Catcalls for Help
Because the last thing women need is another man telling them what to do, I’ve spent months not writing this, although I feel it’s important. I don’t have the solution to the problem of intersexual violence but I have some thoughts on the subject and I believe that my perspective is valid. So I’m sharing this with the hope and intention that it will do some good.
I used to catcall women, I guess. When I was eighteen, I was sitting on the porch of my friend’s house with a couple of guys near the campus of West Chester University on a warm Friday night. We were having a party and no one had really shown up yet. A group of college kids walked by, mostly girls with one guy. My friend Kevin called out, “Hey, man, you hogging all those ladies for yourself? Why don’t you bring ‘em over here?” They fell quiet and shuffled awkwardly past. I felt kind of gross about how he had addressed the man as if these women were his property. That kind of cat calling continued for a while, even as the party inside the house started filling up with our friends. I stayed on the porch with my friends, Kevin and Nick, to catch up on the months I was away at school. While we sat there, shooting the shit, I saw a young woman walk past that I thought wasn’t wearing any pants. As she passed under the streetlight I saw her pants were pure and crisp white and so unbelievably tight that I couldn’t imagine how any person could get into them. I said to myself, aloud, “Woah! Those are some tight pants!” I watched her go into the convenience store on the corner, mesmerized by her pants clinging to her butt like a vacuum pack. Kevin and Nick and I resumed talking, but a few minutes later she walked past in the other direction and I let my internal monologue fall out of my mouth again. “Hey, there go those tight pants again.”
She stopped, turned to face the house, and yelled, “My name is Elizabeth!”
The guys on the porch fell silent. I didn’t know how to respond, but the silence was terrible. I said, “Hi,” because I couldn’t think of anything else.
“It’s not ‘tight pants,’” she continued, still yelling. “I’m a person, god damn it!”
I was mortified, completely ashamed of myself for having incited such anger in this woman that she felt the need to remind me of her personhood. I could feel my friends on the porch watching me to see how I responded, and I wanted them to think I was cool. I wanted to trot across the lawn to talk to Elizabeth quietly, face to face, safe from the judgment of the other dudes on the porch to explain to her that I wasn’t hollering at her or calling her ‘tight pants,’ that I didn’t realize she could hear me. I wanted to make all of the excuses I could to relieve myself of the blame and responsibility of having made her feel degraded, but I knew that I deserved the blame and had to take responsibility, even if it meant looking like an ass in front of my friends. If I had started approaching her, she’d be unable to see me clearly in the dark of the unlit lawn between the porch and the sidewalk and I didn’t want her to feel any more threatened than she already did. “Elizabeth, I’m sorry.” I thought to begin to explain and to make my excuses, but that would just make me sound pathetic, announcing the details of my foolishness and desperate attempts to be relieved of guilt to the whole neighborhood, which I suddenly realized could apparently hear everything I said from the porch, even at a normal volume. She didn’t need my excuses, just my apology.
“Thank you,” she said, tersely, before turning and continuing on to wherever she was originally headed.
Kevin and Nick were still quiet. “Well,” I said, “I feel like a dick.”
Nick nodded. “It’s one thing to holler at a group and make the guy feel uncomfortable.”
Kevin laughed. “That’s fun.”
“It’s another thing to comment on a woman walking by herself down the street at night.”
I understood the difference, but I also recognized that there wasn’t one. Either way was disrespectful and degrading to these women. Mine had been unintentional and more threatening; Kevin’s had been relatively harmless but intentional and equally dehumanizing. “I’m sorry,” I said to Nick and to the rest of the world. “No one ever explained to me the finer points of sexual harassment.”
Fifteen years later, as a feminist and a burlesque performer, I spend a lot of my time thinking about how my actions affect other people, both onstage and off. Most of my friends are beautiful women who get naked on stage for money and who promote their erotic art form on their social media websites. Every day, I read dozens of posts about these brilliant, powerful women getting harassed on the internet and in the street. The tag #yesallwomen appears over and over in my news feed and I hate to see it, but it needs to be seen. Of course #notallmen harass women, but #yesallmen are culturally conditioned to do it. Men need to recognize how widespread harassment is but more importantly, men need to recognize the effect that it has. To understand the effect, we need to consider the cause. I can’t say from personal experience how it feels to be regularly sexually harassed on the street, but I read enough women’s responses to have a sense of it. I see women confessing that one comment from some prick ruined an otherwise lovely day. I see their anger, frustration, fear, loathing, pain, and most of all, I see their confusion. They beg for an explanation of why men treat them with so little respect and what these men hope to achieve by it.
