Is “thank you” an appropriate reaction to a catcall? What about one like this?
I often recall fondly the time a man yelled something unabashedly racist and sexist at me as I sauntered down the street.
It happened a good nine years ago, when I was still in college. But to this day, the words feel fresh.
“Damn… You built like a black girl.”
My sheepishness was palpable as I giggled and responded, “Why thank you.“
As someone who’s grappled with body image issues, the words were particularly powerful. Maybe, I thought, I’m not fat — but curvy. Maybe my big ass is actually hot. I knew his words were steeped in dehumanising racist stereotyping and sexual objectification, but in that moment, I simply felt desirable. And that felt good.
Let me acknowledge here that, of course, as a cisgender white woman, my experiences with street harassment are much less fraught and violent than they are for other populations of women, like trans women or women of color. I also know I’ve been very fortunate in that the harassment I’ve personally experienced has rarely had threatening undertones.
It wasn’t the only time I’ve been flattered by street harassment — I’ve even happily obliged men who’ve asked me that most offensive of questions: Can you smile, pretty girl? — and it might not even be the last. Indeed, my affinity for catcalls has yet to dim, even as I’ve become more committed to women’s rights issues and more inundated in stories about harassment.
When I watched that viral smash video of a woman being catcalled 108 times in a day, my first thought wasn’t, How terrible and sexist! But wow, she must be really pretty; there’s no way I’d get catcalled that often in a day.
I felt an acute desire to measure my own value as an object of sexual desire against hers: Was it her bigger boobs that made her so alluring? Her thick, curly hair? Her superior fashion sense?
When other writers and friends similarly lament all the times they’ve been street harassed, I can’t help but wonder exactly how many times — and how those numbers compare to my own.
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It’s not lost on me that in admitting to being complimented by catcalling — to coveting it, even — I am making myself the woman harassers use to defend their actions. To them, I must seem like someone who appreciates the catcalls that they perceive to be the sincere compliments they are, unlike those callous bitches who don’t know a nice thing when they hear it.
As more stories about catcalling become a part of the national discourse and justifiable outrage mounts, I feel increasingly guilty about reacting to harassment with a gratitude that would seem to vindicate the act itself. What kind of feminist must I be if I’m at odds with the fundamental feminist principle that street harassment dehumanizes women? That it’s an expression of male power that serves to reinforce the idea that women exist as things to please men?