Why Don’t Women Say “Stop That, I Don’t Like It” to Catcallers?
The place of our deepest oppression sounds like silence
I’ve been consuming a bunch of media on how women respond to catcalling. Usually women just ignore it like the lady in this video who was catcalled over 100 times walking around NY:
However, sometimes women come up with clever ways of responding to their catcallers like the woman in this video:
And some women in Mexico even started firing glitter at their catcallers:
But, one thing stands out with all these responses; women never talk about how they are feeling. Women don’t address their own reality. We spend all this time thinking up these clever (and, ultimately, sort of “harmless”) ways of responding to the people who are harassing us.
But no one ever just says “Stop that. I don’t like it.”
And this is about catcalling, but this isn’t about catcalling. When I reflect on the sexual abuse I have received in my life, there is one fundamental theme: I am denied the authenticity of my own reality.
How I feel doesn’t matter, and is often ignored, downplayed or downright denied. And, there is a whole culture around this. With catcalling, for instance, people might ask “well, what’s the big deal? So some guy shouted at you, so what?”
Of course, what people are overlooking, is that it wasn’t some guy. It was a whole bunch of guys. Over and over, every day, every time you leave the house. Things that aren’t a big deal in isolation become a big deal upon repetition, and things that aren’t a big deal to some people will be a bigger deal to others.
When I was an 18 year old wrestler, secure in my own physical strength with the optimism and energy of someone about to take on the world, catcalling was something I could laugh off. At 32, as a woman who has experienced sexual assault, stalking, and years of systemic sexism, catcalling has become something else. It became a trigger for every bad thing that has happened to me at the hands of men. I can’t walk outside my house without men yelling at me, and when they do, I remember all the bad things that I have experienced. I feel afraid in a way I didn’t used to when I was 18, because now I know what men can do to women.
I try to avoid, at all costs, men who exhibit an extreme disregard for my feelings but I can’t avoid the ones who impose themselves on me. When we see this videos of women walking around, we imagine these healthy well rounded women dealing with this. But, some of these women are rape victims. Some of these women are incest survivors. Some of these women have been through hell at the hands of men, and are forced to go back there over, and over, and over again to satisfy the whims of these men.
Those of us that have experienced trauma can’t opt out of this. We can’t wear signs that say “I’m sexually traumatized, please stop hitting on me.”
Though, funny enough, I did used to wear a shirt that said “Please don’t hit on me,” for a while. I had it made up specially. Everyone laughed and said, “oh my god, people are going to hit on you so much with that shirt” but you know what?
I got hit on less when I was wearing that shirt. That shirt fucking worked. I mean, it didn’t work 100%, but it created an improvement.
I believe a fundamental misunderstanding about sexual harassment is that we assume the men who do it know how they are making the women feel. “They’re doing this to traumatize us, to scare us, to make public spaces inaccessible to us.” But, we’re mixing up the results (how women feel) with the intention (what men want women to feel.)
Truth is, I don’t think men want women to feel anything in particular. I think they do this as a way to pass time, or to signal their masculinity to the world. A reporter, Danielle Page, stopped and asked a bunch of catcallers why they were doing what they were doing, and they all seemed to have very low awareness of the emotional reality of women. And that’s the heart of the problem; how women feel is nowhere on the radar. I think most men who catcall women have never wondered to themselves “I wonder what it’s like to get catcalled.” They just do what they do without thinking.
And, they have also developed immunity getting feedback on this. If you ignore them, they’ll see you as “rude” while any engagement at all is seen as a type of encouragement. They have all these mechanisms to avoid accepting how their behavior impacts the women they impose it on.
However, I’ve also observed that women avoid straightforwardly saying “This is bothering me, stop it.” We think of ways to be funny, or cute, or lecture, or shoot glitter — and I would never insult any woman’s chosen form of response that helps her feel safer. If any of these work for you, keep doing what you’re doing.
But we never say “You are hurting us. Stop it.”
I believe, I really do believe, if men understood this — if they could be made aware of the pain catcalling caused women — they would stop. I believe this because, contrary to everyone’s expectations, my shirt that said “Please Stop Hitting On Me” worked. I believe this because all the nasty things humans do tend to be hidden things. Black Lives Matter took off because videos allowed people to see the bad things the police were doing to black people.
White oppression of people of color is based in white refusal to acknowledge the reality of people who aren’t white. When it becomes impossible for white people to ignore a truth that people of color have known for generations, change is not only possible, but imminent. When all we had was eyewitness testimony, it was possible for white people to keep pretending that the traumas these communities were reporting weren’t really happening.
I was like that myself. Because the police didn’t treat me the way they treated black men, I found it very difficult to imagine this alternative reality people were telling me existed. But, when I watched a video of a little black boy being shot by the police, I couldn’t pretend it wasn’t real anymore. He was shot so quickly he had no chance, no chance at all — and he was just doing the type of things my brother and I might have done as a child. It was unbelievable, but it happened. I could’t believe we lived in a country that would treat children that way, but we do.
