My dissertation was written on the topic of bullying back before it was a hot topic. In it, I suggested that bullying very often meets criteria for criminal behavior and that those behaviors, while historically minimized as a ‘right of passage’ or ‘kids being kids,’ should be taken as seriously in a school setting as those behaviors would be taken in any other setting. And here I am, 13 years since picking the topic, making the same argument for catcalling.
Here’s the thing: There are no fucking cats involved, though as an animal rights advocate, I’d be even more pissed off if there were. The point is, the term belies the injustice, the offense, and it’s effect on women. Public sexual harassment (formerly known as catcalling) encourages the objectification of women and often makes women feel unsafe. At best it does nothing to promote equality between sexes and at worst it promotes a society that engenders violence against women even as it denounces it. Our tolerance of it is crazy-making, both to the men who perpetrate it (NO means NO and Never lay your hand on a woman in anger) and to the women who are at once told to seek parity while being socialized to tolerate this dehumanizing socially sanctioned phenomenon.
Below, I share with you an excerpt from my memoir, Self-Disclosure, in which I faced off with a man for this behavior. I have been careful not to publish any material from my book before this but I’m making an exception in response to the outlash of shaming directed towards Shoshana B. Roberts, whose video (linked to here) documents over 100 catcalls directed to her as she walked the streets of NYC. She subsequently received rape threats for her audacity to call into question whether this is something that we as a society want to tolerate.
This is the story of my commute to therapy on a random day in November, 2008.
Warning to women: Do not try this at home.
A rumbling told me that a train was coming and I looked in the direction of the sound, careful to squint just enough to keep the accompanying wind-dirt out of my eyes, but not enough to create the dreaded wrinkles that plague people of my age, wrinkles which are often more pronounced on people who experience the stressors that I had in the past two years. It was the N train. The train came to a grinding a halt, the doors opened and the woman standing next to me walked directly into what looked to be a homeless man as she impulsively stepped onto the train - recoiling as though she just walked into an electric fence. Served her right. Who the hell lives in the city, rides trains or elevators, and hasn’t learned that when the doors open, you have to let the people off the train/elevator before you can enter? I silently hoped she’d smell like homeless-man urine all day long.
I hopped on the train and found a seat, turned my diamond ring around so it wasn’t visible, lest someone cut my finger off in an attempt to obtain the ring, and pulled out my phone so that I could have an excuse not to make eye contact with anyone. Two stops later I was shoving the phone back into my purse and getting off at 23rd street. I put my sunglasses on immediately despite the fact that I was underground in a tunnel and had never been in less need of sunglasses, but they made me feel safe, and I walk-sprinted to the staircase, tackling the steps carefully because I was in 4inch heels and whenever I can avoid it, I don’t use the railing for fear that I’ll catch some fatal disease, so I had to pay very close attention not to slip. At the top I took a second to orient myself. After living in New York more than a year, I still couldn’t remember which staircase led to which street corner. This is a skill that real New Yorkers have. They exit subways and know exactly where the hell they are. Not me.
I walked down 23rd Street, looking at the trees that still hadn’t begun to change color despite the fact that it was November, marveled over the fact that there are Americans who still ponder the existence of global warming despite this evidence, and I turned right on Broadway. It was just about noon and the construction workers were on their lunch break. They lined the east side of the street, sitting on the sidewalk with their backs up against the buildings, sandwiches splayed on their laps in various states of consumption, watching the pedestrians as though in this moment, Broadway had turned into a private runway and the women who walked by were models in a fashion show created expressly for the construction workers’ entertainment.
