How It Feels to be Catcalled
We recorded vicious verbal harassment to inspire men and to empower women
“I can’t even walk out of the door without wondering if I am going to get harassed”
“I’ve been screamed at, I’ve been followed, I’ve even been attacked. This is everyday for me.”
“I don’t even bother walking around my neighborhood anymore because of how exhausting the fear is.”
The idea for This is What it Feels Like (TIWIFL) came to me one evening in January of this year. I was attending my partner’s Fempower book club, a community group she started for women to come together and read their favorite new and old feminist-centric books. The club quickly served as a safe space for those women to vent, rant and engage in conversation about what it is like to be a woman in 2017.
Although I engaged here and there, most often, I would actively listen. I listened to women open up to one another about their complex family histories, relationships, the current political climate, issues at work, and frustrations with their community. On that January evening in particular, we were reading Rebecca Solnit’s “Men Explain Things To Me.” (If you haven’t read Solnit’s work, I absolutely urge you to). Solnit has a chapter that focuses on catcalling, and the power structure at play when a man catcalls a woman.
The women in the group opened up about catcalling, discussing how often they have endured street harassment from men. Most often, this harassment came from strangers, but not always; some recanted experiences from bosses, fellow employees, teachers, and even friends. Everyone in the circle began sharing their own vulgar stories. Some were the usual tales of, “hey baby, why don’t you smile more? You’re too pretty to be frowning.” Or, “Hey, why can’t you accept a compliment?” Yet, some were a bit more intense. “Hey, bitch! I’m talking to you!”
And some were downright terrifying. These women were followed for blocks by random men in their own neighborhoods. They were chased on highways by men exposing themselves. They were quick to figure out escape routes as soon as they entered a public space. Most of all, these women are forced to both look at the world and live in the world in a vastly different way than men.
As I listened to these women recall their everyday experiences with catcalling, I grew angry with how similar their experiences were. These women do not like it. They do not want it. Yet our society allows, condones and cultivates this type of behavior from men. I was infuriated that we as women have to plan ahead, that we have to constantly think about defending ourselves. I was upset that we as women spend any amount of time sharing our experiences with harassment and violence when time is so valuable; we could be doing a hundred other useful things, yet we must spend our time sharing tips on how to protect ourselves. I was heartbroken at seeing some of these women feel so helpless and defeated.
It was then and there that I came up with the concept for this project. I wanted to create something that would take the power back and place it into the hands of women. A space where women could take these demeaning experiences and feel empowered by sharing them. A project that could focus on educating men by allowing them to see a small glimpse what being a woman feels like. Ultimately, I hoped the project would encourage men to examine the way they treat women in general. I was determined to do all that I could do to put an end to the culture that cultivates catcalling.
During the next week I began interviewing the women in the group, starting with a simple question: “Can you share an experience where you were catcalled?” I quickly realized the potential of this project. It was going to be bigger than even I expected. These women had so much to share. The most common response I got was, “You only want one experience? How do I even narrow it down?”
After an evening of interviewing women in the book club, my partner, Kelsie, and I began interviewing friends, family members and eventually strangers. We asked them the exact same question. We put the question out online. We even set up a private email account specifically for women to submit experiences in a more anonymous way. There seemed no shortage of stories. It was as if women were relieved to finally have a platform for their voice to be heard.
After gathering the stories, I sought out ten men who were willing to go into a recording studio with me and record the compiled catcalls. I put out a call online and to my surprise, found ten men willing to be a part of this particular project within a single day. Some of these men were friends and some of them were complete strangers, but none of them were actors. They were simply men intrigued by the project’s intent.
We went to Gold Standard Studios in Sacramento, CA without any real expectations. I had two stacks of printed catcalls — one stack of more tame, typical catcalls and the other with more intense, explicit catcalls. I planned on giving the men the option of reading whichever stack they felt most comfortable with. As men slowly began to trickle in, I was focused and fixated on the end goal — to ensure that we had the recording material that we needed at the end of the night. What happened next was surprising, humbling and incredibly surreal.
