Catcalling and Connections to Class

30 Sep

Cats Against Catcalling, a blog run by HollaBack.org, collects cat memes that speak out against street harassment

I showed up in Crown Heights, wearily climbing the stairs of the Nostrand ave C stop. It had been a long day– I finished work and then ran to Cobble Hill to look at an open apartment. Now I was in a different section of Brooklyn– cheaper and, from the look of the street I was on, understandably so.

Cobble Hill has clean streets fill with briskly walking busy professionals typing on cell phones. In contrast, the beautiful brownstones of Crown Heights are broken up by patches of graffiti on rolled down gates and abandoned parking lots littered with trash.

While waiting at a cross walk a young guy takes out his ear buds and looks right at me. Thinking he needs directions, I look back. I feel pretty good about myself for a second, the nice almost-midwesterner who helps people lost on the subway and smiles at strangers. “Hey beautiful,” his drawl accompanied by a slimy smirk.

This kind of interaction may not seems like a big deal. Most women do what I did– frown and walk a bit out of the way. Others pump their music and put their heads down. But being harassed on the street is a big deal. It makes women feel unsafe, violated, and powerless.

Awareness of the pervasive problem of street harassment in cities across the globe has risen, with women speaking up to share their stories and the way verbal assault makes them feel. Organizations such as Stop Street Harassment and The Street Harassment Project have made headway by publishing awareness videos and promoting International Street Harassment week.

There’s even been research on street harassment law and psychology, with Cornell law professor Cynthia Bowman writing that women repeatedly note in interviews “intrusion upon privacy and fear of rape” in response to street harassment (535).

Many of these narratives focus wholly on gender, but I think examining the intersections of race and class can also inform our understanding of street harassment. In my experiences, I run a greater risk of being harassed in less affluent neighborhoods. Sometimes I wonder about the relationship of economic oppression to the oppression of women.

I now live in Park Slope, a neighborhood filled with baby strollers and hipster dads. When I take the G to 15th street, I pass a vibrant block filled with pie shops and ice cream parlors. A group of elderly men sit on a stoop talking loudly in Spanish and a grandmother shouts goodbye to her grandson from the third story of a brown stone. “I love you! Come over again soon– any time!” My elderly neighbor stands on her front porch and watches everyone walk by, and I’m pretty sure she has the police station on speed dial in case of suspicious activity.

But this week I’ve been working in Manhattan, and I take the R to Prospect Ave at 11:oopm. My first night leaving this station I walked too close to a pudgy man on the corner of a 24 hour money order shop. You can pay credit card bills there for over 300 different kinds of credit cards, the sign says.

“Me amor,” the man hisses. The sudden movement scares me and I shy to the other side of the street. “Hey beautiful”, another guy cat-calls.

Suddenly I’m freaked. I have to walk four blocks home and I’m surrounded by strange men. They’re leering at me. I hate it.

I pull out my pepper spray and finger it nervously as I practically sprint home. I’m very aware of my casual business dress– my pencil skirt and ruffled top. My heavy laptop bag that bounces uncomfortably as I walk. I cross the street twice to avoid the sound of male footsteps following close behind me.

I sometimes tell my friends that I am trying to unlearn the fear of the city taught to me by a generation of relatives trying to get out of Brooklyn. My parents moved to Connecticut before having children and before our first trip to the city my father taught me how to identify “shady characters.”

Shady characters wear baggy clothes that look dirty and crumpled. Shady characters slouch, they aren’t clean shaven, and sometimes they smell funny. Shady characters are usually men, and shady characters steal purses and sometimes children. I should obviously never talk to shady characters, but more than that, I should avoid them at all costs. Cross the street when necessary, drop back behind them, or try to maneuver away somehow. Like avoiding a swerving car on the highway.

Now I know that anyone could be a murderer, no matter their clothes or scent. I’m not sure what this profiling does, except emphasize class lines and create division between neighborhoods in the city. Sometimes it’s really hard to remember this.

When I was six I went into the city for the first time, to see Lion King on Broadway. At the cross walk I saw a man with a crumpled shirt. I recoiled towards my parents, gripping my mother’s hand a little tighter. I pulled my tiny child’s purse close to my chest, the move that apparently most women are born with.

The man glared at me. “I’m not going to steal your purse, little girl.”

I remember the resentment, the bitterness in that voice. I remember the fear ingrained in me, so little at six, and the way that fear was immediately obvious to that man. What must it feel like to know that society has trained little girls to be afraid of you?

His words scared me even more, but sometimes when I’m being harassed on the street I think of that man. My fear now, like then, must be obvious. Sometimes I wonder if, when I’m being cat-called, my harassers are taking a perverse pleasure out of provoking that fear. Almost like they’re saying, “You’re afraid? I’ll give you a reason to be afraid.”

At those moments, I almost feel like I deserve to be harassed.

