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No, I Will Not “Deal” With Street Harassment

[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.

Comments

  1. queequack says

    Well personally, I think even “polite” street commentary is, as a general rule, kind of inappropriate. Obviously it’s not the same thing as aggressive vulgarity, but there still seems to me a real element of presumption there. I mean, I react differently to respectful street canvassers than I do to those who get in my face, but I’d really rather just not deal with them at all.

  2. Rachel Diamond says

    Agree totally and completely, and I especially like the point that all people who are attracted to men like some degree of male attention, just not everywhere, all the time. A nice interaction with a man makes me feel great. A catcall makes me feel afraid.

  3. says

    I had someone follow me in a car once catcalling and several times I’ve I’ve been asked something to the effect of “get in the car gorgeous”. Those are the most disturbing but the general “nice ass” or “I’d love a piece of that” is not flattering, it’s creepy as hell. Do people give me genuine compliments sometimes when I’m out and about that brighten my day? Absolutely, but they take the form of “great tshirt, I love X too” (I have a collection of geeky ones) or “that’s a cool hair color” (it’s hot pink). It’s completely disingenuous to conflate the two.

  4. hoary puccoon says

    Okay, I admit it, I loved it when I was picking my way past the muddy entrance of a construction site and one of the guys said, “If I had a cape I’d lay it down for you.”

    On the other hand, I was really frightened returning from dinner one night in Paris, when a man (I don’t his nationality but it wasn’t French) followed me for blocks, harassing me the whole way. Then, when we saw a policeman on the next corner, my harrasser suddenly screamed in both English and French, “You’re crazy! I just can’t deal with you any more!” and stomped off, as if I was totally irrational and he was my long-suffering Significant Other. I was so shaken up I left Paris the next day for a smaller French city and stayed there until my return flight. And Lewak is saying she would have *enjoyed* that??

  5. says

    I first heard about Lewak’s piece on Citizen Radio this morning. I just finished reading it, and I don’t get it… at all. It makes absolutely no sense to me.

    All I could think was “great! Good for you! Glad you enjoy putting on a show! But… you know that all women are not a monolith and that there are a lot of women who don’t want to put up with it? And are you also aware of the fact that your experience has been amazingly lucky, considering the number of women who’s experience with street harassment has ended up extremely bad for them?”

    It’s as odd to me as Women Against Feminism…

    It always made me wonder why there would be people fighting against their own well-being and against social changes that would benefit them. That, much like Lewak’s piece, makes absolutely no sense to me…

    (On a totally unrelated note, I’m slightly disturbed by the amount of times I wanted to misuse the use “literally” in this comment… had I given in, I feel it would have very nearly been every other word… *shudders*)

    • queequack says

      Well ok, I think what will “benefit” you is inherently somewhat subjective. If someone enjoys being catcalled (and I can see why they would- I mean, I would), anti-harassment efforts are not to their benefit.

      • says

        I’m skeptical that you’d truly enjoy catcalling if you had to deal with it in the way that most women do. You’d probably enjoy it a few times, but once it becomes like getting pizza shoved in your face every time you step outside, and once it occurs in the context of a culture that says you’re only valuable insofar as you’re fuckable, I bet you wouldn’t like it much.

        But, yes, some people do.

        • queequack says

          Well maybe. Like I said it has happened before, but it’s rare enough that when I leave my apartment I can assume it will not happen, which I suppose is the salient point. I can’t know how I would react or how I would feel if that norm was different.

          But, look, I don’t know. I don’t mean to deny anyone else’s experiences, but I only very occasionally hear women getting catcalled when I’m walking around doing my business. I don’t want pizza jammed down my throat hourly, but I wouldn’t mind having it once every few days.

          • AMM says

            I only very occasionally hear women getting catcalled when I’m walking around doing my business.

            That’s probably because the perps are less likely to do it when a male is around who they can’t trust to approve of their behavior. I virtually never hear people making racist or misogynistic comments around me, but I have plenty of evidence that there are people who routinely make them. I think it’s because it’s immediately obvious from everything about me that I’m not likely to be the kind of guy who’ll think that stuff is cool.

  6. Ariel says

    In general when I’m reading something, I try out charitable interpretations first. Only if it doesn’t work, I go … well, elsewhere. Anyway, here is my attempt at this text.

