A reader writes:
Thank you for linking to that essay, which I have passed on to my 23-year-old daughter. She deals with catcalling every time she turns right from her house and walks down the next block – which she now seldom does. The (mostly out of work) young men sitting on their porch stoops or leaning against cars parked in the street (which means they are blocking the sidewalk) make horrible comments to her – “Hey fucking white bitch,” “I wanna fuck you, white bitch,” etc. Lovely, no? Like the young essayist, she wears the baggiest, most unattractive clothes if she is forced to walk through that area, but to no avail. The closest bus stop is through those two blocks of catcalls, but she walks six blocks in the other direction to avoid the harassment. This is in your fair city of Washington, DC, just three blocks from Rock Creek Park. (But she is planning to move to Silver Spring in a couple of months.)
Washington City Paper did a cover story on the problem several years ago. Another reader:
It’s a conversation I’ve had with men so many times, and it’s been so hard to make a dent. Some of them do get it after a while – a lot of them don’t.
I grew up in a big city, taking public transportation, and dealt with this from about age 14 through early college. I never came to any actual physical harm, though one of the men staring at me on the bus late at night did get off the bus after me at my stop and start to follow me home. (I went to a male friend’s house, explained what was going on, and hid out there until the coast seemed clear. If my friend hadn’t been nearby? Who knows.)
But the daily gauntlet was so exhausting and so demoralizing. One day in high school I wore a short skirt and a crop top to school – it was the late ’80s, it was fashionable, and it was a warm day. I forgot that I was supposed to take the city bus to an orthodontist’s appointment after school that day. (Every time I retell this story I make sure to include that detail.) The bus was excruciating (catcalls, stares, leers, gropes, girlfriends of starers also glaring at me, etc.) and I had no leeway – pull down the top to cover my belly and there was more cleavage, pull up the skirt and there was more leg, etc. I had a small backpack and used that as a shield best I could.
I finally escaped to the haven of the orthodontist’s office. Or so I thought. Stretched out on the dentist’s chair, the ogling and inappropriate comments started all over again – from the orthodontist.
Having gotten through THAT, I waited anxiously for my dad to pick me up (he was late, and I literally hid inside the lobby, finding the least-visible corner), and started sobbing as soon as I closed the car door behind me. He of course wanted to know what was wrong, and I tried to explain. He profoundly didn’t get it. “You just look nice today,” he said.
Yes, I should have remembered that I needed to take the bus and worn something more concealing. But really, why is that the baseline? Why did that mean that 17-year-old me was “asking for” that kind of harassment?
I do think it’s something that we as women get used to and can eventually brush off. And get old enough and it stops – something I genuinely don’t mind. I prefer invisibility to that kind of visibility.
But it’s going to keep happening to new generations of girls who are ill equipped to deal with it and shouldn’t have to deal with it, unless the people doing the more “innocent” but contributory staring quit (notice how she reacts, and stop if she seems uncomfortable) and unless everyone contributes to censure of the really overt gropers catcallers.
I’m a 27-year-old woman who, ten years ago, turned down the most competitive college I’d been admitted to because there were some things about living in a big city that scared the hell out of me, including catcalling. Earlier this year, after a decade of living in different cities and growing a lot more comfortable in my own skin, I was walking down Market Street in San Francisco, south of Civic Center, when a probably homeless, probably druggy man got right up in my face and called me gorgeous, and it didn’t even phase me.
At some point, I realized that treating each whistle, holler, or unwelcome compliment as threatened rape just isn’t evidence based. Most of these men are just looking to have their existence acknowledged by a pretty woman. It’s annoying, pathetic, and I wish they’d stop, but I refuse to let it terrify me anymore.
On the other hand, later that day, a separate group of men gave off enough of a different vibe that when they started yelling comments after I passed, it was enough to make me turn the corner and take the next street down the rest of the way to my destination. Not all catcalls are created equal, and sometimes it’s hard to even pinpoint what the difference is.