Wednesday, December 8, 2010

I Ain't No Hollaback Girl

A recent article written by John DeVore has me thinking about something I've gotten use to ignoring: Catcalling.

As a woman living in a central area of a large city, I should probably just shrug my shoulders and accept that catcalling is the price I pay for choosing to live downtown and walk down any main street. But that kind of passive thinking doesn't lead to change. I know I could walk the back streets, the less populated streets, but then I put myself in a more tangible risk of being mugged or assaulted. So, I walk the most well lit, populated and busy streets when I get off work at 10:30pm or later, every weeknight.

The consequences of my choice and schedule are having random people yell inherently aggressive remarks at me. Even if it's a compliment, anything yelled at a random stranger from a moving vehicle is aggressive in my books. But this hasn't just been an issue for me since moving downtown (which I did when I was 18). It first started as an adolescent. Yes, you read that right, an adolescent. I hadn't even broken the "teens" yet when my sister and I were being verbally attacked by random men in random places. I know we were tall for our age (almost 6 foot by grade 7) but that is not an open invitation to be hit on while walking in public.

I recall being 12 and getting honks from cars while walking down Whyte Ave with my sister. Or the time, when I was 14, and walking past a bar with my sister, best friend and her mother, only to have the bouncer accost us with invites into the bar and hit on us. When my friend's mother yelled "they're only 14!", he replied "even better".

Any weekend I walk down a main street past 11pm, I expect that I am going to be sexually harassed. But, all the advice out there to deter it puts the onus on my behavior: Dress down or in baggy clothes, just ignore it, avoid streets with people or bars, don't make eye contact, don't smile, wear headphones, read a book on the bus/train. Well, fuck that! I shouldn't have to shut out the world, dress plain and pretend something isn't happening just so I can live a somewhat peaceful existence.

It's no wonder someone designed a game based on these encounters, in which a main character (a woman) has the tools necessary to shoot the men who harass her. Do I condone this kind of behavior in real life? Of course not. It's just a game, some might say, but it brings attention to a very real problem.

One action that people (women and men) are taking is to use their camera phone to document lewd or unwanted behavior and post it online at websites such as YouTube or Hollaback. The most disturbing trend I found while reading through the entries on Hollaback is that many of these women feel the need to clarify that they weren't wearing anything provocative. I constantly saw the phrase, "I wasn't showing any skin", "My clothes weren't tight or short, just normal jeans and t-shirt" and other phrases basically trying to explain that they weren't "asking for it". It saddens me that they should even have to add that detail into their narratives. I've only been talking about my experiences with catcalling (though there have been past experiences with physical harassment), but Hollaback also documents sexual harassment which has lead to some men being arrested. For example, a woman had a man arrested for rubbing up against her while his genitals were exposed, an all to common occurrence in the crowded New York subway system.

It wasn't until I started thinking about this topic that I started realizing the extent women go to in order to avoid sexual harassment. I read multiple comments about women pretending to sleep on public transit to shut people out, reading books and using MP3 players as a way to signal their disinterest. While reading up on various forms of public sexual harassment and how women avoid certain scenarios, I thought to myself that I didn't limit myself or change my life in anyway to avoid it. I'm a very confrontational person and not one for avoiding a situation because I prefer to face things head on. That's why I was honestly shocked to realize that even I have changed past behaviors to avoid being hit on or harassed in public. I use to sit in the front seat of cabs because I'm tall and prefer all the extra leg room. But, after a while, I started sitting in the back seat because I was tired of my choice to sit in the front seat being some silent agreement to be hit on by the male drivers. Questions about whether I had a boyfriend or asking why am I so dressed up got tiring and I eventually moved to the backseat where I find myself very invested in texting, just to avoid awkward conversation. Some male cab drivers are honestly just making conversation but I ask myself if the others would ask a guy the same questions they ask me, such as "Oh, you're sure dressed up, are you meeting up with your girlfriend?" I kind of doubt it.

This isn't a matter of not being able to take a compliment. It's the audacity some people have that when a women goes out into public, it must mean she wants to be accosted and berated with what may seem like words of adulation but in fact are tiresome, trite and in, some cases, terribly offensive. When someone demonstrates to me that they cannot control their words, it worries me and makes me ponder what else they can't control. Am I going to have to walk a little faster because this person is now following me? Am I going to have to call the police? Am I going to have to find a place to escape from this person? Where is the nearest stores that's open? These are all thoughts I've had while being "complimented" by random strangers. Feeling like someone's prey is a disturbing experience and should not be an acceptable way to treat anyone, regardless of intention, location or gender.

3:19 Mark - Hilarious bit about a serious subject

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