Where I work, a group of guys going to the technical school around the corner hang by my route to the subway. Every time I walk by they say, “Hey white girl.” And every time I keep walking, head down, no eye contact. As I pass they giggle and I imagine what I must look like. Uptight. Afraid. A jerk. I wonder if I am being paid back for years of fear. For clutching my purse close to my chest when I pass them. “I’m not going to steal your purse, little girl.”

Sometimes I consider turning around. I consider pointing my finger at the ringleader and asking, “Do you take pleasure out of making women feel uncomfortable? Is this what makes you happy?”

My fear always drowns this ambitious plan. Maybe he would step closer to me, taking my words as an invitation to invade my personal space. I imagine staring up at a 6″2′ body towering over me. Or maybe him and his friends would circle me, laughing. The street vendor would probably laugh, too. I don’t think pepper spray or my brown belt would be much use to me then.

In calculating how much my safety is worth, I invariably stay silent. When I consider how this group of men may have been silenced by the hypersegregation of inner cities, by the cycle of economic depression, I wonder if silencing me is a form of empowerment and retaliation. I wonder if my anger can be re-channeled into productive discussions that might enable cooperation, forward movement. All oppressions are linked.

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10 Responses to “Catcalling and Connections to Class”

  1. Herbie October 1, 2012 at 2:46 am #

    Glad to see you writing again, my friend. As to the content, I don’t see flaws in your thinking one bit. Having lived all over the world, there is definitely a big difference between big city and small town living. You have to be guarded at times with the former, but don’t show fear. And while nobody deserves to be harassed, you’re applying street smarts to your surroundings. Nothing wrong with it at all.

    • Caitlin Garzi October 2, 2012 at 10:21 am #

      Thanks for the writing-support, Herbie! And yes, it’s true. Living in a small town in CT, I was never catcalled. Ever. Same at UCONN (unless you count upperclassmen yelling “Freshman!” at passersby).

      But in the little Apple there was a huge catcalling problem walking home from Aggieville. Long time Manhattanites would even tell me not to walk home alone (I lived on Thurston). I actually started carrying pepper spray in grad school.

      But this one time– and I love this story– I was walking home and I had to pass this crowd of guys by Taco Lucha. I steeled myself for the slew of comments, and sure enough one guy goes, “Heyyyy.” Usually in Manhattan (KS) this is followed with some angry remark about how I didn’t say hi back. But this time one of the guy’s friends goes, “Dude. Why would you do that? She’s walking home, don’t scare her.”

      It was pretty awesome. Points to that guy, whoever he is.

      • Herbie October 2, 2012 at 10:58 am #

        Kudos to that guy, indeed.

  2. Angel October 1, 2012 at 10:29 am #

    I don’t think I’ve ever experienced this “cat calling,” but I have experienced its just as awful cousin/sister–I don’t know what to call it, but it’s when men call insults instead of giving a woman a “compliment.” It makes women feel just as unsafe and violated.

    • Caitlin Garzi October 2, 2012 at 4:43 pm #

      That’s also the worst. I remember when something like that happened to you last year– it’s not okay!

  3. holly October 3, 2012 at 6:15 pm #

    Thanks for writing this and speaking out. Sorry you have to deal with street harassment 😦 I run the Stop Street Harassment website – there are several articles on this page that talk about race + gender-based street harassment: http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/resources/articles/ and I also cover intersectionalities in one of the chapters of my book Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women

    • Caitlin Garzi October 4, 2012 at 10:55 am #

      Thanks for sharing these resources! While researching, I saw a lot of articles on race and the victims of street harassment, but I didn’t see all that much about how race and class influenced the street harassers themselves. Some of the articles here look they really delve into that subject– specifically “Respectable Ladies and Uncouth Men: The Performative Politics of Class and Gender in the Public Realm of an Italian City.” I think I just found some new subway reading!

  4. maejenna October 4, 2012 at 10:36 am #

    I love your honest writing and your good questions. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Caitlin Garzi October 4, 2012 at 11:01 am #

      Thanks for the kind words, Maejenna! It’s always hard to write about personal experiences, especially if (like me) you’re weirdly protective of your privacy when it comes to writing things down publicly.

      Usually this blog is much more academic and sanitized, but so much of the research on feminist rhetoric encourages using experiences as evidence. Comments like this remind me that sharing experiences IS really important because it allows people to connect and grow and learn.

  5. Austin October 7, 2012 at 7:39 pm #

    I’m really glad you shared this article. I don’t do it, and I certainly hope I never have, however I never realized until how a catcall might truly scare someone. Being a guy, I think my perspective is extremely skewed. I’ve only been catcalled once, and I remember being pretty excited about it because it made me feel desired. Another time, my ex and my friend’s wife were catcalled and they playfully argued over which one drew the attention. Until now, I only saw it as a crude form of flirting. If I knew it could illicit the feelings you describe, I would have done a lot more than just shake my head and smile when I saw it happen. I completely understand you not wanting to speak up while you are alone, but if you are with a friend that can protect you then let loose on the guy the next time it happens. Some people just don’t know any better and need to be taught. Not that you should have to do that, but it may be the only way an ignorant person will learn. You’ve opened my eyes and I thank you for it.

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