee and black pants, walking through New York City. For the sake of our very important time (and minimal attention spans) the creator has condensed 10 hours of footage into just a few minutes. It’s the sort of viral video that sparks conversation — some of it deep, most of it bitter quips back and forth.

Take a look, if you don’t mind:

The video claims to show about a hundred instances of “street harassment”. I only put that in quotation marks because I like to believe it can be open to interpretation. And I use the word claims simply because I did not personally count the number of interactions. Regardless of those facts — the point of the video remains the same.

I’ve spent the last couple of days watching friends on social media react to the video. I’ve seen men calling her rude for not responding, men taking up her cause as their own… and everything in between.

What I haven’t seen is anyone explaining why this happens in the first place. That’s the answer I really want. What is it about women that makes men think it’s okay to treat them like objects. I really want to know. Is it biological? Are we really hardwired to play those roles?

It can’t be that, right? Because it’s not even close to a majority of men who act like this. There are perfectly nice and respectful men who are upset by this video because they think the woman is being rude to someone who just wants to say hello. Those men aren’t bad people, they just don’t have the perspective women earn as they grow into adulthood.

Most men I know, even the very best of them, don’t really understand what it’s like to be afraid to walk down a street alone at night. They don’t know about holding their keys with one sticking out between their fingers as they move briskly through a parking garage. They almost never wonder if what they’re wearing is going to invite unwanted attention from a stranger. Most men don’t move through this world treating every stranger who interacts with them with caution.

If you get nothing else from this post, please get this — not every woman will be victimized by rape, sexual assault, or some other vile and violent attack,  but every woman is taught that she needs to be very aware of the possibility. That, in itself, is victimization.

So a guy you know says hello with a simple “hey, beautiful”. It’s sweet. It makes you feel good. You genuinely appreciate it.

Then a guy on the street yells “hey, beautiful” as you walk by, and you’re not even looking at him. It’s not sweet anymore. It’s aggressive. That doesn’t mean it’s scary or he’s a bad person, but your inner alert system goes off.

Everything your mother, father, brothers, teachers, friends taught you about being safe runs through your mind.

You don’t even realize it’s happening.

Before you know it, you’ve gone through a mental checklist:

  • Where is my phone?
  • How far is my destination?
  • Is there anyone else around me right now in case something happens?

It seems crazy. It seems paranoid. It’s really not, because this doesn’t happen as one giant anxiety attack. I wish it did. I wish writing it off as “crazy” was the simple answer. But it’s real. It’s the standard sequence of events of a woman who’s spent any significant amount of time moving through this world on her own.

So, no, the woman in the video is not being rude to ignore dozens of strangers hurling hellos and hey beautifuls in her direction. She’s doing what she’s been taught is necessary in order to make it to her next destination without becoming a cautionary tale.

Consider this — the next time you think a catcall is just a compliment, maybe take a moment to understand why it draws such defense. Realize that you’re not the first person to say something like that this week. Know that you’re not in a controlled environment. And imagine, if you can, what it’s like to be taught that your surroundings are only as safe as you are aware.

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