I could feel myself tense up as I approached the runway. There are no words to convey the extent to which I resent being made to feel this way. I watched as men in hard hats assessed the women who were ahead of me. The construction workers varied in age from mid 20’s to mid 50’s, yet there was no difference in their participation; they glared unabashedly at each halfway decent-looking woman as though they were visiting a museum and were examining relics from another time or culture. I was on deck and as I passed the first, he whistled. I ignored him and quickened my pace. I passed construction worker Number 4 and he commented, “Nice,”which brightened my day to no end. The others mumbled some unintelligible words of approval as I continued on my journey through Hell, and I was just passing Number 7 when he called out, “Hey Gorgeous, where’s the fire?”
And that is when I snapped. I did a quick risk assessment of what I was about to do and decided that since it was broad daylight and there appeared to be some members of his gender close by who were not part of this motley crew, it was as safe as it would ever be.
I stopped dead in my tracks, turned and walked towards Number 7 until my open-toe Jimmy Choos were toe-to-toe with his cement covered combat boots. I looked Number 7 directly in the eye, removed my sunglasses in an act of false-bravado, and said, “I’m sorry, Sir. Do we know each other?” He was a little taken aback by this but since he had an audience, he did his best to look as though he was enjoying it. “Not yet, Honey, but I’m hoping we will soon.” Ahh, so clever. It’s amazing that I didn’t just fall to my knees right there on Broadway, roll over on my back and beg him to mount me. “We are only meeting,” I responded, “because I have decided to take the time out of my day to discuss this little freak show that your buddies and you have created for yourselves. I’m allowing for the possibility that you are capable of learning, and that you have a drop of compassion in you, but I’ll admit, I may be giving you too much credit.” His buddies laughed at this and I wondered if their laughter was real or from the mounting tension. Number 7 hadn’t made any moves to stop me, so I ploughed on. “What are you, six feet tall and around 200 pounds?” I probably over estimated his size but he was flattered by this and responded, “Yeah, more or less.” “I figured. Do you have any idea of my height and weight?” He relaxed. He was in his element now because I was inviting him to objectify a woman. “Let’s see. I’d say five foot six and about one fifteen.” He over shot my weight by a few pounds but I forgive this because he also over shot my height by 2 inches, so I felt like I was still ahead.
“So we agree that you’re almost double my weight, and a good six inches taller than me.” He nodded “Do you see where I’m going with this?” “Uh, no,” he responded. I’d given him too much credit. “Dude, you are literally double my size. Has it ever occurred to you that you might intimidate a woman when you stare at her, let alone when you shout comments at her? When you were in middle school, did you ever get your ass kicked by a kid who looked like he should be a senior in high school?” This he related to. “Yeah, and then I put on 35 pounds over the next two years and really fucked him up. He never picked on small kids again.” I saw my opening. “Hey, do you realize that you’re like the fucking bully on the playground? What the hell am I supposed to do if I don’t want you looking at me or if I don’t like what you say to me? Beat you up? If some guy on the street made a remark to you that you didn’t like or that you were insulted by, wouldn’t you kick his ass? How would you feel if a gay guy who you had no interest in called out to you, ‘Hey Gorgeous!’? I couldn’t stop. There were suits who heard me and had stopped to watch the show. My brain was telling me to quit while I was ahead, leave as the winner, but I was wild. “I can’t put on 85 pounds and find you in two years to kick your ass. Do you hear what I’m saying Dude? Leave the women on the streets alone! We don’t primp in the mornings hoping to attract random construction workers. It’s not cool that I feel uncomfortable walking down the fucking street because I don’t want to hear comments from huge guys like you.” “OK,” he said sheepishly, “I get it.” “Great. Have a nice day.” And may you be treated in your old age the way you've treated women thoughout your life.
If I didn’t need therapy when I left the apartment, my commute to the shrink certainly created the need. As I turned to walk away, I looked at my watch and saw that I was now ten minutes late for therapy. Fabulous. Now I get to waste another fifteen minutes discussing what unconscious motives caused me to be late to therapy, because you’re never just late to therapy. And yeah, I couldn’t help but wonder if my shrink was in cahoots with these construction workers so that I’d continue to have material to discuss in my sessions.