While walking to class last Thursday, I heard an unfortunately recognizable whistle familiar to so many women. Nevertheless, I kept walking — face forward, body language unflinching, gait unchanged. I refused to give the men behind me any sort of sign that I heard them, any sort of recognition or validation in their gross objectification.
This isn’t the first time it’s happened to me, and chances are if you’re a woman reading this, you’ve encountered numerous similar experiences. Eighty-four percent of women will be catcalled between the ages of 11 and 17. We get used to this early on.
Traditionally, my tactic in this situation has simply been to ignore. Once again, chances are if you’re a woman reading this, you’ve done the same and continued steadfast on your way.
We need to change that.
I regret my unresponsiveness. I was in a public space on a college campus surrounded by people — it’s the safest environment to speak up. Ignorance in this situation may be interpreted as acceptance, and women found long ago equality and respect isn’t always charitably handed to us. But because catcalling is more of a fact of life than a shocking event, many women’s reactions are habitual.
It shouldn’t be a woman’s job to teach men when they’re being sexist. It's an emotionally laborious process to explain misogyny, and it often feels dehumanizing to have to establish your personal autonomy. But it’s nonetheless necessary. Maybe if we speak up when this happens, we can decrease the consistency. Maybe one unexpected reaction will make the perpetrator think twice about catcalling in the future. Maybe choosing to actively handle the situation can dismantle a tiny pillar of the entitlement underlying the action. It is a process, after all.
That’s not to say speaking up is always the best course of action. Disregard is the safest option if you’re alone, it’s dark outside, or any other possibly compromising situation. Safety is always the primary concern in such a setting, as there’s always fear of excessive retaliation or sexual violence — especially from someone who already feels so aggressively entitled.
And to the men who think that just because they personally wouldn’t catcall it’s not an issue: this happens frequently. Before you take the moral high ground and consider yourself an ally, ask yourself what you do when you witness catcalling. You often don’t have to worry about retaliation like women. Take an active role rather than pat yourself on the back for decency. We shouldn’t have to do this alone.
Catcalling is often more obnoxious than dangerous, but it’s nevertheless threatening. Even if speaking up doesn’t entertain a productive discourse, it at leasts asserts a level of autonomy the perpetrators weren’t expecting. Perpetrators need to reconceptualize their notions of gender hierarchy, and chances are if they’re still doing this it’s going to take more than theoretical discussion. Maybe the fear of public humiliation will overcome the need to assert entitlement. We’ve got to hit them where it hurts: the ego.
Vernon is an anthropology and rhetoric and writing junior from The Woodlands. She is a senior columnist. Follow her on Twitter @ _emilyvernon_.