Tuesday, April 7, 2015

I'll smile if I feel like it

I keep a pair of headphones in my backpack, in my purse, in my car… just about everywhere. While I do really enjoy music and podcasts, the headphones serve a different purpose than just providing me with entertainment. I always put them in when I’m walking around solely to avoid catcalls. It’s become easier to drown out the individuals and their heinous commentary, rather than hearing it and allowing it to put me in a bad mood. While I’ve been harassed on the streets more times than I can count, this particular line enrages me every time:

“Baby, why don’t you put a smile on that face? You’d be a lot prettier with a smile.”

Listen buddy. It’s Wednesday morning, I haven’t had coffee yet, and I’ve already been working for 3 hours. I’ll smile if I feel like it, okay? Not to mention, who are you to tell me when I should and should not smile? (Note: Cartoon-like steam is flowing from my ears by now. Sigh).

I hate these encounters but I know I’m not alone. In 2014, the organization Stop Street Harassment conducted a national survey, which found 65% of all women had experienced street harassment in their lifetime. The survey also found that 86% of women who experienced harassment said they had been harassed more than once and around half of these women were likely to experience such harassment by age 17. Additionally, the results exemplified that street harassment is not ubiquitous and disproportionately affects women, low-income individuals, LGBT people, and people of color.

These statistics terrify me. And seriously, what’s the point of catcalling anyway? As someone who has never engaged in catcalling, I actually do not know. While I’ve heard some say it’s a compliment (heavy sigh), most say that street harassment is about power and control, in addition to a manifestation of societal discrimination like sexism and homophobia. It’s no secret that street harassment has always been an issue individuals face and acknowledge – others often tell their own stories of being catcalled and relay various anecdotes relating to stranger sexual harassment, too.

In addition to these personal anecdotes, street harassment has recently become a huge focal point in the media and social campaigns. Organizations, like Hollaback, have been created to give individuals the power to fight street harassment. Hollaback has created an international community of individuals who are speaking out about their street harassment and others who are simultaneously supporting them. With Hollaback, individuals can share their stories with recent encounters of street harassment (and place them on a map) while others can click “I’ve Got Your Back” under each story to show their support. Other interesting campaigns are also taking place, such as the placement of street signs in New York City. More than fifty signs have been placed around the Big Apple and they read “NO Catcalling at Any Time” in a street sign-like manner. The campaign hopes to build awareness and create dialogues surrounding feminist issues, such as catcalling. Cue the applause!

My personal favorite project comes from an artist who has taken to street art. With her art series, she places portraits of women in public places with captions thatspeak directly to the offenders. She notes her project speaks to the issue of street harassment, which affects women worldwide, and puts women’s voices and faces to the issue in the exact place where they often feel uncomfortable. The best part about her art series? It is entitled “Stop Telling Women to Smile.” Seriously, please stop.

While people and organizations seem to be fighting the catcall, unfortunately not everyone seems to be getting it. And even though the media and various campaigns have been helpful in bringing greater awareness to this issue, it’s clear we’re still a long way from where we need to be. Women shouldn’t feel degraded and disrespected from simply walking down the street. And I shouldn’t have to wear headphones everywhere I go to avoid it.

To the man who whistled and called me sexy yesterday while I was riding my bike, did you really think I was going to turn around and come hang out with you? To the guy who yelled “Daaaamn, girl” out of his car window last week, what did that accomplish for you? To the men who tell me to put a smile on my face, do you really think that is actually going to put a smile on my face? To all these strangers, I say: My name is not baby, sexy, or any of the other adjectives you can come up with. I am not outside for your entertainment. And, PLEASE, stop telling me to smile.


Sara said...

I completely agree with your post. Being subjected to catcalling is SO infuriating and objectifying. Whenever it happens to me, I want to tell the person how offensive their behavior is, but I usually freeze in the moment and refrain from saying anything. It probably has to do with the power and control that the person has exerted by catcalling in the first place. I am happy to see the development of organizations like Hollaback, and the emergence of the "No Catcalling" signs to fight these behaviors.

Rebecca F. said...

If only cartoon-like steam really could flow from our ears, it might be nice to relieve some of that pressure. Being told to smile has always been the most frustrating for me as well, partially for the all too common Wednesday morning scene you described (we’re law students juggling a lot for crying out loud). But mostly because plenty of people don’t go walking around with giant smiles plastered on their faces! We’re busy, we’re hungry, we’re thinking about work or school or traffic, or maybe, we’re just not happy anticipating being harassed on the street merely for being women.

I'm with you Sophie - I'll smile if I feel like it, not because some creeper told me to.

Damon Alimouri said...

Catcalling is a terrible thing. Why it is that men tend to catcall more often when they are inebriated? I'm sure that catcalling is a direct reflection of deeply entrenched misogynistic, or patriarchal, attitudes. But, I wonder why that sort of inculcation manifests itself in such a way, i.e. a man hollering at a female passerby. Why not touching? I believe men refrain from arbitrarily touching women because of the political progress women have made in recent years. In most developing nations, men still grab and touch women without consent.

Juliana said...

It's very obviously undeniable how infuriating catcalling is, which stems from men feeling entitled to women's bodies. In my experience, it's really difficult to know how to respond. I've said something back expressing my disgust, and been called extremely insulting names in return. I've also said nothing, and gotten the same response for not responding. Either way, it is somewhat reassuring to see this issue gaining media attention.