09/18/2013 02:54 EDT | Updated 11/17/2013 05:12 EST

I Was Groomed to Love Street Harassment

I grew up being catcalled. I was groomed to believe it was a compliment I should enjoy. Though it vibrated uncomfortable, I looked for it on days I felt especially unpretty.

Part of me still looks for it. I was recently downtown wearing a shortish skirt expecting to be catcalled. I had my best glare on and was running through one-liners in my head: "Creep!"

No, I can do better than that: "Commenting on my body is not a compliment!"

Mer. I'm not great with the come-backs. I'll just wing it.

Then... nothing. And I wondered if it meant I'm no longer attractive.

And that's messed up, man.

But it makes sense. When I was young and a dude whistled, there would be smirks from people within earshot, like, "Yeah -- you got it goin' on. And there's your proof!" Or I'd overhear my mom and her friends chuckling with pride over their catcalling stories.

Last summer I was with a group of attractive women in their late forties to early fifties. One commented that this generation of construction workers don't whistle as much as previous generations. Another said, "Yes they do -- just not at old women!" Everyone laughed. And I felt sad.

I've been with couple of friends when one partner is catcalled. The other partner will raise an eyebrow in approval, give an elbow nudge and say, "Nice work, babe!" Because, you guys, catcalling is a stamp of approval, not a problem.


It's only in the last year or two I learned about male privilege and body autonomy.

"I think there is now an recognition, both on the part of women and in larger societal awareness, that there is something strange about that, that this is Not Right. We no longer accept wholesale the idea that our bodies and our lives are free for comment and judgment in the home or in the workplace or in the street. Although this intrusion into our beings does continue, we are now at least cognizant of its strangeness and critical of its very existence." Catcalled: The Cat Calls Back

These days I refer to catcalling as street harassment. I no longer consider it a normal interaction, a stamp of approval or a compliment.

My friend lost it on a guy in a park she often cuts through. Lillie is regularly harassed in the form of catcalls, sexually explicit comments, sexist remarks and leering. Most of the time she responds with a glare or a curt "No thanks!" This particular day she'd had it. Lillie called out the harasser with some well-placed "f- you"s before walking away.

Someone I shared Lillie's story with said they understand her reaction to Park Dude, but they don't think anger is a solution. "Anger doesn't open up channels of discussion and change. Anger breeds defensiveness and more anger. Anger will not move us forward."

Those things are true. But you know what? When a dude is in my space, evaluating my body, opening up channels of discussion and change aren't my main concern. Creating safe spaces to allow for enlightenment don't come to mind when a man is exercising his male privilege to steal my power.

If someone pinched my ass in a bar, no one would bat an eyelash if I got angry. Why is uninvited attention in the form of catcalling any different?

Lillie sent me a text about it, "I think one of the main pieces to this is it feels like there's no recourse aside from an anger response. Any other response I've ever made seems to make no difference. It's laughed at, ignored, judged, made fun of. Anger comes from powerlessness; it's certainly not a preferred response or a response I would be making an argument for."

Powerlessness is key here. Especially when our culture generally continues to see street harassment as a non-issue. Women should be able to enjoy public spaces without being harassed. We should be able to walk the street naked and not be harassed. That's the kind of city I want to live in.

Women are told, not just by men, but by other women to lighten up. "Oh please! Someone whistles at you, roll with it; it's a compliment. Someone thinks you're hot!"

A dude yelling at me in the street isn't trying to make me feel good. He's trying to make himself feel good by putting me in my place. It's not about an inability to take a compliment, you guys. It's about safety and respect. It's about stopping rape culture from continuing to subtly entwine itself through my streets.

We live in a culture where street harassment is normalized. Norms change. I'd like to believe there's hope for this one.

"We used to have different water fountains for people of colour and now we have a culture with our first black president. Who's saying we can't change the culture that has made street harassment okay?" Emily May.

After talking about this with Lillie, I wanted to find an essay I'd read that talked about street harassment perfectly. This essay was the first time I'd heard someone frame catcalling as street harassment. At the end of the piece, the author challenged women to call out street harassment. She predicted this assertion would be met with misongynistic vitriol.

Which is precisely what I aim to avoid. I've spent my life in search of male approval -- even if they make me uncomfortable. Calling out male strangers was unthinkable before I read this post. The reframe was a major shift.

I couldn't find that essay no matter what I threw at Google. But I did find communities like Stop Street Harassment and Hollaback! I discovered there's no Vancouver chapter for Hollaback.

I rallied a group of my favourite badass lady friends and we've been approved for the Vancouver chapter. I'm thrilled about the idea of empowering myself and others to stand up for themselves. To make change in the streets of Vancouver.

Hollaback, yo!

Great essays on catcalling:

  1. Consider the Bank
  2. No, Catcalling is NOT A Compliment, and Here's Why