The thing about New York, is people are always outside. Like the song goes, nobody walks in LA. Sure when I was living there I got the occasional yell out of a car window or unwarranted grope at a bar- but it is nothing, nothing like walking the streets of New York.
People are out on their stoops in clusters or in solitude, especially in the summer. Walk down any street and find at least a couple occupied stoops. It is a weird line between a public and private space, where I can be on the sidewalk but directly in front of their gaze because they are technically on their property. It creates this extra level of entitlement to make a comment on my body, because I have entered into their space.
But it’s not only when I pass by stoops. It’s when I walk to the subway. When I’m walking bright in the morning to get a coffee, or when I’m out at night going to get a drink.
I have been catcalled by men in suits, by construction workers, by boys my age, by a literal 12 year old. I have been catcalled while wearing overalls and vans. I have been catcalled while wearing sweatpants. It doesn’t seem to matter what I wear or how many friends I am walking with. Nothing seems to ward off this awful, daily, verbal violation.
And though it’s happened to me daily since I moved here, I have not stood up for myself once, or replied once. Confront them and get called a bitch. Get asked “why can’t you take a fucking compliment?” Get put in physical danger.
I talked to a friend who has lived in New York for a while and asked with desperation, “what do I say in reply?” She kind of shrugged. “I don’t know, it’s just part of the culture here.”
But that is part of the problem. Saying that it is normal and part of a culture in a metropolitan city makes you passive to the problem and therefore part of the issue. I want to show these men that I will not stand for that, but yet I remain passive. I remain quiet. And it’s because I am afraid.
Because in that moment, “hey, nice tits,” aren’t just three words thrown at me like darts to a dartboard. It is a verbal dehumanization. It tells me that the perpetrator right off the bat doesn’t see me as a human. He sees me as a body, as flesh, as something that he has the right to label and comment on. It’s not a compliment, it’s a blatant disregard for the conscious part of my being. If the perpetrator already has this attitude towards a complete stranger just because of their appearance, there is really no telling what they would be willing to do to you. Dehumanization is one of the key elements of being able to carry out violence.
So what do you do?
If you do want to speak up for yourself, follow this formula. It is taught in self defense classes. Three sentences. Say them with power.
You just_________ . It made me feel_________ . Don’t _________ again.
You just catcalled me. It made me feel degraded and scared to walk down the street. Don’t catcall again.
It works, but it takes bravery to stand up for yourself in this situation. And often times when the moment arises you are in a state of panic. A state of confusion and thrown off guard. And maybe you wouldn’t have the power to say this. Or maybe it would put you in a dangerous situation. What else is there to do?
I remembered how my animal ethics teacher used to work for PETA. How when you confront someone who wears a fur coat with a paint bucket of blood, the response is never going to be good. They will see it as an attack between two people instead of a plea for animals lives and ethics. So instead, she thought up a plan. A silent confrontation between the perpetrator and their conscience. This was back in the 80s, when fur coats were on racks in the top level of the department stores. Instead of waiting for the coat to be bought, drenching it in paint or flour, only to have the person buy another one the next week to replace it, she thought of a better idea.
She went printed out fliers that explained how this coat was made. Talked about the animals that were killed, and attached some black and white images of a mink getting anally electrocuted before being skinned. She went to the top floor of the department store, folded them up neatly, and tucked one into every coat pocket. She sat and waited. As people came up to try on the coats, they would pause, pose in the mirror. After altering angles they would stick a hand in a pocket and feel that piece of paper.
She said in one afternoon she watched 40 people try on a coat, get confronted with the truth, and silently re-rack the coat. Nobody bought one.
Imagine how different it would have been if she had yelled those words at them, had said, “DO YOU KNOW HOW MANY ANIMALS DIED FOR THAT COAT!!!” She probably would’ve gotten laughed at and a few fuck you’s followed by the ka-ching of the register.
So why don’t we try the same formula for catcalling.
A silent confrontation with the oppressor and themselves. To stop and question their behavior, and put yourself out of danger.
Instead of a reply, give him a slip of paper with your “number” on it. Fold it up, give it to them, and make sure you have a good escape route and time to get away.
Download a PDF copy, print a few out, cut slits in the number slots for easy tear, and tape them up around your city.