The other night, I found myself walking alone, on my way to the red line after seeing one of my favorite bands in concert. Although it was around 2 a.m., I was near a college campus, so the place was teeming with drunk 21-year-olds. In other words, I felt relatively confident in terms of my security, aside from the potential danger of getting puked upon.
I was wearing galaxy leggings, though, which prompted more than a few tipsy passersby to comment on them. Most were innocuous, albeit slimy -- "Hey girl, looking good in those pants," that kind of thing: enough to make me roll my eyes but just otherwise ignore them.
Still, in the 20-minute walk to the train station, I'd had plenty of time to stew over how I'd apparently made my appearance public property by throwing on a pair of brightly colored pants. Eventually, when some tiny bro called out, "Nice pants, but they'd look even nicer off of you!" I snapped back, "What are you, 16?"
"No," he replied, sullen. "I'm 19."
"LOLLLL," I said, like it rhymed with "roll," and walked on.
I'm not great at reacting to catcalls, see, though I've been getting better. It's a constant struggle between not wanting to give randoms the attention they clearly crave and the natural human reaction to show annoyance when you're pissed off. I always want to demonstrate to catcallers they don't scare me without giving them the satisfaction that I care even the slightest bit about their opinion.
Safety and context are obviously factors here, too. If that kid and I had been the only people on a dark street, chances are I would have ignored him or even gone for my pepper spray rather than making fun of him for being a fetus who was trying to act macho for his stupid dude friends. But because I was so near my destination, and because we were surrounded by bouncers and cab drivers and hopefully someone who would have stepped in if things escalated, I felt comfortable enough to zing him. Maybe, I thought, if I'd landed it right, it would worm its way under his skin the way catcalls do under mine, making him swallow with a dry click in the privacy of his own bed later that night.
That's the dream. In reality, it's rarely that easy to lob an insult back at a catcaller, at least for me. A raised middle finger demonstrates too much anger (and, in turn, vulnerability) for me, as does shouting "Fuck you!" I've been working on perfecting a single, derisive "Ha!" -- as in, "Ha! As if I would ever even look at you, let alone stop jamming to Robyn long enough to react with more than one syllable!" -- but that doesn't always translate for the more Neanderthalic among the fratstars and public-transit lurkers. One time I even tried "Please leave me alone," as deadpan as possible, but because I have no poker face whatsoever it came out way more tremulous than I'd anticipated.
The same goes for online harassment. Though there's more of a cushion in terms of response time, I'm still frequently stymied what to say in response to dudes sending me pictures of their dicks (or any other material straight white boys are fond of dabbling in) over the Internet or text message. Sometimes it's sort of funny to play dumb ("What is that?"), but, alas, most of the time all I can think of to do is the tried-and-true "...", which often provokes even more photographs of the young man's snake habitat.
It's annoying, yeah, but it's also sort of scary, in the same way that catcalling can be. They both show a disregard for boundaries or standard social cues, for one. Catcalling itself sometimes doesn't stop at shouting; there's little more chilling than glancing up to see your harasser has decided to dog your footsteps until you're forced to duck inside the nearest gas station or McDonald's, if you're lucky enough to be near either.
And though I'm so not one to lecture about the dangers of teen sexting, there's a difference between young people sending each other mutually consenting nip-pics and girls being hounded by unsolicited photographs of a guy's skin horse in reply to a "Hello." In 2012, a study from the London School of Economics found that girls fear their peers more than strangers when it comes to sexual harassment because of the prevalence of such behavior. For many women, harassment isn't something they can shut out when they close their front door: It follows them inside, filling up the spaces they once thought of as home.
All of these are just small daily reminders for women that we aren't safe, not emotionally and sometimes not physically; that our agency can be compromised for the mild entertainment of a few bros or classmates who have never spoken a word to us.
That's why I get a kick out of apps like Send This Instead, a Canadian program that pre-generates dozens of snappy retorts for people to use in response to randos asking them for naked selfies. Though its comebacks ("Sorry, in the middle of something...can I reject you later?" and "TTYL - Talk To Your Lawyer," to name a few) are kind of cheesy, I love that it demonstrates to young women that they don't just have to smile awkwardly and edge away when someone is harassing them. The same goes for brainstorm sessions on how to disarm catcallers: They all help to remind those who want to make us feel less than human that we're not just people, we're people with teeth.
Like I said, safety considerations should always be paramount. If you need to inform a stranger that your werewolf time is drawing near or that your Seal Team 6 boyfriend will beat him up, absolutely do so. But in a perfect world, I'd walk around with a tiny dragon in my pocket I could sic on anyone who tried to tell me how nice my tits were looking that day. In lieu of that, I plan to rely on snappy comebacks -- Send This Instead's among them -- to do that job for me.
What's your favorite way to disarm catcallers? Do you have a dragon I could borrow? Let me know in the comments.
Kate is growling at strangers on Twitter and elsewhere: @katchatters