Every Monday, I have the pleasure of studying at the American Antiquarian Society in a history seminar with seven other students from various Worcester colleges. The Professor, visiting from the University of Kentucky, proves one of the leading authorities on the experience of New England African Americans during the 18th and 19th centuries. Last month I handled a handwritten manuscript dated from 1677 and became so overwhelmed by the breathtaking beauty of a document that old I started to tear up and had to step back from the artifact table. This semester, I’ve discovered the Antiquarian Society is my haven, Monday the best day of the week, and quite frankly, I feel that nothing can touch my level of happiness on those glorious afternoons.
Well, almost nothing.
Each week, we spend the first half of the seminar in one building for lecture, then cross the street to the Antiquarian Society to spend the remainder of class with access to their rare holdings. In my experience, the street we cross—sandwiched between several cross streets and intersections—stays consistently busy. Though only a double yellow line separates the two lanes from head on collision, drivers tend to travel well over the speed limit. Typically, it’s only with exasperation that people slow to allow my classmates, instructor and I an apologetic dash across the street. Two weeks ago, traffic separated our small seminar group, with me, another male student, and the professor stranded on the wrong side of the street. After several seconds of unsuccessfully trying to slow cars by stepping off the curb, a driver rapidly decelerated his vehicle to let us cross. As we walked in front of the car, deep in discussion about some part of the lecture, I absentmindedly waved thanks to the driver who stopped. In response, he hoisted himself out of his window, and screamed at me, “you’re looking BEAUTIFUL today, honey!”
I’ve been catcalled in zoos, Toys R Us, Target, on my way to give presentations, and while hurrying to my car at night, to name a few instances. I’ve been catcalled by men who used the same language to demean me when I was a 7th grader and when I was a college junior. I’ve been catcalled while wearing loose-fit sweatpants and a sweatshirt, and in the dead of winter, whilst donning a thickly-padded winter jacket that extends below my knees. I’ve been told I should smile, that my body is an object, that I am a “pretty girl.” One memorable occasion, when a man double my age screamed an invitation that I sit in the back of his parked car, I snapped, and screamed, “I don’t know you.” My outrage earned me the attentions of his friend, who yelled that he hoped “I choked to death on that pizza” I was eating. I’ve been catcalled alone, as I walked with a group of friends, whilst enjoying time with family members, and now, with my professor during a seminar. Which really seems one for the books: I got catcalls from a stranger as I walked with a classmate and one of the most brilliant professors I’ve ever had the privilege to study under. Really, the experience proffered a new degree of humiliation associated with the experienced victimization of catcalls. The irony of my story feels palpable: while quite literally advancing my intellectual capacities, a much-older man, a stranger, digressed my stature to the way he thought my body looked, and in such, reduced my worth to a subhuman nothingness.
The motivations behind catcalling are, in essence, eerily voyeuristic: a person derives sexual interest from the appearance of another, and, in yelling obscenities at them, hopes not to entice the victim as a potential mate, but to accrue their shocked, angry reactions to gratify the perpetrators own sexual fantasies. Catcalls are neither deserved, nor defensible under any pretense. If victims wear short skirts or if they wear snowsuits, catcalls are no more or less justifiable. Those who do catcall do not deserve the explanatory protections that cite gender, upbringing, or the absence of positive male role models in their lives as the motivations behind their harassment of other humans.
The more I hear and record the stories of other women about their experiences being catcalled, the less I see my situation as an unfortunate circumstance and more as the engineered cannon of patriarchal society. One of the most shocking instances of catcalling harassment I’ve heard actually occurred directly adjacent to our own campus. In the interest of this woman’s privacy, I’ll refer to her as simply “my friend”. My friend loves to run. She played soccer and ran track in high school, and maintaining an athletic, healthy lifestyle remains a tenet feature of her self-care. She loves to run, and she’s great at it— fast, light on her feet, with the necessary internal motivation and discipline to carry for miles. Last year, on one of her runs, she was catcalled while rounding the corner by the 7/11 just down the street—the one across from the Pentecostal church and next to an Elementary school. As she ran, a man older than her father rolled slowly past in his pickup truck, and screamed obscenities at her from the lowered window on his passenger side. Seated next to him on his front bench seat, in the crossfire of his violent words, sat two little children, both under the age of six. This story was one of the most disgusting instances of harassment I’d heard, until that same woman detailed her experiences being catcalled as she walked down Caro Street her freshman year. Men in one of the off-campus houses saw her walking alone, and started to scream invitations, encouraging her to come up to their floor. When she did not respond, the invitations became increasingly aggressive and sexualized in nature. My friend yelled something along the lines of “that’s not how you get a girlfriend,” at which the men threw empty glass beer bottles out their window, towards her. She ran— not for her love of running, but out of fear for her safety.
As a double major in History and English, I very much believe in the power of words to create or dissuade terrible violence. When we teach women to accept catcalls in the interest of her safety, we do society a double evil. I call for a system that squelches the patriarchy-fueled machismo and misogyny that allows catcalls to remain a feature of our society. I demand we do not ascribe the offense of lewd, derisive, and denigrate comments as something to uncomfortably “laugh off,” but that we recognize and hold people accountable for the violent effect of their words. I call forth you, those in the process of higher education, to challenge the societal neutralization of catcalling behavior as “better than physical assault” for its failure to recognize the same origins of violence acts and violent words. It was catcalls, and a society that passively permits catcalls, which preceded those glass bottles thrown at my friend.