What is an appropriate response to catcalling?

by On Becoming Anna

We’ve all been there ladies (and gents of course); walking innocently along down the street listening to the latest hip-hop jams on the iPod or just simply minding your own business as you pop to Sainsburys to grab a pain au raisin. Then suddenly a white van or big lorry full of men drives by and screams ‘OIIIOIIII DARLING SHOW US WHAT’S BENEATH THAT SHIRT’ or some other similar profanity. So loudly that you drop your pain au raisin.

This morning as I was getting petrol, I was honked and gestured at from the men at the pump next to me. They’d spotted me whilst I was queuing to pay. I could tell they were trying to look at me and catch my eye, but being a naturally passive female, I avoided this at all costs and stuck my head in my phone until they’d gone. When I did get back to my car, much to my absolute delight, I found that they were at the pump next to me, and had been waiting to honk their horn and shout some indecipherable gibberish at me. In baggy jeans and huge sweatshirt with no makeup on, I did not expect to be catcalled, not that it really matters what I was wearing. But there was no way in my opinion, that they could have thought I was attractive at that moment, they were simply imparting some sexual “masculine” aggressiveness towards a girl alone at a petrol pump.

I feel like I can say with little doubt, that every woman will experience this kind of aggression in her life. I remember the first time I was catcalled I was about 10 years old, walking past a load of builders on my way to a friends house. At that particular moment in time, though it made me embarrassed, it did make me feel good in a weird sort of way. I’ve been taught that being physically attractive to men is a good thing, and in my desperate rush to grow up, I felt accepted. Finally part of the female race that are considered sexy. I’d made it.

This view now, being the educated young feminist that I am, makes me feel actually sick. Society had taught me to think so little of myself that I took being shouted at by fully grown men when I was still a child, as a compliment.

The problem is, even though I know everything about everything, I still haven’t figured out an appropriate response to these strange sexual outbursts. I am well aware that simply calling yourself a feminist isn’t enough to bring about change within society anymore. I know that being active in challenging misogyny and gender stereotypes is incredibly important in contributing towards gender equality, but at the same time, when a car is whizzing by, they’ve already gone before you’ve had a chance to scream ‘UM EXCUSE ME LISTEN HERE BUT DO YOU REALISE THAT BY SHOUTING AT ME YOU’RE ENDORSING A RAPE CULTURE THAT YOUR DAUGHTERS ARE GOING TO GROW UP IN AND WHAT YOU’RE DOING IS INCREDIBLY HARMFUL TO A WOMAN’S SELF ESTEEM AND YOU’RE EMBEDDING THE IDEA THAT WOMEN ARE PROPERTY AND SEXUAL OBJECTS AND I THINK YOU SHOULD BE EMBARRASSED AND ASHAMED OF YOURSELVES etc. etc.’ There just isn’t the time. A middle finger might do the job, but that’s just as aggressive and I believe that I’m above that. I’m very evolved in that way.

I feel like challenging this particular kind of situation can put an individual in more danger than it’s worth sometimes. If I’d have turned around and confronted those men at the petrol station, I could have put myself in a really sticky situation. There were two of them, one of me, and no matter how hard I try to challenge stereotypes, men are typically larger and stronger than women. Especially the type of women they are going to catcall. As it happens, you’re unlikely to be harassed when you’re walking down the street with your dad or boyfriend, as the type of men who catcall typically respect other men more than they do individual women. You’re normally picked on when you’re alone and vulnerable. This has always been the case with me anyway. Thankfully my boyfriend happened to be in the car with me today, but at any other time I would have felt personally quite attacked, and would have avoided any confrontation in case I put myself in danger

But just ignoring this harassment is just as harmful. My normal reaction is to blush and look down, because I’m just a soft and sensitive marshmallow. And I’ve always been taught to. Don’t wear revealing clothes, ignore the stares, avoid eye contact with the strange men. Just be passive about it and they’ll get bored and go away. Most of the time they do, but what if they don’t? What happens then?

If I don’t challenge it, I am perpetrating it. I’m encouraging this behaviour, not exploiting it for what it is. The endorsement of rape cultureCatcalling is violent; it’s sexual harassment; it’s the reinforcement that women are objects and that our worth does not surpass our sexual availability or attractiveness. It is disgusting that girls are sexualised as soon as they develop breasts, and are taught that male approval is an indication of their worth.

I need to find a response that’s between setting their cars on fire, and blushing and staring at the floor. But I can’t think of any. What is an appropriate and effective response to being catcalled? I think it’s really important to know.

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