    1. Lewak explicitly states that she enjoys being catcalled.
    2. She admits that “most women seem to hate it”. She acknowledges the existence of debates “about how catcalling is a form of abuse”.
    3. Her only answer to this is strictly personal: “But the mystique and machismo of manly construction workers have always made my heart beat a little faster”.
    4. Her remark that “It’s not brain science — when a total stranger notices you, it’s validating” appears immediately after the personal confession quoted in (2). On charitable (and – I think – natural) interpretation, it’s still the first person perspective, not a general stricture. In effect I interpret this fragment as meaning “it’s validating for me”.
    5. She claims that enjoying or even actively searching for catcalling is compatible with high level of self-confidence (that seems to be the meaning of “Oh, don’t go rolling those sanctimonious eyes at me, young women of Vassar: I may court catcalls, but I hold my head high”)
    6. She claims that enjoying or even actively searching for catcalling is compatible with feminism (“Isn’t feminism all about self-empowerment, anyway”).
    7. She claims that there is nothing wrong in her attitude, nor in the behavior of the guys she deals with (“I can be that objectified sex thing for them! What’s so wrong about a “You are sexy!” comment from any observant man?”)
    8. She admits that some remarks cross the line (“Of course, not all catcalls are created equal”)

    (Did I omit something important? There is also the title and the URL, I know, but it’s usually risky to build something on this – sometimes they are not the author’s choice.)

    From my point of view, the only really problematic part is 7. I’m fine even with 6, because (roughly) I do not think you are obliged to subordinate all your individual likes and dislikes, all the details of your private life, to the professed worldview. (Yeah, I know – a longer discussion here; but this post is already long enough.)

    But I view 7 as absolutely crucial: it looks to me as the real raison d’etre of the piece. It is also the only moment I found where she clearly moves beyond the strictly personal perspective. There are two elements here (with the first one being – from my point of view – far more interesting).

    First, she seems to want recognition and acceptance of her own attitude. It’s not a mere “I like being that sex thing!”, it’s more like “there is nothing wrong with me enjoying it; I’m not a bad person because of this; there is also nothing wrong about expressing openly my likes and dislikes”. (The key question: are you ready to grant her this? Do you think it’s ok for someone to feel this way? Moreover, do you think it’s ok not just to feel it, but also to say it openly – to announce in public “Oh my, I do love catcalling!”? Or do you think it’s outrageous and you would rather insist on keeping such feelings private and hidden? I’m really curious.)

    Second, she seems to want recognition for the catcallers. The quoted passage strongly suggests that (in her opinion) they do nothing particularly wrong. It seems to me that it is here and only here where she is in a clear, direct conflict with the prevalent feminist approach – am I right? Nevertheless, there is not much to discuss here because … well, because she doesn’t produce any arguments, neither new nor old ones, with all the rest of her piece being not much more than an expression of her personal likes and dislikes. (And that’s the reason why I don’t find this aspect particularly interesting. I’m far more curious about the previous one.)

    • says

      First, she seems to want recognition and acceptance of her own attitude. It’s not a mere “I like being that sex thing!”, it’s more like “there is nothing wrong with me enjoying it; I’m not a bad person because of this; there is also nothing wrong about expressing openly my likes and dislikes”. (The key question: are you ready to grant her this? Do you think it’s ok for someone to feel this way? Moreover, do you think it’s ok not just to feel it, but also to say it openly – to announce in public “Oh my, I do love catcalling!”? Or do you think it’s outrageous and you would rather insist on keeping such feelings private and hidden? I’m really curious

      Personally? Yes, I’m absolutely fine with people enjoying catcalling. (I believe I even say this in the piece somewhere.) As for saying it publicly, I’m not going to tell people what they should and should not say. I will, however, respond with this:

      1. Street harassment is extremely prevalent (with some estimates suggesting that 100% of women have experienced it; others less, but it clearly depends on where you draw your sample from).
      2. Many women experience street harassment as, well, harassment, and it has measurable physical and mental health consequences.
      3. Street harassment is frequently blamed on the women themselves (what they’re wearing, where they’re going, etc.), as is sexual violence, which sometimes immediately follows street harassment.
      4. Many people, many men especially, justify this behavior by claiming that women want it (or should want it).
      5. Street harassment is not currently taken seriously as a public safety issue by anyone with actual power.
      6. Lewak wrote a piece in which she does not acknowledge AT ALL that many women do not like street harassment and that that is their right. In fact, the title explicitly states that other women need to “get over it” and be more like Lewak.

