I did a lot of thinking and back-and-forth debating in my head about whether or not I wanted to write this article before I sat down and started typing. Would I be sharing too much? Would it make people relatively unaware of this issue uncomfortable? Would I be dramatizing something seemingly small in relation to larger, higher degree sexual assault? I ultimately decided that if my body was for random men to comment on, this topic was mine to write about, and I asked young women from my college and the rest of the world to help.
When I was about twelve or thirteen years old, I realized that walking outside in certain places or wearing certain things would make me feel like my body didn’t belong to me anymore. It all happened kind of abruptly. One moment, I was a preteen still walking around with my parents, and the next, I realized men were looking at me differently. They were not smiling at me anymore because I was cute.
My body was for the men hanging around outside the convenience store to comment on and the men on the train to ogle at. It was a deeper breath I took when leaving the house wearing shorts an inch shorter than normal and another few seconds I held my head down when walking by a larger group. They’ll shout things at you, lick their lips, honk their horns, stick their tongues out, slow down by the curb – whatever they can do to let you know your body belongs to them for the few seconds you pray to yourself that they don’t follow.
The remarks that have the power to quicken my heartbeats and footsteps are not compliments. When has a catcall ever been successful in or had the intention of getting a woman’s number or a friendly introduction? It is not a dinner date they want, it is a Band-Aid to their fragile masculinity. They look at you, you look away and they have gained your discomfort – some twisted form of an upper hand and a superiority complex.
A freshman at the University of Southern California from São Paulo, Brazil, said, “In Brazil catcalling is so common that we don’t see it as that big of a deal. It’s quite sad how accustomed to this we have become."
It became a normal thing once I inevitably paid more attention, and even if they weren’t so daring to say something, they would stare. Piercing eyes you could practically feel all over your body—and sometimes that was even worse.
Another freshman at USC, who is also Brazilian but has lived in Singapore for the past eight years, stated, “While verbal catcalling is less prevalent in Singapore, non-verbal street harassment such as staring is very common. But sometimes cars slow down, honk and then yell something at you.”
When I was twelve years old, a man slowed his car down a block away from my house in New York, and asked if I needed a ride home because a “pretty girl like me shouldn’t be walking by herself.” When I was fourteen, a man on the train platform pulled out his penis and stuck his tongue out at me, a day before my freshman year of high school. When I was sixteen, a man on the train put his hand up my skirt and grabbed me – I got up and yelled and broke down crying in the corner of the car. As I turned around to leave at the next stop, I was met by fellow passengers staring at me with harsh eyes, not at him.
The biggest issue? This is not uncommon.
A freshman from Topeka, Kansas cited an experience when she was in the eighth grade of a drunk man at a St. Patrick’s Day parade who came up behind her, grabbed her butt and kissed her.
She said, “My friends and I were stunned, and my mom was absolutely livid.”
I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the primary roots of the problem is simply that it isn’t spoken about enough. Girls don’t know to expect this, and boys are raised in a world in which they are completely removed from the issue, usually unless they’re the ones doing it. We need to inform girls that this might happen, and teach our boys to have more respect. Women are not on the street for your entertainment; they have bigger fish to fry.
And at some point, I got so tired of it all I would start to yell back, “Excuse me?” “Who the f*ck are you?” It was at times when I did feel safe—broad daylight, a lot of people around, surrounded by friends. But once the sky got darker and I could count the number of people around me on only one hand, my aggressive yelling back turned to head-bowing and quickening footsteps. It was like a self-designed algorithm for when it would happen and how to deal with it. As I got older, I made my own mental maps of the neighborhoods I knew well, ones you couldn’t find on Google Maps with certain streets blocked off only in my head.
A freshman and a native of Los Angeles said that one time she yelled back, “Shut up, that’s disgusting.” Her cat-caller aggressively responded, “Who do you think you are? You shut up b*tches! Damn b*tches these days have the nerve.”
The texts in the group chat with my closest girl-friends shifted from, “Oh my god, I’m being followed,” when we were thirteen to, “Ugh, men are disgusting,” when we were seventeen. There was a gradual shift from shock to normalcy. Although we were there for each other whenever something happened, we became immune.
A freshman at USC originally from a town in the European part of Turkey named Luleburgaz says she feels extremely watched by men when she wears shorts.
She said, “I either wear a long dress or pants when its 90 degrees outside. It’s really uncomfortable, but being exposed to the looks of men of all ages is definitely more uncomfortable.”
I’ve been to a number of major cities in America and abroad, and I can confidently say that the worst catcalling I have ever experienced to this day is still in my home city, New York City. But some girls from other parts of the world chimed in with their experiences too.
A freshman at St. Lawrence University who lives in the United States but frequents her hometown of Casablanca, Morocco, said when she was 15, a group of guys who had been eyeing her for hours at a beach eventually followed her to a store, forcibly grabbed her arm, caressed her hair and put their hands around her waist.
While a freshman at Rochester Institute of Technology said, “I was coming home on my 16th birthday crossing the street and a man in a car pulled up to me to talk to me. When I ignored him, he made a U-turn around the boulevard and followed me home. He began to leave his car at a fire hydrant to follow me inside my own building.”
My older cousin in Israel also commented and said although she is personally not comfortable wearing clothing that is too revealing, “I believe that somehow it does affect the way I dress on some deep level.”
Of the eleven young women I interviewed from New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Topeka, Washington, D.C., Germany, Morocco, Israel, Brazil, Turkey and Singapore, the youngest catcall was at 11, the oldest at 17 and five experienced their first incidence of street harassment at the age of 12. Six of them said they have changed or reconsidered their outfits in the past in an attempt to avoid it. Only four said they feel comfortable talking about it with their parents.
Although I do believe that if need be, one could dress more conservatively in certain parts of the world to stay safe, I will not simply change my outfit to avoid a few remarks. That doesn't mean I'm asking for it, it means I'm gradually asking our society to change.
If there is one thing I hope people gain from this article, it is the notion that we should normalize discussion about this topic. How is it that so many young women only feel comfortable talking about such a prominent aspect of everyday life with just their friends, and usually only their female ones? Shouting remarks at women is not a compliment, so please – keep your tongues in your mouths, your sexual and unsolicited thoughts to yourselves and throw your primitive idea that women are here for your entertainment in the trash.
Lead Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons