I’ve lived in Baltimore for just a few months. In that time I’ve been cat-called dozens of times by men of every race, age and economic status. Yesterday a man in uniform said something obscene to me in passing. It happens regardless of what I’m wearing, whether it’s jeans and a t-shirt, a fitted dress or workout attire. There’s not much I can do about it. I carry pepper spray and have signed up for a self-defense class, but it doesn’t change the hollow, violated feeling that I get when a man yells, “Hey, sexy!” or whispers something about my ass as I walk by. Before I lived in the city I experienced it a few times, but now it happens nearly every day.
Who are these men, and what gives them the impression that cat-calling is going to make me want to engage in conversation (or whatever they expect)? They apparently think it’s flattery, though in reality it’s harassment. I blush in embarrassment and nervously smile, quickening my step and trying not to think of the worst-case scenario. Some explain cat-calling as a method of asserting dominance. This makes sense, since it leaves the victim feeling so objectified and frustrated, successfully demeaning them and maybe giving the harasser a feeling of supremacy. In some cases, women actually feel flattered by cat-callers. I can’t imagine that enough women enjoy unwarranted commentary about their body to perpetuate the act.
There’s the recent viral video of a woman walking around New York City for 10 hours as men repeatedly harass her. The creepiest part is the man who walks beside her in silence for five minutes after trying to engage in conversation. That’s often what I fear, that the person cat-calling will follow me, especially since I’m usually walking within blocks of my apartment. There was criticism of this video because no white men were included. As Dee Lockett of Slate explains, white men tend to cat-call in different ways. I agree. I’ve experienced men looking, as if waiting for me to be swayed by their manly allure enough to walk over to them. A prolonged stare can sometimes be as creepy as verbal harassment.
I’m not a feminist. I support the movement and those who consider themselves a part of it, but believe that all people who are objectified or stereotyped should be equal. Those in the LGBTQ community can face similar provocation on the street, undeservedly. Immigrants and people of different cultures have to deal with brash commenters when they’re going about their day. No one should have to feel the way I do when a man three times my age asks if I have a boyfriend or tells me that I look “sexy.” It won’t stop anytime soon, but I hope, most likely in vain, these men start to be more perceptive to the way they’re affecting women.
—Follow Sarah Grace McCarthy on Twitter: @birdy_grace