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I have lived in New York City for eight years now, and catcalls have been as common as rats in the subway. Over time, I have learned to avoid eye contact with men when I pass by them in a futile attempt to stem the onslaught of comments.
God bless you.
Hey, where are you going? Can I come with you?
It’s not flattering. It’s not cute. It’s not an inevitable part of life that women should accept. It’s harassment, which is always annoying, sometimes intimidating, and, at times, frightening.
I largely ignore the comments and gestures, apart from one time when I responded to an unsuspecting catcaller. I had dragged myself out of bed to trek down Fulton Street in Brooklyn in search of a pharmacy.
When he made a comment about my rear end and asked if he could come home with me, I spun my head around à la Regan in the Exorcist and shrieked at him, “Do I look like someone who wants to be harassed at 9 a.m. on a Sunday?” He was so shocked he pulled out his phone and pretended to answer a call, muttering that I was an asshole.
When I moved to a new neighborhood this September, I noticed an uptick in the volume of street harassment I received. I started writing down the comments men made to me, as well as taking photos of the outfits I was wearing at the time in an attempt to discern if my clothing choices made a difference in the catcalls I received. In doing so, I noticed that it didn’t seem to matter what I was wearing — the catcalls kept coming.
Any doubts I had about my theory ended this November on one of those days where the temperature was 9 degrees. I threw on a long down coat that was a gift from my grandmother to run to the store. She has told me that I look glamorous in it, but I know that is untrue. It makes me look about 30 pounds heavier than I am and covers me from neck to ankles — it is a down blanket with sleeves. To complete the look, I wore my earmuffs on top of unbrushed hair and glasses on my makeup-free face.
After I grabbed the things I needed and paid, I braced myself for the cold. As I approached the door, another customer was walking in. He saw me and pulled that move where he backed up and opened the door for me, which I’m sure he thought was slick chivalry but what I saw as his opportunity to leer at me. He looked me up and down as I walked by.
“Mmmm….you are cute.”
I got catcalled wearing the equivalent of a down blanket! I was flabbergasted. After the initial shock, I ran upstairs and asked my boyfriend to take a picture of me to document the outfit.
The experience immediately made me think about the topic of street harassment and women’s clothing. Some people believe that the mini skirt is the root of all evil and that spaghetti straps are an invitation for trouble. They argue that women who dress in certain styles do so with the intention of attracting attention, and that catcalling is a natural consequence. Wrong. I assure you that if I am wearing a sleeveless top, it’s because the weather is so hot that it feels like New York City is on fire and not because I want to tantalize men with my upper arms.
Women get catcalled in skirts. They are catcalled in jeans. They get whistled at in trench coats, in yoga pants, in business suits. The problem with catcalling does not lie with women’s clothing. Rather, the problem is with the men who do it.
There is nothing biological in men that forces them to make lewd statements or gestures when a woman walks by. If a man can keep his mouth shut in other situations, such as when getting harangued by a boss or lectured by his mother, there is no reason why he can't keep his mouth shut when a woman walks past him.
On a daily basis, I am the recipient of unwanted comments and attention. It doesn’t matter what I wear, but it does matter who I am with. If I am out walking with my boyfriend, men will rarely even look at me and will not dare to say anything. My neighborhood is a completely different place when I am accompanied by a male. Some unspoken guy code demands that men remain silent and show respect to one another by refraining from making comments about females in another male’s presence. Why is it then that the respect cannot be extended to women when they dare venture out into the street without a male bodyguard?
Should a woman be so brazen as to venture out into the street alone without a male chaperone, she should be able to do so without experiencing harassment. Some individuals will continue to point to women’s clothing choices as the cause for street harassment, but after getting catcalled in a down jacket, I am more convinced than ever that the problem is not the clothing. It's the catcaller.