A Cat Calls Back: The Problem With Sidewalk Harassment at Home And Abroad

It all happened too fast for me or my friend Laura to get up (or even fully realize what was going on) but soon enough, he was screaming and spitting -- waving his lit cigarette and beer bottle dangerously close to my face.
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It had been a long, sweaty day of being "leered" at, and I was fed up and a little wine drunk on the steps of Montmarte when a Parisian man lobbed yet another come on: "I want to roll my d*ck on your a**."

Wait, what?

I am busty, and I knew the sort of things that men had been saying to me and my equally busty companion Laura all day (even though they were mostly in French), but even Jessica Valenti would struggle to get genuinely incensed by an amalgamation of foreign syllables.

This was very definitely English, and it was just too much. I flipped him off, and not lazily, either -- my protruding finger was paired with the questionable combination of my "wine face" and the stink eye. It said, or was trying really hard to say, "You don't have to speak any language to understand what THIS means, asshole."

After three years of school in the Bronx, I had experienced my fair share of being hollered at while traipsing up Fordham Road en route to the D train. It got annoying, but most of the time, I was called "beautiful," or "mammi," and when I bothered to respond indignantly, my suitors usually responded with expectant laughter, and sometimes even told me to have a nice day.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when my latest Parisian suitor hopped up and stormed over to where we were sitting. It all happened too fast for me or my friend Laura to get up (or even fully realize what was going on) but soon enough, he was screaming and spitting -- waving his lit cigarette and beer bottle dangerously close to my face.

Before he had spoken in pretty clear English, but he was yelling in French now. I am not a passive person by any means, but Laura is near fluent in French, and with a single glance she told me that she understood what he was saying and begged me not to engage him. My peripheral vision revealed that the surrounding group of over 100 unaffiliated people relaxing on the steps of Montmarte planned to do nothing other than gawk in my general direction.

So, I stared at my boots, and watched myself be publicly berated by a stranger, who was offended that I was offended that he had said he wanted to roll his d*ck on my a**. When he finally walked away, it felt sudden. I'm assuming he threw in some sort of vindictive last words -- although, of course, I didn't understand what he was saying.

The incident in Paris was not the first of its kind. Laura and I had also traveled to Madrid months earlier, and a strange man grabbed my butt less than 30 minutes after our arrival. In Rome, my limited understanding of Italian still yielded quiet horror at the things men said on the street. Surprisingly enough, the only place besides the UK where I did not feel like a walking billboard for objectification was Amsterdam. Traveling abroad for the first time without my family felt, at times, like I was traipsing through a strip club, like I had accidentally worn a glitter bikini and not high-waisted, largely unflattering sweater leggings.

It was only when I got to Berlin, however, that I realized what was so specifically upsetting about the way men were paying attention to me in the aforementioned European cities. Sitting in my hostel bunk, two of the men sharing my room in the hostel began talking about me in German -- not "probably talking" about me, but lewdly gesticulating and pointing in my direction. Both of these men had spoken English earlier in the week, and I called them out: "If you're going to talk about me, can you speak in English or not be so obviously rude?"

"Who the f*ck do you think you are?" the larger man spit back, "Typical American c*nt."

Well, he was definitely speaking English then.

I was traveling with a friend, but we were in separate rooms, which meant I was the only female spending the night in a room with seven men. I was already slightly uncomfortable, and knew I could not sleep comfortably in this space, given the recent developments. Hoping to avoid additionally hostility, I pretended to ignore my aggressor, and went down to the front desk, where I explained the situation, and asked simply to switch to another room.

Instead of defending or helping me to move my stuff, the man who followed me upstairs (who was also fluent in English) proceeded to talk in German with the bunker who had just called me a "c*nt." They chatted and laughed, as though they were old friends, and after about 10 minutes, the hostel employee turned to be and grunted, "Get your stuff if you still want to move."

Where was the indignation? I felt myself longing for benevolent sexism, some, "How dare you talk to a lady like that!" But nothing. It was my last week abroad, and it left me longing for home, suddenly grateful for the lighthearted objectification which surrounded my Bronx campus.

The thing is... the New York version of cat-calling (encountered first when I returned to the Bronx and later, once I moved to Manhattan) only bothered me more after my time abroad. Of course, relative to what I had experienced, this was playful flirting, but the real issue for me became what that "playful flirting" signifies. Of course, asking hollering men to stop on the streets of the city is generally conflict-free, but if a woman were to take any real issue with the fact that she is being blatantly, shamelessly objectified ,the responses are limited to "That's not so bad," and the "Mean Girls"-esque, "So, you think you're really pretty?"

In Paris, Madrid, and Berlin there was a distinct sense of power and entitlement consistent across my experiences -- the men who touched and cursed at me espoused the idea that women are second class citizens, who are meant to be objectified, simply by virtue of having breasts and the ability to breathe. In the boroughs of New York, the power struggle is much more nuanced, and thus harder to criticize. I can make a clear-cut argument that a strange man calling me a "c*nt" is wrong, but I have less agency to react to a man yelling that I am "beautiful."

Would I prefer a polite assertion of my pleasing aesthetic to a physically intimidating attack? When I'm not armed with my pink plastic pepper spray keychain, yes. Although, it seems the more subtle and complex milieu of hollering will be, in the long run, much more difficult to defeat.

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