Eye of the Beholder Part One: Why Do Men Catcall?

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Guest Writer: David Raney; Atlanta, Georgia

Call me male-ish. Men are supposed to like guns, but I’m not really a gun guy. As a boy I wheedled a BB gun for Christmas with the solemn vow not to shoot birds, which I did at the first opportunity. “You’ll shoot your eye out” runs the refrain from the movie Christmas Story, and at least I didn’t do that. But I shot out a bird’s. Stalking the wild sparrow in our back yard, I missed innumerable times before chance brought down a luckless thing from our birch tree, a bead of blood vividly welling where its eye had been. I stood over it dumbfounded until a rap at the picture window jerked my head up and I saw my brother pointing in the dramatic full-body pose we now refer to as J’Accuse! before running off to find my mother and bring down justice. It didn’t surprise me when I read that the last wild passenger pigeon, out of billions darkening pre-1900 American skies, was killed in Ohio by a boy with a BB gun.

Men are fascinated by cars, too, I’m told, and football and fixing stuff, and we’re competitive sexbots, comparing conquests and notching headboards. I don’t really qualify on those counts either, though I can be adolescently competitive in the sports I care about. But testosterone levels aside, here’s my question: Is it possible to interact with people first as humans, and only afterward as men and women? Unless we’ve taken monastic vows, we interact with each other all day: at work and play and school, shopping, dating, getting around. But sometimes it seems less interacting than circling: shy, cocky, avid, wary, desperate for attention, wishing we were invisible.

I’ve been interested in this terra incognita for the better part of my life, as we all have, but lately I’ve been thinking about a certain backwater of the territory that used to be called wolf whistling or catcalling, in our less poetic times “street harassment.” Consigned by cliché to certain neighborhoods, particularly to wharves and construction sites, it’s been treated for generations as a behavioral imperative issued with the sailor suit and hardhat.

Is it still true, though? Whether sexual attitudes and behavior owe more to biology or culture, a debate that’s far from over, this isn’t 1965 after all. Surely gross misogyny is on the wane, like smoking, if only from the pressure of broad social disapproval. Even the word “catcalling” sounds like a Mad Men plot point. But it hasn’t gone away, of course, as half-open eyes and ears will tell you.

I react to women, and if I were homosexual I’d react to men. No one, I think, wants us to stop noticing each other. I just don’t react like the wolf in Red Hot Riding Hood. I’ve never offered a public assessment of a woman’s body or suggested to a stranger what a fool she’d be not to avail herself of my outsized charms. This makes me a paragon of nothing, as I don’t imagine my friends do it either. I know my father didn’t. In any case, who does is less interesting to me than why, and what it feels like. And so I started asking women.

The problem was how to approach a woman at a bus stop or coffee shop without sounding like the saddest pickup artist ever. (“’Scuse me, just wondering, do guys hit on you all the time?”) But I wanted to hear from more than friends or the internet — where, as you’d expect, treatments range from intellectual to comic to incendiary — so at the risk of being slapped or just ignored, I asked.

What worked best, after establishing that I’m a writer, was to ask women if they’d lived somewhere else and noticed any differences in catcalling. I realize this begs the question, but no one ever corrected me. Precisely zero women said they’d never been whistled at or otherwise harassed in public. My unscientific survey suggests it happens nearly everywhere, to pretty much all women, regardless of age, clothing or weather.

Researchers have done some work in this field, though I was surprised to find how little of that happened until recently. The CDC reported in 2010 that worldwide 70-99% of women experienced “non-contact unwanted sexual experiences.” In a 2008 study by StopStreetHarassment.com, nearly 90% of women said they’d experienced harassment by age 19, almost a quarter by age 12. Twelve. Americans, incidentally, have no special claim on this ugly street theater: in one study more than 80% of women in both Egypt and Canada reported harassment, and in Yemen, where women typically go about modestly dressed or veiled, the figure is over 90%.

The women who have been kind enough to talk to me confirm this, as well as the appalling range of misbehavior that can accompany the hooting, whistling, and verbal vivisection. One was biking along a country road between grocery store and home, out of reach of both, when a man who’d been changing a tire pulled up next to her, masturbating, then turned around and drove past again, clearly enjoying her fear. They said this sort of thing started when they were 11, 12, 14, describing plenty of Hey babys, and all manner of unwanted advances. One woman wrote,

It’s hard to explain how invasive it feels. I’ve had my entire house robbed twice, and it doesn’t even approach that hit-and-run feeling. It makes you wary; you shut down.

None of this will be news to your friend, girlfriend, daughter, sister, wife. But it was to me, and the more I listened, the more troubling it got. “Strangely enough,” one woman told me, “the college towns I grew up in were the worst, whereas during five years in Philadelphia, I can only recall one stray comment yelled from a car.” Others spoke differently of Philly, Atlanta, Chicago and every other city I heard about, with two women saying the opposite about college towns.

I’ve spent a good part of my life in university settings, and I think the reason I haven’t seen much of the cat or wolf isn’t that everyone’s so proper; I just haven’t seen it. I’m not the recipient, for one thing, but apparently I’m also oblivious. One woman told me she was repeatedly harassed by a university security guard; another filed a report on campus workers for leering at undergraduates. And it isn’t only 19-year-olds in shorts; a middle-aged woman told me she’d been catcalled near the school while walking in the rain in a bulky raincoat, oversized hat, and umbrella: “I might as well have been wearing a tent.” And then there’s frat-boy behavior, an example being the section of Brown’s campus that a woman told me she avoided because it was known for rows of guys holding score cards, like Olympic judges, as women walked by.

I’m not alone in my density. The discussion “How common is catcalling?” on the site Democratic Underground begins with a woman’s eye-popping six-month diary of strangers leering, making passes and offering offensive comments regardless of weather or dress. A sympathetic reader commented, “Being male, this is not in the realm of my experience — neither as a receiver or a perp. Though I have witnessed catcalling of women on the street, it's not all that common in my neighborhood.” Possibly, but I’m willing to bet it’s more common than his experience would suggest.

You can read “Eye of the Beholder” Part Two here.

About David Raney:

I'm a writer and editor in Atlanta, and I've been fortunate enough to have my pieces appear in a couple of dozen journals, books and newspapers. The latest good fortune was being listed in the Best American Essays 2018.