[Content note: street harassment, gendered violence]
Doree Lewak’s recent New York Post piece, titled “Hey, ladies — catcalls are flattering! Deal with it,” could have been very poorly written satire, but whoever edited the piece clearly knew what’s up. For anyone who’s uncertain what’s under discussion here, the piece is helpfully filed under two tags: “construction workers” and “sexual harassment.”
I’m sure some will say that the piece was “clearly” satire or that Lewak is “obviously” a troll, but for what it’s worth, I’ve heard that same opinion expressed earnestly by women I know personally and am close to. Telling me what I am and am not allowed to be uncomfortable with is not the province of online trolls alone.
Lewak’s entire piece reads painfully like a child whining that nobody else wants to play with toys she likes. The thesis of the piece is essentially this: “But I like getting catcalled, why can’t you like it too? What about what I like?”
What if I like it when strangers randomly try to punch me in the face so I get to practice self-defense? What if I like it when people in need simply reach into my purse and grab a few extra bucks instead of asking me for it? What if I, personally, totally don’t mind it when people throw things at me on the street because I happen to find it fun to dodge flying objects? I don’t understand why everyone else can’t just deal with it!
None of that makes any sense, right? Why would anyone enjoy those things? But Lewak’s argument (if you can call it that) only seems more logical than those hypotheticals because most people already seem to presume that women “should” enjoy random sexual comments hurled at them by random men they’ve never met or interacted with. Lewak sets herself up as the “normal” one, whereas the rest of us, who feel threatened and violated when a dude follows us around acting like he’s narrating a terrible porno and then screaming obscenities when we ignore him, just have our priorities all mixed up and need to learn how to “deal with it.”
It’s nice that Lewak not only doesn’t mind but actively enjoys something that makes me and many other women actually dread going outside alone. But I hope she realizes that most men who catcall don’t do it to make her feel nice. They do it to try to get a (negative) reaction, to feel like a Real Manly Man, or to get their friends’ approval. Or just because most men in our society are socialized to believe that women exist for their entertainment, and that a woman’s appearance is something that they need to actively, verbally approve or disapprove.
The few men who do genuinely want to make a lady on the street feel good about how she looks don’t usually holler “You’re hot!” while “high-fiving one another.” They might say, “Hey, sorry if I’m bothering you, but I just wanted to say that you look great!” Or “That outfit is fantastic! Have a great day!” I’ve gotten both kinds of comments, and you can bet that I felt quite different walking away from those interactions.
The most ignorant and infuriating idea in the piece is actually hidden in its URL on the Post’s website: “enough-sanctimony-ladies-catcalls-are-flattering.” (I suppose that was its initial, later-revised title–not that the new one is much better.)
Women don’t speak out against catcalling because they are “sanctimonious.” They speak out against it because it’s threatening and demeaning. Catcalling is terrifying specifically because it has the potential to turn into physical violence at any moment if the woman does the “wrong” thing. Writer Soraya Chemaly has documented just a few of these many news stories.
It’s disturbing that Lewak is so desperate for random men to approve of her appearance that she’s willing to take the risk that these interactions turn sour–not only that, but she’s willing to take that risk for all of us. She writes, “Oh, don’t go rolling those sanctimonious eyes at me, young women of Vassar: I may court catcalls, but I hold my head high. Enjoying male attention doesn’t make you a traitor to your gender.”
Most people who are attracted to men enjoy some sort of male attention, but not all of us enjoy it from any man, at any time, in any place. Kind of like I love pizza, but I don’t want people to shove pizza in my face every time I leave my apartment. Actually, I would probably start to kind of hate pizza if that happened, especially if trying to refuse the pizza led to slurs and threats of violence.
I don’t think there’s such a thing as a “traitor to your gender,” because I don’t think we all necessarily have the obligation to think about collective good all of the time. But even if it were possible to betray one’s entire gender, “enjoying male attention” definitely wouldn’t do it. So Lewak’s right about that.
But demanding that other women put up with harassment and potential violence just because it gets your rocks off is definitely getting there.
There will always be people who oppose social changes that would make their lives measurably better. Women opposed women’s suffrage. Women oppose women who work outside the home (sometimes believing, as I wrote about in a piece about the Women Against Feminism Tumblr, that feminists intend to somehow force them to do it). Women oppose rape prevention initiatives (which, by the way, would help not just women, but everyone). And some, apparently, want all of us to suffer through disgusting, demeaning comments from random men just because they happen to like it.
I am absolutely okay with sacrificing Lewak’s favorite pastime so that the rest of us don’t have to feel like pieces of meat whenever we walk down the street.