“Smile!”—why catcalling is never a compliment

By Madison Teuscher

“Hey, sexy!”

I turned around as he and his friends made kissing noises and whistled at me like a dog. I yelled “F*** off!”, and one guy shouted “What an ugly bitch!” to the back of my head. He didn’t know anything about me. He saw me as an object, not a person.A black and white image of a woman being followed by three men on the street.

Street harassment is threatening, scary, and limits people’s access to public spaces. It does not matter whether a woman is in heels or jeans, a dress or yoga pants. It makes no difference if it is 3 p.m. or 3 a.m., whether she is alone or with a group of friends. Street harassment cannot continue in any form. Women are not objects. Period.

In the eyes of the law, every person (should be) considered equal, and no one gets away with things because of their wealth, power, race, or gender. Yet, anti-rape movements are telling women to stay inside and “not dress like sluts”, rather than telling the offenders to stop raping. Men would be appalled if they were told to disappear inside, and lose their freedom to move and participate, yet women’s ideas and physical presences are constantly marginalized into erasure and exclusion.

Why should we be afraid while walking on our own college campus after dark?  One in five women are sexually assaulted while in college. With each person I pass, I immediately size them up, and decide the most likely way they would attack me, and how I would respond. I often have conversations with groups of female friends (and even acquaintances) about the many methods of protection we use to ensure we won’t become a statistic on our walks home: keys between fingers, pepper spray, phone already dialed to 911, avoiding certain routes, avoiding eye contact with strangers.

I spent my summer in Germany and Austria singing opera. In Salzburg, one friend was followed for several blocks by a man who would not accept “no” in any language. He grabbed her arm, then lifted her dress, at which point she punched him in the face. There is absolutely no circumstance that it is in any way acceptable to ignore protestations and lift up a stranger’s skirt.

Street harassment is all about the Golden Rule (or, as I call it, “Don’t Be A Di**”). Would you say (or do) those things to your mom? Your grandma? How would you feel if someone said tAn image of street art with a drawn woman, and text below reading "women are not outside for your entertainment".hat to you?

This is not a phenomenon occurring only to me or my friends—in 2014, 65% of people in a United States 2,000-person survey had experienced street harassment. 23% had been sexually touched, 20% had been followed, and 9% had been forced to do something sexual. There has been intermittent buzz about street harassment—a video of a woman walking around New York City for 10 hours received 42 million views last year. While walking silently, she receives comments like “You don’t want to talk, because I’m ugly?”, “Smile!”, and, “Someone’s acknowledging you for being beautiful, you should say thank you!”

Often, street harassment goes far beyond verbal comments. In one instance, a fourteen-year-old girl was offered $200 for sex by a man in a passing car. When she refused, the man pulled her into his car by her hair, choked her until she lost consciousness, and ran her over with his car multiple times. This man thought he had the right to attack a girl on the street. Harassment–everything from catcalling to rape– is ultimately about power. According to Rebecca Solnit, “violence is one way to silence people, to deny their voice and their credibility, to assert your right to control over their right to exist.” Catcalling and assault are forms of entitlement, and the perpetrator is saying, “I have a right to your body”.

Our bodies are our vessel through which we experience the world. Women’s bodies are not objects for your admiration. We do not walk the streets for men to ogle at our bodies. There is not a single factor that exempts anyone from basic human decency, or excuses street harassment. Respect is not a masculine or a feminine concept. It is a human concept.

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