The ghetto boys are catcalling me
as I pull my keys from my pocket.
I wonder if this method of courtship
has ever been effective.
Has any girl in history said,
“Sure, you seem so nice; let’s get it on.”
Still I always shock them when I answer,
“Hi, my name’s Amanda.”
-Amanda Palmer from “Ampersand”
“Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”
-generally attributed to Oscar Wilde
Sexual harassment is not about sex; it’s about power. But why? If men already have all the power in the world, why do they need to establish that fact to individual women on the street, knowing that it does not in any way bring them any closer to having sex with them? What do they hope to gain from sexual harassment if not sex? The answer is a sense of authority. The truth is that men do not have much power. Institutionally, we do, of course, but individually, we do not. Women, conversely, have unfathomable power on an individual scale, which is why men have banded together to set up elaborate societal, religious, and legal institutions to suppress it. The fact is that men are weak. The masculine ideal is one of indefatigable strength, machismo, stoicism, impenetrable rigidity, the armored warrior, the huge, hard, and penetrating phallus, and fearless aggression. But no man lives up to that ideal. No man can. When one puts on physical armor, builds a muscular shell, or acts outwardly aggressive, it is often to protect a precious and fragile core. A man harasses a woman on the street not to gain actual power, but to gain a sense of power, a simulacrum of security.
There is a debate in the burlesque world about whether or not burlesque is inherently feminist. Many argue that it is because it gives women a sense of empowerment. I say that a sense of empowerment is worthless without actual power, just as a sense of security doesn’t mean a person is safe, or a sense of entitlement doesn’t mean that the world owes a person anything. It’s just a sense, a feeling, a fleeting impression. This is what happens when a man catcalls a woman. It gives him the sense that he’s superior, which temporarily and very briefly offsets his more pervasive sense of insecurity and powerlessness.
A man cannot help but be attracted to a woman (obviously this only applies to heterosexual men, but those are the men committing most of the sexual violence). Men are powerless to control their desire. At heart, men don’t want to rape women; they don’t want to hurt women. On an individual scale, deep down, a man just wants to be loved by a woman. Whether or not a man is loved, however, is entirely up to the woman. This is her power and his powerlessness. Men can only be complete with the love of a woman. And when the woman he wants doesn’t want him, it hurts. Over and over throughout men’s lives, they are rejected by women to whom they’ve made themselves vulnerable, and it hurt them. Men are weak, emotionally. We have not one tenth of women’s capacity to understand our feelings. We don’t identify our feelings; we just react to them. Men are afraid that if they look too deeply inside themselves and realize that the reason for their rejections was because of their inferiority in the eyes of their desired, they will lose hope, lose faith in themselves, and despair for their meaningless existences. So to avoid that painful experience, they build emotional defenses. They try to make themselves invulnerable, impenetrable, stoic, macho, rigid, armored, huge, hard, penetrating, fearless, and aggressive. They blame women for the pain that they’ve experienced, and lash out not to punish women for it, but just to give themselves a sense of comparative authority, a sense of relative power, a false sense of security. Men hate, harass, and assault women because they are afraid of being hurt by them. They are afraid of admitting that they have no power over love and desire, and so they cling to and exaggerate all of the other powers that they do have.
It becomes a battle of fear. The easiest way for a man to deal with his fear of women is to make women more afraid of him. I don’t know if it was conscious and intentional, if men gathered together in secret fraternal orders to write bibles, laws, and cultural standards with the intention of controlling women, aware that their own insecurities were driving their actions, or if it just worked out that way because of men’s desperate refusal to acknowledge their insecurities. But whatever was going through their minds, their actions were guided by what was going through their hearts, or more accurately, what was not. Patriarchal institutions were created by men out of fear of the power of women.
The worst part is that they work. From what I understand from all of the blogs, statuses, tweets, and rants I read from women these days, modern American women live their lives in perpetual fear of men. Comedian Louis CK recently talked about women’s bravery, and I think he truly understated it. Poet Margaret Atwood is credited with saying, “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” And yet every day, women muster the immense strength that they have to walk through a gauntlet of harassment, invasive suggestion, and physical violence. They are brave because they face their fear at every moment, but they still feel that fear at every moment. And the war is won thusly. Women are more afraid of men than men are of women, but we are immersed in a culture of fear, which breeds a cycle of hate, violence, and greater fear.
