Men, Catcalling Is Your Problem, Too

Businessman staring at woman walking on sidewalk
Businessman staring at woman walking on sidewalk

(For the sake of privacy, the names used in this post are pseudonyms.)

"It was hilarious," Josh said to the rest of our semi-smiling group. We were gathered around a picnic bench outside, chatting after having gone to see a school play together. Another classmate of mine had just described her uncomfortable experience of driving back from ice-skating practice while two guys in another car rolled down their windows and grinningly honked at her several times. Josh had found her story to segue into his perfectly. "She was in the car behind us," he went on with a smile. "The others were calling at her and banging on the bus windows with their lacrosse sticks!"

For quick reference, "she" was a stranger that Josh had referred to earlier as "a girl who was pretty hot," and "the others" were the rest of the players on his lacrosse team. Unsurprisingly, after he finished his story, our group of mostly girls didn't share in his amusement; it was Josh's laughter alone that filled the awkward silence.

"Well, did you tell them to stop?" I finally asked.

He looked at me as if the idea was unheard of. "Why? It was hilarious!"

"Maybe to you all, but not to her. You guys probably made her really uncomfortable."

An excuse related to icing a leg and being in too much pain followed; understandable, yes, but satisfactory, no. I looked to the rest of our group whom Josh considered friends. To my surprise and utter dismay, their eyes were cast anywhere but at us. From the moment his story had begun, the grass and the trees had suddenly become more interesting. Thus, the conversation ended with Josh's dismissive shoulder shrug and a sense of embarrassment on my part.

I tell this story to bring to the forefront what I believe has yet to be addressed (or is under addressed) in regards to catcalling: bystanders. Josh's story was upsetting in and of itself aside from the circumstances in which it was told, but more upsetting to me was the fact that it hadn't occurred to Josh to tell his friends how disrespectful they were being. What if the girl in the car had been his sister or mother (both of which he has)? This is an overused comparison, I realize, but it seems the point of the phrase has yet to sink in. It's disappointing enough that females need to be recognized as someone else's family member instead of as individual human beings before they can receive the respect they already deserve.

More concerning than Josh's missed opportunity to stop his friends was the reaction of my own peers as I brought up the issue to him. I knew for a fact that this was a group of girls who had no qualms speaking their minds, so to find myself speaking up alone was greatly disheartening. As the group disassembled without another word on the matter, I began to fear that I was mistaken, that there were in fact a lot of women who believed, "Men are gonna be that way, what can you do? They mean it in a nice way," like the hostesses from Fox News, or that "catcalls are flattering" and we should just "deal with it" because "when a total stranger notices you, it's validating," as Doree Lewak expressed. When I asked my close friend about it later that evening, she shrugged her shoulders too, only with less conviction than Josh had. "I wanted to avoid confrontation," was the answer that followed. "But you were right about what you said." While a part of myself could relate to how she felt, another part of me wondered, what did she have to lose by telling Josh how she felt?

This is also the question I urge others to consider. It's one thing if you're in the middle of being harassed by a stranger, but when amongst the comfort of friends, why not approach these issues when you know it's safe? Why not ask your friend to reconsider his actions or to support another who is standing up for what is right? Catcalling isn't just a few women's problems, but everyone's problem, and the sooner more people start thinking that way, the sooner we can progress as a society to resolve the problem.

I recently read about the New Zealand Herald's recreation of a woman walking the streets, but in Auckland instead of New York City. The men who approached model Nicola Simpson were characterized as "polite" and she didn't feel the least bit uncomfortable, whereas she hated the attention she received in New York. Here, I find myself agreeing with Cosmopolitan's response, as I'm sure many other women would, too: "It's nice to imagine a world in which it just doesn't occur to guys to shout at you."

For more on why catcalling is wrong: