Rebecca Kamm

Poking a stick at ladies' issues, pop culture, and other cutting-edge curiosities.

Rebecca Kamm: Why there's no compliment in catcalling

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Most men don't catcall, but most cat-callers are men.Photo / Thinkstock
Most men don't catcall, but most cat-callers are men.Photo / Thinkstock

My best friend and I once got so fed up with groups of man-children who felt it appropriate to say sexually suggestive things as we passed, we decided on a new strategy: holler back at them as loudly and crudely as they did to us. I don't know if that was the wisest move - from memory I think sometimes they got angry and called us sluts or lesbians? - but it was sort of satisfying, and seemed to shut them up for the most part.

Generally there would be a stunned silence, followed by a shuffling away. Or a zooming off, if they were hollering from the comfort of their race toys. It was certainly the only way we could think of to regain some of the power that seeps away from you when you're publicly demeaned like that. And it was interesting to observe how fast the bravado dissolved when exposed for what it was: public harassment.

There are varying levels of public - or street - harassment. Prolonged staring; weird grunt noises; crude 'praise' of specific body parts; suggestions or (more often) demands of sexual acts; public masturbation.

They're just a few, and I don't know a single woman who hasn't endured at least most of those examples numerous times. Who you are is irrelevant. The simple fact you're a woman is enough. Specific incidents remain in my mind: the man at the bus depo going at it right in front of me; the man on the park bench going at it right in front of me and my school friends; the guy in the mall who, as I walked by with my grandmother, felt it necessary to compliment my breasts; the boys who poked their heads out of a moving car some years ago to tell my boyfriend they'd like to "have a turn" on his "bitch".

Somehow, inexplicably, being demeaned in company felt additionally shameful. No matter that the shame rightfully belonged to the gormless twerps in the car - who went on their merry way and promptly forgot all about it. (Should good men help out on such occasions? The Guardian's Emer O'Toole says probably not.)

Cue: "It's better than getting no attention at all"; "You should lighten up" "Can't you take a compliment?" "Men just can't win these days." To which I can only say: being treated as public property does not make you feel admired, desirable, or flattered. It makes you feel like the butt of some horrible joke, and - in that moment, at least - excruciatingly aware of your body, how you're walking and what you're wearing. In short, it makes you self-objectify. It goes without saying, but their goal is never to flatter anyway. Rather, it's a futile parade of WATCH ME BE A MAN for the benefit of friends - a heady mix of insecurity, bravado and social ineptitude, of which women far too often bear the brunt.

Despite (or maybe even because of) its everyday nature, street harassment is under-researched, under-reported, under-legislated and under-discussed. For these reasons, grass-roots, anti-street harassment movements have exploded in the past two years. Acting as lobby groups, online forums and resource centres, they're too numerous to list but all are based online. (Start here). One of the very first, Holla Back, began as a blog asking people to post photos or video of their street harasser. It's now a fully-fledged organisation with online-based branches all over the world, including New Zealand.

Such groups have seen a recent rise in male interest and participation. Most men don't catcall, but most cat-callers are men, and that can be embarrassing for other, better men. (It's not even uncommon to see an embarrassed male face within each pack of swaggering harassers.) As the organisation Stop Street Harassment emphasises, "Men who care about equality, or who care about a daughter, mother, sister, aunt, cousin, girl friend, spouse or friend, should care about street harassment. Women should not have to be the ones who work on this issue alone."

The worst kind of stance - held by many men and women alike - is that unwanted sexual attention is simply part and parcel of being female. Some hope technological advances will erode that idea by teaching women how to respond when targeted. The I'm Not Your Baby app has just been released in Canada. It formulates responses to various specific scenarios, because "a lot of people said they had a hard time thinking of responses [to harassment] in the moment," said its creator, Andrea Gunraj.

Street harassment features in the arts, too. As far back as 1998, American filmmaker Maggie Hadleigh-West, who it is thought coined and defined the term "street abuse", made a feature film that interviewed everyday men about the reasoning behind their catcalls. (You can see five minutes of it here.) And just last month, film student Sofie Peters released a documentary titled Femme de la Rue, which revealed - via hidden camera - the sexual commentary thrown at her as she walked around her neighbourhood. Once online it became an internet success story and Belgium politicians now claim to be drawing up legislation that would fine offenders.

It'll be interesting to learn the parameters of that legislation. Fining offenders would be tricky, because where do you draw the line? Whose definition of offence do you follow? And how can you prove it caused damage, with no visible bruising? Street harassment would be difficult to police precisely because it's so tightly woven into the fabric of society - and old stains are always the hardest to shift. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try.

Follow Rebecca Kamm on Twitter.

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