We need to break the cycle. Fear breeds hate; hate breeds fear. They cannot be defeated with more fear and more hate. Hate can only be defeated with love, and fear can only be overcome with compassion.
Here’s where I get nervous as a feminist, being a man and telling women what I think they should do. But here goes.
American women are culturally conditioned to avoid eye contact with men because it ‘invites comment.’ And so most women I see on the street avoid eye contact as a protective measure. I see that to be exactly the same as encouraging women to cover up their bodies so as to not invite harassment. It’s blaming women for being harassed. Avoiding eye contact is not as much a protective measure as it is a submissive gesture. If I, as a man, am walking down the sidewalk, looking into a woman’s eyes as she approaches me, I can control where she looks by controlling where she doesn’t look. As long as I keep looking at her eyes and she keeps avoiding mine, she is acting in response to my actions, rather than in control of her own. Now, it’s a subtle thing, controlling someone’s eyes, but it’s the root of controlling someone’s attention, which is the root of controlling someone’s thoughts. So as long as I maintain eye contact, I am establishing my authority over that woman, until I look away and release her. I don’t want to instill fear in a woman; I want to be loved by one. So when she refuses to make eye contact with me, I feel rejected, and it hurts a little bit. I feel unacknowledged as a person, unjustly perceived as a threat though I have no intention of harming her in any way. I’m aware enough to know that it’s not her I should blame for the rejection, but the men who have made her feel the need to reject my entire existence. A less aware man will blame her for making him feel inferior, and lash out with some derisive comment. If she ignores him and continues on, it send the message that there is a degree of abuse that she is willing to endure without standing up for herself, which confirms in his mind his authority over her. In his heart he feels inferior, in his mind he feels superior, and the more can feel superior in his mind, the less he has to deal with his insecurity of inferiority. I’m not blaming the woman for getting harassed, but for tolerating it. Men will not stop if they are allowed to continue, and it’s not just men who can stop them. They are acting out of fear and powerlessness and need to be met with power and compassion, not with hate and more fear. The ultimate display of power is not needing to display it.
My friend, Sarah, a New Orleans based ceramics artist, told me one day that she had found the most amazing way of dealing with street harassment. She couldn’t believe it had taken her twenty years to discover it. She was riding her bike down the street one day when a car pulled up beside her. The man in the passenger seat leaned out of the window to say, “Damn, Baby, let me get some of that booty!”
Her typical responses to similar harassment previously had been along the lines of, “suck my dick,” or “fuck you.” But on this occasion, she was too tired to muster her aggression and instead turned to look him in the eye, said flatly, “that’s disrespectful,” and pedaled away.
The car caught up to her at the next traffic light and the man again leaned out the window to talk to her. This time, he said, “I’m sorry about how I treated you back there. I was out of line.”
What Sarah had done was maintained her own authority over herself. She hadn’t pretended to ignore, and thus tolerate, his comments, and she hadn’t allowed herself to be emotionally manipulated into anger or upset. She was unmoved, calmly powerful, and in control. Street harassment is like terrorism; it’s only effective in generating fear if the targets allow themselves to be afraid. If women allow their power to be taken from them, they will be made victims. But if women recognize their own power and authority, look a man in directly in the eye, and disarm him with the truth, that is how a woman reclaims the power that she has.
Emotionally wounded men may respond in many different ways, including further aggression and physical violence, but I believe that most men do not truly want to hurt women. So what I think is vital for dissolving this constant conflict is for women to realize and remember that they have the power in these situations, that the men who are harassing them are doing it because they are weak and afraid. Catcalls are not mating calls; they’re cries for help. “Help us, women,” they beg. “Accept us for who we are: weak, afraid, wounded, and ignorant little boys. We need you to take pity on us, tell us that we are wrong, and forgive us for being so weak. This is the only way we will grow into the men we never learned how to be.” Really, men that harass women do so because they need their mommies, and they’re begging you to be that for them.
Women are, of course, under no obligation to acknowledge men on the street or to treat disrespectful men with any degree of compassion. But change will not come from the weak. Only those with power can make change, and true power, not a simulated sense of power, is held by women. Recognize that. Remember that. Don’t let men get away with being stupid boys. They need help and you have the power to help them.