The first time I was harassed on the street it was physical. Walking down St. Marks Place in Manhattan, I screamed when a man riding a bicycle grabbed me from behind and continued riding. No one nearby said a word, no one chased after the guy, no one asked me if I was OK. In fact, the surrounding crowd of people made me feel embarrassed for screaming.
Since then, I’ve been grabbed only one other time, but the number of times I’ve been verbally harassed is too many to count. It gets my blood boiling every time—I’ve tried ignoring them, I’ve tried giving them dirty looks, I’ve tried talking back to them. I’ve even gone to such lengths as wearing a sweater over my workout clothes every single time I step out the door, even mid-summer, as my curves in Spandex seem to give men—of any age, race or neighborhood—the welcome invitation to comment on my body.
So when the New York Posts’s Doree Lewak published an article called “Hey, ladies—catcalls are flattering!” it made me almost as angry as when men comment on my body. Lewak attempts to make the point that seeking out attention goes hand-in-hand with feminism, which is about self-empowerment. She adds that she prefers compliments to crude comments. But the message she’s sending is wrong. Street harassment is a gateway to physical harassment. If you send the message that any kind of verbal harassment is acceptable, you send the message that all harassment is OK.
Lewak cites her “first time,” when she was 20 and construction workers called after her. But it’s not just construction workers who are verbally harassing women. The construction-worker whistle is an outdated stereotype that Lewak is using to simply stir up controversy. If women only had to put up with whistling from a few men in hard hats, an eye roll could suffice as a reaction. What women are actually dealing with are verbal attacks that make us feel unsafe, that make us feel threatened.
She also writes that these hardy construction workers “need something to look at” when they’re breaking for lunch, and she’s happy to be that distraction—which is her right. But the assertion that men “deserve” or should be allowed to expect this is something else altogether.
To legitimize catcalling is to give voice to those who don’t deserve it: the man who told me he wanted to perform oral sex on me, the man who said he wanted it the other way around and the man who said he could have me if he wanted me. Instead of empowering all women, you empower the man who grabbed my dress in the East Village, who licked his lips and looked me up and down.
Self-empowerment means being empowered from within. Not being empowered by catcalls.