The heart of oppression is the denial of someone else’s reality. One of the major ways well meaning white people oppress people of color is by telling them that the stories they’re communicating aren’t real. And, I’ve been there. I’ve done it. I know it’s often not based in malicious intent, but I also know the effect on the other person can be devastating.
Because, I’ve been on the other side of such oppression too. As a woman, I’ve had my reality denied over and over again. Men believe it’s not that I don’t want to have sex with them, it’s that I need a few drinks to “loosen me up.” It’s not that I’m not attracted to them, it’s that I haven’t “realized my true feelings” yet. I’ve even been told things like I’m not really bisexual, that I’m just looking for a strong man to take care of me, etc.
What I see now is men just take the reality they want, then inform me that it’s the one I want as well. White people believe in the world they want to believe in, then inform people of color that it’s the one they’re living in too.
But, it’s not. These things people want from me, they’re nothing like what I want for myself. This world people of color live in is different from the world white people want to believe in.
And, the complicated part, is sometimes it’s hard for the oppressed to communicate this. We can internalize our oppression and start living, in our hearts, the reality that was imposed on us against our will. When men do sexual things to me that I don’t want, I find it very hard to say no.
What’s my fear?
It’s hard to say. I have long observed that the places inside me that are the most damaged can’t speak. The places of my deepest internalized oppression are mute. I suppose, maybe, that’s even the point of this whole blog — to give voice to the parts of me that are silent.
I remember, once, this guy I was fooling around with pinched my breasts so hard they hurt. I couldn’t ask him to stop, but it occurred to me I could throw him off me. But, I saw I’d throw him into the wall if I did that, and so I didn’t. I didn’t want to hurt him.
Even though he was hurting me, I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t say anything because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings; I didn’t want him to think he was “bad in bed” or whatever. I couldn’t throw him off of me because I didn’t want to hurt his body. But, he was hurting me. He was hurting my feelings and hurting my body. Yet, some part inside of me thought his pain was more important than my pain.
Who will be left to protect me if I don’t protect myself? He had two people looking out for his wellbeing that night. I had no one.
The part of me that stops me from defending myself is a part that’s unwilling to hurt men even as they are hurting me. And, I see this in the videos of the women up there; all their resistances are softened by their desire not to cause pain to men.
How do you think any of those men would have liked to hear “I am not sexually attracted to you. Leave me alone.”?
That seems like a deeply insulting thing to say to a man, but it’s the truth. I regularly protect men from the simple truth that they are sexually interested in me, and I am not sexually interested in them. I regularly protect men from the simple truth that what we’re doing sexually may feel good to them, but it feels bad to me. My desire to do this goes beyond my consciousness. It is intuitive, it comes before thinking. Even when I try to go against it, it’s like trying not to flinch when someone slaps you in the face.
Sometimes I just whisper my resistance. “No.” Even if it’s just one word, and they won’t even hear me, I just whisper “No” or “Stop.” Because, deep down, I’m not sure I’m even allowed to not want this attention. I’m not sure I’m allowed not not be “flattered.” I feel like there’s something wrong with me for feeling pain when these men say things to me, because that’s the narrative I’ve been taught.
But, there’s nothing wrong with me. Most women hate street harassment. I have to strengthen the part of me that believes I have a right to defend myself. I have to strengthen the part of me that wants to look out for myself. I’m going to avoid extending this analogy into race, because as a white woman, I don’t think it’s my place but I suspect people of color may struggle with a similar thing. My latina ex allowed some white guy to comment on her instagram that she should “get out of this country, and ideally, the planet.” (Worth noting, she’s an American born American.)
I asked her why she left the comment up, and she said she didn’t want to censor someone. And I was like, you don’t owe someone who doesn’t consider you a person your mind space or you internet space. Yes, it’s good to listen to opposing views, but only after someone has respected your personhood and your reality. Someone who thinks you don’t belong in the country you were born in is not respecting that. If someone gives you no space to exist (where would she even go if she left America? She has no other citizenship,) if someone tells you that your reality isn’t real, you can’t debate with them until they acknowledge the truth of your existence.
I don’t know the lived reality of experiencing racism, but I do see echoes of an internalized oppression there as well. But, people who have experienced racism will have to decided for themselves how far the analogy with gender goes because that’s past my white girl pay grade.
For me, right now, strengthening my right to believe my own reality is where I am at. Appreciating that what I want for myself is more important than what other people want from me is a lesson I am trying to learn. Before I can retaliate to catcallers, I have to teach myself that I am worthy of retaliating. I have to admit to myself, in plain and simple terms, that I don’t like this. The next step will be telling them.