Responding to Catcalls

I remember being a chubby and dorky 13 year-old girl and getting honked at by creeps when I walked in my neighborhood. Since I was so incredibly awkward and unattractive, was I flattered? No. It scared the crap out of me. It was especially terrifying when the cars slowed down. I didn't even really have breasts at that time, and did everything in my power -- short of wearing a sleeping bag -- to conceal my body. So why exactly were they honking? I know some girls relished this kind of attention from men and told me they wore revealing clothing for this reason, but I surely didn't. I knew those cretins would have honked at anything -- a nice-looking mop, Miss Piggy in a onesie, probably even a busty bird.

The unwanted attention has continued, of course. I always try to carry myself with dignity and dress modestly, but that doesn't stop the leers or the disrespect. There's that horrible and common misconception that women won't get sexually assaulted or harassed if they don't dress provocatively. I will tell you that you could have a fu manchu and wear a wizard cloak and some degenerate will find the need to objectify you.

It's not that I don't ever want anyone to look at me. I subtly admire people's aesthetic qualities on a daily basis, but I don't think it's unreasonable to ask not to be whistled at like some sort of farm animal, have my body parts discussed, or be a victim of what I like to call "visual violation" or "eye rape."

When I complained to a friend about this once, she said I should be happy that I get this kind of attention because there are some women who would love to be honked at least once in their lives, and that one day I'll be old and gross and no one will even look at me. I found this to be rather odd, since catcalls only fill me with rage or fear. Gratitude is not something I ever considered. I've been followed many times in my life. Once, a man in a car followed me for several blocks while making obscene noises. This doesn't make me feel young and hot, this only makes me feel like I might get raped.

My response always depends on my mood. There are times I'm already on edge for some reason or other, so a vitriolic response is automatic. There are other times that I don't say anything out of fear. Some days I have a more apathetic attitude. What is the best approach? I have no idea. Though I seriously doubt it, what if an angry response somehow makes the savage realize that it's not okay to talk to women like that? I once pummeled a man in a bar for saying something obscene to me and I like to think that because of that humiliating episode, he never spoke to a woman like that again. My boyfriend, however, always suggests that I shut up before I get myself killed. Perhaps he's right. But sometimes it's just too tempting to say something emasculating. So, so tempting...

I'm not angered by all attention. I know that there are genuinely nice, respectable men out there just trying to find a date. The following phrases wouldn't send me and many other women into a fit of fury: How are you today? You look nice. You look pretty. What a nice dress. You have a nice smile, etc. Fellas, the key is to use the word "nice" followed by something that is not a body part. (This is not fool-proof, however. These all depend on who says it and how they it, for example, old man dressed as a muppet complimenting my attire in a raspy voice = not cool.)

I know my friend is partly right -- of course I will miss my youth and my looks one day. Society teaches us that we're useless hunks of crap when we're wrinkled. As much as I try to escape it, I know it's inevitable. I just know that my entire identity hasn't been based on my appearance and so when I'm old and haggard, I don't think I'll be feeling like a complete husk of a person. Plus, when you're old you can steal because no one pays attention to you. I also know that I won't miss all the times I worried for my safety because some loser wanted to tell me I had nice cans.