Is it possible to walk down the streets of New York without being cat called? More and more, men have become comfortable with letting us know how they feel about our personal appearances and even what they want to do to us. For some, the negative banter can be offensive while others ignore it or see it as a compliment. For me, sexualized comments and cat calling are insulting and destroy the idea of gender equality. This idea may sound extreme but it is a reality that we face on a daily basis. Women have been stripped of the right to be pro-choice, we are paid less than men, and in some cultures fulfill the submissive role in the relationships. Because the language used when addressing women borders on being condescending, it reinforces the idea that we are less valuable. This became evident to me after I realized how insanely uncomfortable it was for me to do something as simple as walk down the street.
It was a gloomy evening in April and I was on my way home from a long day of work. I was somewhere between a hustle and stroll, juggling thoughts of what I was going to do for the remainder of my evening. My thoughts were disrupted when the doorman of a luxury building turned to me and said, “I’m a little disappointed I didn’t find you under my tree for Christmas!” I kept walking. Was that supposed to be a compliment? I guess… I mean, if I were an object, I’m sure I’d be flattered but since I’m not something that can be wrapped in a box and thrown under a tree, I was offended. Not to mention we’re entering an entirely different season so the pick up line was lost on me. Still, I ignored the doorman, vowed to never walk down Central Park West again, and kept it moving.
Yesterday, while walking to my destination, I stopped at the coffee truck for some caffeinated fuel. I ordered my cup of Joe and reached in my purse to pay the vendor. He was a friendly man that stationed himself on the corner of 65th and Columbus. He’d smile at me each morning with a huge friendly wave. This morning in particular I was a bit flustered. He waited with his hands out to receive the payment for the cup of coffee. “I’m coming, I’m coming,” I mumbled. “You come quickly,” he responded with a sly smile on his face. My jaw dropped. Did he really just say that to me? And why is this okay? In shock, I handed him his change and quickly walked away. My list of blocks to avoid in New York City was growing rapidly.
Let’s be honest, if I avoided every block that involved an awkward encounter with a man, I probably wouldn’t leave the house. Women have become accustomed to crossing the street or avoiding certain areas so they can bypass being objectified with inappropriate catcalls. We teach women to walk away and deal with it rather than teaching men that a compliment doesn’t have to be degrading. Perhaps things like this aren’t so black and white. Let’s assume Mr. Doorman thought his compliment was innocent. All he was said was that he desired me to be his present for Christmas. Innocent! Here’s the problem; we are not toys or decorations, we are human beings. When we are compared to an object, we are no longer your equal, reducing us to something that can be picked up, put down and toyed with to your likeness. Perhaps I’m being too sensitive. It’s a compliment, right? Regardless of the intent, the fact remains that I want to be seen as a functioning equal, not a nicely wrapped present under a tree with other objects from a list of desirables. When we minimize the undertone of these comments, we minimize our need for respect and equality. Mr. Coffee Vendor’s comments sit on the opposite end of the spectrum which highlights the blatant disrespect that women endure daily. It starts with an undertone and graduates to an outright insult that can affect how a woman views herself and what she allows in her life.
One may argue that a man can’t say anything without a woman being offended. This isn’t true. There is nothing wrong with addressing someone’s physical beauty as long as the undertone isn’t insulting. When I told an associate about the incident with Mr. Coffee Vendor, she argued that he was, “just kidding,” and implied that in his culture, this kind of behavior is okay and I shouldn’t be offended. We have to stop making excuses for behavior that reduces our value. We do far more damage by encouraging women to ignore this behavior rather than explaining to men that this banter is humiliating, dehumanizing and insulting.
To answer my initial question, it is possible to walk down the streets of New York without being cat called. It may take some time, but the more we educate ourselves and others about the message that this behavior sends, the more likely it is to change. We usually ask men if they’d like someone to speak to their daughter, mother, sister, aunt or grandmother in that manner, but I’d rather pose this question; “What about what you said shows that you respect me as a person?” Women need respect, period. No matter who they represent in your life.