It’s spring here in Toronto. The ice and snow that once berated the streets has long thawed, giving birth to glorious sunshine releasing beleaguered citizens from the subzero temperatures of an emotionally destabilizing winter.
Amidst the chirp of robins, the cheery ditty of the ice cream trucks, and the barking of apartment sized dogs (dogs are, in fact, the new babies)—Another distinct sound presenting in all seasons yet even more prevalent in the warm months is heard—the catcall.
To a woman such as myself, this call, whether it be from a shitty Romeo crooning from a balcony atop a storefront, a yelp or jeer from a mustachioed hipster passing on his skateboard, oh sorry longboard (barf), or aggressive teeth sucking from an elderly man standing outside a butcher shop, the catcall is what, after some deliberation, I have deemed to be Total. Fucking. Bullshit.
But Shouldn’t I LIKE It?
There are times when I leave my place of residence feeling fresh as hell. There’s no doubt in my mind that I do indeed, after some suspicion, have it going on.
And then, with a startling entrance here is this summon. A honk, whistle, jeer, or comment punctuates my stride. It’s not that I don’t agree that, yes, I am “all that”, however, to so obviously objectified, viewed, assessed, strips me of this confidence.
For a fleeting moment, questions flood my mind: Was it I who invited these men to shout these things at me? Is the obviously modest, yet awesome cleavage of mine an open invitation to be publically singled out with a yell of, “Nice tits” from a passing car? I let these thoughts leave me, knowing that I am entitled to wear whatever I please.
This gendered ahoy has been cast out to me when I feel as though there is nothing about my physical presentation that would be asking to be commented on. Walking with bags loaded with groceries hair in a bun thinking about what to make for dinner, but suddenly the one thing I’m trying to digest is the man riding his bicycle and softly purrs, “Hot mouth” as he passes. Or on my way to a meeting coffee in hand a, “Hey, where are you going?” comes from a lurking figure. Or a “You’re hot” from a man who waits until he has almost, but not quite, passed me on the street. He doesn’t say this in a way where it playful or fun, but almost accusatory and very slimy.
Arguments have raged on about this particular issue in the media as of late, and a central argument is that what these (almost always men) are trying to achieve is to say something nice. That I should be flattered. That I should take comments as affirmations—but then, why does it make me feel so uncomfortable?
But I DON’T Like It
Like the seldom discussed yet all-too-real sex fart, catcalls are unwanted, come out of nowhere, are ultimately something I wish never happened, and that I wish would stop.
Unlike a untimely queef disrupting a passionate moment, catcalls are an issue coming from a misogynist culture wherein a woman’s body is perceived as public property, and is therefore subject to a particular treatment based solely on her sex.
Catcalling, wolf whistling, hollering—it goes by many names— is by it’s definition when to “make a whistle, shout, or comment of a sexual nature to a woman passing by.”
I haven’t uncovered any clues of what exactly it has to do with the feline species, but I have a theory that it has something to do with a nickname for my nether regions. This shall not do. My pussy has agency, privacy, and deserves respect. I, and it, will not be treated as though it can be something that is just to be hollered at.
Further research reveals the etymology of the term first emerged in the 1700’s where the hoards of theatregoers would contain “catcallers”, those who were found expressing a negative or hateful message to the actors onstage. It slowly entered our lexicon of phrases to mean a sexually explicit message targeted specifically at a woman. This jump in meaning goes unexplained, but it’s not at all surprising that the history of this phrase comes from an way of being shitty to someone who has no choice but to just take it and keep on with what they’re doing (“The Show Must Go On” so to speak). Being catcalled usually puts me under the spotlight for a long as I am in my catcaller’s sights. The stage is set as I become an unwilling player in the drama that is, Man Yells ‘Nice Ass’ From A Distance.
There is an important distinction that I would like to make here: Catcalls are not compliments.
I know this because I like compliments. No, correct that—I fucking love compliments, and I’ll generally take them from anyone. Some of those individuals include men. Strange men, even. I love a good flirt. Smiling, checking out someone checking you out, even the occasional eye fuck. Like. Like. Super Like. Yes!
I like compliments so much that I am able to determine the difference between one and a harassing misogynist comment. I have the wherewithal to distinguish the fact that compliments are given to you, and catcalls are done to you.
Compliments are not generally yelled in someone’s direction. Or communicated through a whistle. Like it would be weird of me to scream across the park to someone, “NICE DAWWGGGG!” and then high-five my friends.
(On that note: Why are catcallers usually in a group? It’s part of the very thing that makes me so uncomfortable, that I’m receiving judgment while being outnumbered. If this is some kind of masculinity confirming activity—of course it is—but why must I be there for it? I mean, couldn’t you just wait until I was out of earshot? Why involve me in this?)
Compliments come with context provided by the relationship you have with said person you are trying to compliment. For example: if you are a complete stranger and I know nothing about you I am less likely to be inclined to feel as though it is appropriate for you to tell me you want to see me naked.
Compliments do not come with extreme caveats. Sure, sometimes you say something nice to a person you want to fuck. I get that. But it should not be expected that they will fuck you once you have extended said “compliment”. For example I had one man say to me, “It’s a beautiful day, can I see you smile?” and I do because it is a beautiful day and smiling is nice, only then to have him follow up by asking, “So where are you going? Can I get our number?” I respond that I’m on my way, and no thank you, “What’s wrong with you? Why won’t you talk to me? Come on let me have your number? Why NOT?” I try to be nice and courteous, but then end up being called a “bitch.”
Compliments are many things: sweet, enthusiastic, playful, fun, earnest, silly, serious.
Compliments are not aggressive, harassing, or abusive.
What Can I Do?
A few years ago there was a passing car and a man’s voice shouts out of the window, “I want to fuck your pussy!”
The vehicle moves along, I can see that it’s full of men. It’s almost like having the wind knocked out of you. A microsecond of realizing that this comment has been hurled at you from a moving vehicle, isolated from the street, a sense of vulnerability.
This culminates in a moment of anger, resentment, knowing this is not how anyone speaks to me, and I give the car the finger to express my unease.
I continue on my walk and moments later a beer bottle is hurled in my direction, smashing at my feet. The same car containing the men who were trying to let me know how fuckable my pussy is, speeds away.
Am I supposed to walk around all day telling people who catcall me to fuck off under threat of retaliation? I’m almost always alone when this happens to me, and if there are other strangers on the street they usually give about zero fucks.
My tactic thus far is to affect muteness, perhaps give a dirty glance, or simply feign that I didn’t hear or see anything at all.
It’s a strategy of self-preservation that ultimately backfires in more ways than one. Because I do nothing, nothing is done. The behaviour goes unchecked, so perhaps there is a sense of entitlement that I am there to be commented on, and because I don’t speak up the caller is ignorant it’s something I find degrading.
It also creates an attitude on my part, a conditioned outlook that for some who might not fall into the category of caller, but rather one who is attempting to honestly start a conversation with me. However, I’ve gotten to the point where I’m so fucking sick of this shit if one more person says something in appropriate to me I think I could—as my mother used to say—just spit.
This is obviously a very complex issue with different cultural and social intricacies. My only recourse is to reaffirm positive interactions when I can.
In a perfect world, which there will never be but it is very important to aspire to, one can only hope that with the coming years and many more springs to come, there is a shift where there is no longer a time where I am caught unaware with a piercing shout, but rather a pleasant surprise of a real human connection, a heartfelt, engaged, mutually respectful time, where the twitterpation of the first warm breeze, is a fun and fancy free time where we all get to compliment the shit out of each other, in a way that everyone likes.