Men had visceral reactions to reading the catcalls. Some men were in tears as they were recording. Some had to stop entirely. Some looked disgusted, disappointed, ashamed. One man came out of the recording booth and hugged me, apologizing for his past actions to all women. One man wiped tears away from his eyes and expressed how worried he was for his daughter. I had not expected this. But I knew that if this project was already affecting men in this way, we were on to something so much larger than I anticipated.
Once we had the catcalls recorded, we had to build the structure. Our goal was to create a small, slightly claustrophobic blacked out hallway that not only symbolized how this type of behavior makes women feel but also creates a forced focus on what one is hearing. The final hallway was a 9ft x 3ft blacked out structure with a full length mirror hanging in the center and a dim light above. We wanted just enough light so that the individual inside could see their own expression in the mirror. Hanging above the mirror was a single pair of headphones.
We placed a brief, vague statement about the project on the outside wall. We warned that the experience may be traumatic for some women, and for that reason alone, was intended for men, yet no one over the age of 18 was barred from entering. We asked patrons to step inside the blacked out booth for just one minute. Sixty seconds. That’s all we felt we needed to make an impact on the individual. Once the patron walked in, they were asked to put the pair of headphones on and reflect in the mirror. Once the minute was up, the patron replaced the headphones and walked out the other end. They were invited to write on the wall near the exit. We wanted to know how the project made people feel. We were not prepared for the response. In fact, it was absolutely overwhelming.
The line never stopped forming. This Is What It Feels Like was live from February 3rd to February 25th in my hometown of Sacramento, CA, and within those three weeks, an estimated 18,000 people walked through that hallway. There were some days where people would be standing in line for hours. We were blown away by the reception but more so, we were completely taken aback by the individuals thanking us for creating an exhibit that gave women a voice, for creating a tool where women could finally fight back without the fear of being harmed.
We had men sobbing, asking for forgiveness, wanting to explain themselves or their actions. I want to be clear that this was not our intent. We never wanted to make men feel bad for anything. We simply just wanted to show men what it feels like to be a woman. We wanted them to experience the harassment and the threat of violence every single day.
We were inundated with stories. TIWIFL hit a nerve within people and opened up a heavy dialogue amongst those who went through the exhibit. Women wanted to talk about their own experiences, their fears, their ways of coping. We as women are born and raised with the instinct to cope — not out of curiosity or desire but out of pure necessity to survive. Some women shrugged their shoulders and said, “Yeah, this IS what it feels like,” while others were eager to continue this conversation.
After experiencing the project, an older gentleman approached me with tears in his eyes. He thanked me for educating him on what his own wife and daughters have struggled with all of their lives. There were many exchanges similar to this one and it would be impossible to recount them all here. But the greatest response of all came from the men who vowed to simply step up and say something to the men in their lives the next time they catcalled a woman.
That was the only true hope that I had in creating this exhibit. I wanted men to step up. I know that in order to create real change and see progress, the ones involved absolutely must be the proponents of the necessary change. We as women have and continue to speak out against gender-based violence and harassment but we won’t see significant change in these behaviors unless men confront other men about it. Men have to be the ones to call out their friends, family members and strangers in order to break the cycle of harassment.
Word quickly got out about the project. Within the first week, The Huffington Post wrote a huge story on TIWIFL and from that article, newspapers, radio stations, college students and even the mayor of Sacramento reached out. Feminist leaders from around the world began to reach out in hopes that we would want to bring the project to their cities. Colleges were reaching out asking how we could bring TIWIFL to their campus. Domestic violence organizations and women’s shelters wanted to know if we could present this exhibit in their city and women’s clubs, and education centers wanted to see if I could present this idea to their city’s government with the hopes of creating a TIWIFL for their city. I was overwhelmed, but so grateful that people were inspired and moved by this simple concept.
Today, TIWIFL continues to expand. After TIWIFL’s debut in Sacramento, Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, TN invited us to present a pop up exhibit of TIWIFL as a part of their global-conscious “Planet Roo” community in June. TIWIFL exhibited at Bonnaroo for four days, hosting well over 1,000 patrons. Next Gen Men helped us bring TIWIFL to Calgary, Canada in July, where it was presented as a pop-up exhibit.
What began as a humble idea in my family room has expanded into an international project with big plans. However, one core thing has remained the same—the intention with every new creation is to educate as many people as possible.