      So, if there is a productive and positive way to talk about one’s own pleasure in catcalling, this is not it at all.

      Second, she seems to want recognition for the catcallers. The quoted passage strongly suggests that (in her opinion) they do nothing particularly wrong. It seems to me that it is here and only here where she is in a clear, direct conflict with the prevalent feminist approach – am I right?

      No, she is also in conflict with it when she demands that other women accept street harassment as well.

      • Ariel says

        Personally? Yes, I’m absolutely fine with people enjoying catcalling. (I believe I even say this in the piece somewhere.) As for saying it publicly, I’m not going to tell people what they should and should not say.

        Much appreciated. I mean it.

        Lewak wrote a piece in which she does not acknowledge AT ALL that many women do not like street harassment

        A quote from Lewak: “I realize most women with healthy self-confidence don’t court unwanted male attention. In fact, most women seem to hate it.”

        and that that is their right

        No, she didn’t acknowledge that. As I see it, she didn’t deny it either.

        In fact, the title explicitly states that other women need to “get over it” and be more like Lewak

        The title is “Hey, ladies — catcalls are flattering! Deal with it”. Does it mean “Hey, ladies – get over street harassment”? My reading was more along the lines “Hey, ladies, deal with the fact that catcalls are flattering” – or, on charitable interpretation (sorry, Azkyroth!) “Hey, ladies, deal with the fact that some of us – women – find catcalls flattering”. But alright, English is your first language, not mine, and I promise not to be stubborn.

        One more fragment of your OP:

        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.”

        Even this is ambiguous.* What’s the “sanctimony” she is talking about? I find very few clues in her piece. Your choice was that according to Lewak “women speak out against catcalling because they are ‘sanctimonious’.” Is this the only possible interpretation? No, it isn’t. Here is another option: “enough sanctimony” means “enough silence about how some of us – women – find it flattering”. Which of the two readings is correct? What did she really mean? Truly, *I do not know*. Ask Lewak.

        *To a barbarian who had to learn English at school, please don’t forget.

        Just one memory for the end. Many years ago I was a student in England, very young, lonely, frightened, and homesick. One day I was having a conversation with an Italian girl, who was also very young, lonely, frightened, and homesick. “How dreary it is here!”, she complained. “At home in Italy when I walk on the street, people are paying attention, whistling, saying things. Here everybody is so withdrawn and distant. I don’t want to be here.”

        That’s how I remember her words. I think also that it would be truly sanctimonious to answer her with a sermon about feminist principles. Context matters, you know. What sort of context stands behind Lewak’s piece? Sorry, I have no way of knowing.

        [Meta: this proneness of mine to charitable interpretations is not a good trait. In practice only too often it leads to paralysis and inability to say anything definite. Please believe me that I realize it.]

    • Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

      In general when I’m reading something, I try out charitable interpretations first. Only if it doesn’t work, I go … well, elsewhere.

      It doesn’t work. Go elsewhere.

  7. smrnda says

    You know, if most people didn’t like something, and I did, I think I would take that into consideration before I told everybody else how they *should* feel about something. If I’m okay with something and it bothers almost everyone else, should I encourage the behavior *for me?* Or, should I perhaps decide to find a like-minded little subculture or scene where I could indulge whatever unusual preferences I have? This is even more a case if my preferences would make other people feel threatened or unwelcome.

    I mean, let’s push this and imagine someone writing that they get turned on when strangers on crowded buses and trains feel them up. Should this person say ‘you uptight people need to get over this’ or should they accept that, hey, they should find some like-minded people to share their kink in a safe space?

    I also don’t get the idea that being noticed by a stranger is validating. Plenty of people like some space. Many humans want anonymity.

    • Indigo says

      If I understand Lewak’s reasoning, her argument is thus: most women like some kind of male attention, and some women like being cat-called specifically, and therefore cat-calling is okay.
      Therefore, I posit the following: most men like it when women pay attention to their genitals, and some men even have an intense sexual fetish for testicular injury, and therefore it’s okay for ladies to give every male-bodied person we meet a good swift kick in the ‘nads.

  8. opposablethumbs says

    I think Indigo sums it up nicely. If the one is valid, then logically so is the other.