Comics & Side Projects

Cat calling reconsidered


Roughly two years ago, I wrote a guide with some comics about cat calling women. I’ve been following media coverage about this issue and wanted to post an update because my views have changed somewhat since writing that.

Vaginas. To address the easiest point first, I made the statement that “All that matters is the fact that you have a vagina” and realized later that this excludes some transwomen. For this reason, I don’t sell this zine anymore!

Clothing vs access to power. I still agree with my former assessment that there is too much emphasis placed upon what a woman wears in terms of street harassment. In my observation, what a woman wears is basically irrelevant. But I take my previous conclusion, that cat calling is merely about being a woman (and the definition of being a woman as possessing a vagina) to be totally false. I now believe the most important factor of consideration to be the cat caller’s assessment of someone’s level of vulnerability. That is to say, how easily can a woman (or girl) be victimized and to what degree everyone around her will not give a shit about her vicitmization? This is important because what someone can get away with is not only contingent upon the status of the woman, but upon the social status and relative standing of the man making the call as well as the greater cultural context regarding women’s status in society.

This is also not to say that people who do not display vulnerability do not get targeted and it’s certainly not to say that just because you appear vulnerable, you deserve to be taken advantage of. But I am saying that this is what actually counts: social privilege, the power of that privilege and different levels of access to different sources of power. It’s a basic animal calculation: you don’t pick on someone your own size, you pick on someone smaller. Focusing on clothing detains people in superficial debates that never go anywhere useful. We need to stop caring about what someone wears. Framing the discussion around women’s appearances distracts your attention away from seeing deeper power structures at work.

From hello to harassment. I think it is troubling that in some of the material I’ve read, all kinds of human interaction are being classified as street harassment. Let’s consider the following:

  • a man giving a standard greeting to a female stranger (e.g., hello or how’s it going)
  • a man who has romantic designs trying to have a normal human conversation and seeing how things go from there
  • a man who is openly soliciting women for casual sex
  • a man who is playing a numbers game and is trying to pick up women for sex and pretending otherwise
  • a man who is commenting on a woman’s appearance with no intention of any further or serious interaction
  • a man commanding a specific action from a woman that she has no obligation to give
  • a man who responds to a woman’s lack of acknowledgement/refusal by persisting with the rejected behaviour or escalating matters with a threatening tone, verbal abuse, etc.
  • a man who is spewing hateful, misogynist commentary
  • a man making threats or violating a woman’s space (e.g., following her on the street)
  • a group of men behaving in these various ways
  • etc.

Cat calling exists in a patriarchal context, so I understand why all of the above acts could fit into the same category. I also understand using the term broadly because when considering some acts in the list, harassment can be brushed off as innocuous when it is not. But that doesn’t make all these acts equal in terms of definition. Some of the comments I’ve read about street harassment reminds me of the second wave feminist call to tar all pornography as misogynist, oppressive, etc. I’m not sure how helpful it is to lump all the behaviours I’ve described into the “harassment” category, particularly when so much depends on context. Also, some of the acts in the above list don’t strike me as inherently harassing, while acts that involve intimidation or threatening a woman’s safety might be more accurately described by a term more severe than harassment.

I think what might be useful is to consider how street interactions can be different because if we’re using the same terms but referring to different behaviours, even if it is only difference in degree, things are going to get confused and the complexity of the matter is lost. I also think that an overly simplified definition of street harassment lends itself to the suggestion that a solution might be to simply ban everything that fits into this sweeping category.

Of course I understand that constantly dodging a sheer deluge of attempts to be picked up, or to even be greeted in a manner that might be solicitous, no matter how earnest or respectful, is exhausting, frustrating and dehumanizing. I’m not sure how to address that. Because the idea of eradicating all forms of flirtation between strangers in public spaces, or to live somewhere in which an innocuous hello is most likely to be read as a form of sexual objectification or harassment, horrifies me. Which brings me to my next point.

A case for public space. I’ve had my share of pickups, catcalls and harassment. I’ve been called a bitch, a cunt, racist slurs, etc., I’ve been followed for blocks walking home at night. I’ve been accosted by groups of men in broad daylight. I’ll never forget the time I was a teen, walking back to my car alone in a parking lot when a large, much older man wouldn’t let me pass, how he spat out the words “little girl” and laughed at me, a look of sheer hatred in his eyes – you damn well better believe I looked straight into that man’s eyes. But I’ve also been approached by strange men who had absolutely no intention of harming or objectifying me. The man who was shocked to see someone reading Wilhelm Reich and began asking what I thought of his writings. The man who was waiting in line with me for some event in Chicago and we ended up chatting about the twelve tone masters and the CSO. The man who asked me about my friend’s bike as I was locking it up and we ended up having a long conversation about municipal politics.

There are plenty of times strange men have approached me and never asked for my number and whose gaze never dropped from my face – just a human being wanting to have a conversation with another human being – and I don’t want to live in a world where these random exchanges never happen because men are afraid I’m going to think they’re harassing me by just talking to me. I’m sure some will find me naive, but I find the idea that there is only one reason why a man might approach a woman on the street to be an inaccurate and insulting one.

In addition, I don’t see what’s wrong with the occasional flirtation with a stranger when both parties respect each other’s boundaries and would like to exchange a little repartee. So long as I felt safe and had the time, I never minded a little friendly banter with someone who had a clever turn of phrase. Again, context is everything.

You see, for me, a good city street is not one that gets you from point A to point B in some efficient, modernist Corbusian nightmare. A good city street is where unexpected shit happens. Public urban space is for all kinds of people, people who you’d never cross paths with in private spaces, and interacting with these people in all kinds of different ways. Somewhere you can share observations, debate ideas, commiserate, assist each other, learn something new and yes, flirt! We need streets that aren’t just for traffic, but where people are living their lives, open to random possibilities and negotiations. Streets where you’ll never know what amazing, incredible things you’ll see or what crazy ideas will be exchanged because these are the streets that make city life worth living.

Street harassment compromises this kind of urban ferment that I love so much. And right now, it seems to me that in N. America at least, we are having trouble conceiving of an alternative from the constant objectification and harassment of women in public spaces or a city with anonymous paths from A to B where no one makes eye contact and everyone just keeps their head down.

I imagine a public space in a society that consistently treats women like people, not warmed over sex dolls, so that when a man says “hello” to a woman, her first thought is not something like, “oh god, please just leave me alone.” I imagine a public space where strangers can flirt with each other openly because there is enough trust to go around to do so safely. I imagine a public space where people interact with such ease, if someone is being harassed, others will be quick to speak out against it. Because I’d like to believe that the answer to street harassment is encouraging more humanity in our streets, not less. And because when I walk down the street, if you say something to me, I’m still gonna try to look you in the eyes.