When I first saw the Hollaback “catcall” video, showing the harassment experienced by Shoshana Roberts as she walked through New York City for 10 hours, I was disturbed.
I wasn’t disturbed by the unwanted, incessant and often aggressive intrusions into her day, like I should have been, however. No. My knee-jerk reaction was to be offended for myself.
It’s not that I had ever engaged in “cat-calling” or forced myself aggressively into a woman’s personal space after being told to leave. I had, however, at various points in my life, engaged in some of the behaviour I was now being told constitutes harassment.
I had, in my younger days, plucked up what I thought was the courage to walk up to a stranger and “compliment” her in hopes that an opportunity would arise for me to ask for her telephone number and “take things further”. I thought, at the time, that I was the one who was vulnerable. I was the one opening myself up to rejection, after all.
“How can anyone suggest that introducing yourself to a woman on the street and paying her a compliment is even in the same ballpark as sexual harassment”, I thought to myself. “I’m all for feminism but this is just taking it too far.”
But that’s the thing about knee-jerk reactions. They’re rarely a response to what is actually being said and almost always an emotional reaction to seeing your comfortable self-image crumble before your eyes. None of us can fully escape our social conditioning and in that video, I saw a complete rejection of the juvenile identity I had been holding onto in the hopes of stemming the inevitable tide of self-pity that accompanies growing older.
So my shattered ego and I decided to reflect on the untimely death of my most cherished delusion. I read the responses of women to the video. I listened to their stories. I found myself piecing together unacknowledged female narratives and trying to understand the lived-experience of a woman living in a still-too-patriarchal society
It’s unlikely that any of the men in the video will ever pay the slightest attention to studies like the one published by the United Nations General Assembly reporting that 22% of high school students and 32% of college students in the U.S. claimed to have been victims of dating violence and an astounding 83% of girls attending public schools in grades 8 to 11 have experienced some form of sexual harassment.
Far from being an inherently American problem, a research report published by Professor Donna Chung and the White Ribbon Campaign reported that, since the age of fifteen, 40% of Australian women reported at least one incident of physical or sexual violence, 33% experienced inappropriate comments about their body or sex life, 25% experienced unwanted sexual touching and 19% had been subjected to stalking. Another survey, conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission, reported that 25% of women aged 15 years and older have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the five years previous.
As most of us receive this information with a shake of the head, express the required level of disgust and get on with our days, women are paying much closer attention.
Women are noticing the fact that our culture’s sporting heroes are subjected to the mildest sanctions for committing horrific acts of violence against women. In the U.S., when it was found that American Football coaches were encouraging violence against opponents, the sport’s governing body immediately issued an indefinite ban against those involved. When, however, it was discovered that a star player had assaulted his girlfriend, knocking her unconscious, the immediate response of that same governing body was to ban the player for two games. Again, this is not just an American problem. Similarly shocking acts of domestic violence committed by Australian footballers have warranted bans amounting to a mere two-thirds of a season. It’s unlikely that these facts are informing the narratives of the men in the video.
And before we absolve ourselves from any responsibility for the degenerate moral values of these psychotic thugs, take some time to consider the utter banality with which sexism and misogyny are accepted and normalised in our society; a banality that makes the denigration and objectification of women a frighteningly rational attitude to possess.
The success of last year’s biggest selling song, after all, was predicated on three fully clothed, middle-aged men dancing around a group of almost-naked twenty-something women and spouting phrases like:
“you know you want it”
“you the hottest bitch in this place”
“I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two.”
Ours, it seems, is a culture in which a popular rapper who brags about “buffaloing hoes” and releases a single concerned entirely with sexualising female buttocks, can show up weeks later at the side of Elmo on Sesame Street to teach pre-schoolers the meaning of the word “astounded“.
“Stop, drop and pop it
And after you pop it, please put it in my pocket
Look here, I need a sponsor, we can turn the city out
You remind me of my drop top, titties out“
(Thank you Sesame Street for unintentionally providing the perfect illustration).
Again, in case you want to place the blame squarely on those “uncultured” Americans, the co-rapper who on the same track, offers such lyrical gems as:
“I like bad bitches in the club that control it”; and
“Don’t interrupt me when I’m talking to the booty”
is the same rapper that “mentors” young and aspiring singers, toward industry success, on one of Australia’s most popular prime-time television shows.
Women are fully conscious of the fact that ours is a world in which a woman expressing concern at the difficulty faced when accessing birth control is called a “slut” and a “prostitute” by one of America’s most popular radio personalities. The same individual, a mere two years later, was named “author of the year” by the Children’s Book Council.
It’s not just overpaid and under-talented entertainers who engage in this type of recreational misogyny. Our country’s own illustrious leader is a veritable suppository [sic] of douchebag wisdom:
” a woman’s virginity the greatest gift she could give her husband,“
“this idea that sex is kind of a woman’s right to absolutely withhold, just as the idea that sex is a man’s right to demand I think they…both need to be moderated“.
“[abortion is an] objectively grave matter [that] has been reduced to a question of the mother’s convenience.”
Ours is a leader who strategically places himself under signs calling his country’s first female Prime Minister another male politician’s “bitch” and reduces the merits of his own party’s female candidates to their “sex appeal.”
Even more concerning is the fact that he can do and say all of these things prior to being overwhelmingly elected to lead the country.
And while many commentators describe incidents such as these as ‘amusing faux-pas’ or ‘a bit of harmless fun’, most women know better. They are noticing these trends and using them to inform the reality with which they must contend and it’s a reality distinctly different from that which exists in every wannabe Prince Charming’s self-absorbed mind.
Far more potently than exposing the harassment that a woman is forced to endure for simply walking down the street, the plethora of trivialising and condescending responses to the video reveals how easy it is to dismiss as irrelevant an experience that doesn’t accord with one’s own.
Men take for granted the fact that we rarely have our personal safety in the forefront of our minds, that our choice of clothing rarely impacts upon the dignity we are afforded and that we are not judged almost exclusively on our ability to satisfy a particular patriarchal aesthetic.
Our apathy is working wonders to vindicate the anxieties and confirm the disturbing reality of the female experience.
A reality in which, again and again, entertainers who apply condescending and derogatory labels to women are applauded and awarded; invited into our homes by doting talk show hosts complete with screaming audiences and without a single challenge to their destructive artistry.
A reality in which our sons, at younger and younger ages, are encouraged to value sexual promiscuity as a badge of honour and find peer approval predominantly through their sexual domination of women.
How any woman is expected to ignore the casualness with which her oppression is being perpetuated and refrain from incorporating it into her world-view, is beyond me.
If men can take something constructive away from the controversy surrounding the “catcall” video, it’s this: stop taking personal umbrage at the rebukes of a woman who refuses to subject herself to uninvited attention. Your emotional energy is better spent trying to understand the lived-experience of a woman living in a society which continues to celebrate women as objects of adornment or, at worst, passive objects of men’s violent sexual desires.
If this is a bridge too far for most, then perhaps simply shutting up and listening to what women are saying will have to suffice: despite whatever noble intentions you believe your uninvited advances are designed to convey, they make women feel unsafe and uncomfortable and they want you to stop.