I was walking by the river with my little puppy the other day, like I do almost days. We were approaching the first bridge that the path crosses under, but were still a ways off when I started to hear their whistles and hollers. I couldn’t distinguish their words, or if they were yelling particular words, or just the inarticulate calls that make them feel powerful. They were yelling and whistling at me.
Three young men stood on the over pass, stalled at the end nearest to my side of the river, looking at me approach in the distance, and their yells rung out over the muddy river. The sounds washed over the old man with his cane and his dog in front of me, carrying a lace of threat with them.
I looked up to see who they were, and instinct made me grab for my phone nonchalantly. I continued down the path, toward the bridge where I would pass under them and temporarily out of their sight, and I held my phone in my hand, pretending to be texting, busy. In reality, I had it in my hand as a threat back to them. I can call someone. I can take your picture. These were the messages I was urging my ignoring body-language to convey.
But maybe it doesn’t convey that. Or maybe they don’t care. Because as I got closer, one of them started to walk toward the end of the bridge, toward the arm of the path that would lead them down to me. I slowed my pace, now not only annoyed, but vigilantly aware of what was happening. Not scared yet, but on guard. Torn between what would be more effective: flipping him off and yelling, “F*** off” while taking their photo, or simply avoiding them.
I’ve taken both tactics, and a few others before, usually relying on my gut about which one to choose that time. This time I looked at my dog, pretending to be unaware or unconcerned, as I still watched him and the others in my peripheral vision.
When the other two men turned and walked toward the third, in my direction, I stopped, still a way away (considering this my head start if it came to that) and pulled my puppy off the path onto the grass, telling her to go potty. Pretending like this wasn’t a stall move.
And it worked, the two called to the third, and they all continued back on their way across the bridge, away from me, continuing their loud whistling and lewd calls loudly at me the entire time until I finally disappeared under the overpass.
I stayed there for a few minutes, trying to make sure that they had crossed the bridge and left before I turned around and headed back toward home.
But they had waited for me. They had gone silent as soon as I’d gone under the bridge. But as soon as I emerged, they stood in the same place they’d been before, and the yells, more angry and relentless this time rung out against my back and bouncing off the river water to the banks.
Stand tall. Don’t look back. Walk with confidence. I recited to myself the mantra that I’ve taught to other young girls their first time we go into a third world city like Port Au Prince, Haiti, where rape-culture is a way of life still, not a topic for internet forums.
When I was far enough away, and when a couple and their young children came into view, sauntering my way, toward the bridge, the rude trio finally stopped and walked away, across the bridge, and out of view.
I continued walking, smiled at the friendly family as I passed them, and breathed a sigh as I let my guard down a little again. It was then that I realized: most men, if they don’t do this kind of catcalling, may not even know what it’s like to be subjected to it.
Now, I’ve never really identified as a feminist before, though I probably am one, and I have come to accept catcalling as a regular part of life. I often don’t mind it, even, because often, it’s done without anything that makes me feel threatened.
An idiot teenager hollering out of his car to me as he passes me on the street makes me roll my eyes and smirk as I flip him off, giving him the response he wanted, leaving me only slightly annoyed.
A guy on the street of Seattle recently was getting into his car while I got into mine in front of him when I heard him laugh, astonished, and then say, in a totally unthreatening way, “Wow. Your ass is amazing. Have a great day,” and then he got into his car and left.
That still would be categorized as cat-calling I think, and probably isn’t appropriate, but that’s the grey area for me, kind of like the Italian men calling out “Ciao Bella” to every woman that passes by.
The thing is though, for every 5 interactions I have on the street with men, 3 are “Ciao Bella” types and 2 make me feel like a spy — casing my surroundings, figuring out what the closest escape route is, reading their body language, gauging how fast and far I can run in those particular shoes or what I have on my person or around me that I could use as a weapon. And I never agreed to be a part of a battle like that. My gender drafted me unwillingly.
I have never had to run away. (Some women have.) I have never had to fight a man. (Some have.) But the fact alone that their words and actions make me feel like I might have to, is not OK. And I am not alone. Recently there have been the videos of the women walking the streets of New York showing the catcalls. Those have sparked conversation — a necessary conversation. But the thing is, it doesn’t just happen in New York.
This happens to women everywhere, everyday.
Not just in Port Au Prince, Haiti. Not even just in NYC. In Wichita. In Sacramento. In the nice parts of San Diego. In the suburbs of Rocklin. In small rural towns. Everywhere. If not daily, at least semi-weekly.
And this is not a diatribe on how it shouldn’t occur. (For the record, it shouldn’t occur.) I doubt those men read my blog. But it is to try to educate the good men around us, just because it occurred to me that you probably don’t really know. It never happens to me when I have anyone of the male world around me. So how would you know?
So men, when your women folk get skittish, when we get a little antsy walking to the car alone at night, or when we want to lock the doors and sleep with the porch light on, most times it’s unnecessary, of course. But this, I think this is why we feel like maybe, just maybe we need to.
I just wanted to give you a glimpse into one of the unspoken, unseen aspects of our daily female lives. No matter where we live. I’m not bitter. I just want to start talking about this stuff more openly.
Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.
Other places are
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