Upending the Pain of Catcalling: A 2-year mental & structural life shift

Are you so sick of catcalling, as a woman in a city? Are you over it yet?
If not, a big hand-squeeze to you. A wonderful lady community I’m part of is contemplating this issue again this week, and in my experience this shit totally sucks and is very definitely also not your fault. After struggling with this hard for a long time, this is my personal story of a major shift in perspective. Once, a friend asked me, “What are you going to do if none of this is any one enemy’s fault?” That question really got me thinking – and this exploration is no doubt a part of that answer, 2-year exploration, & result.

The context

I’m 29, white, female, a Midwesterner living in San Francisco, Calif. for the last 5 years. I have the unusual privilege of grandmothers on both sides of my family who were lucky enough to undertake formal education (one great grandmother did too), and the unusual unprivilege or other attribute of not being from the US coasts or major cities.*
For years I was really troubled by what on earth would cause someone to cat call, and felt deeply disturbed every time it came up. When I sat down to capture my experience this week, I noticed that where a paragraph made sense, pages poured out.  I feel compelled to share my experience, because 2 years ago I would have died for someone to capture and share theirs. In the last 2 years, though I could never have predicted it, I notice that some things have very significantly shifted for me, such that the experience no longer feels traumatic the way it once did.
Maybe that could shift for you too.
This is the story of how that took place for just one person.

My original experience in cities: Catcalling is the effing worst.

Three years ago I would routinely find myself at home, affected for weeks, after even one experience of being hollered at on the street (in San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, New York, El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Dublin, Barcelona, or countless other US or European cities in which I’ve worked. I can’t recall ever having a problem in Asia). Traveling abroad so much for work has added quite a dimension to this reflection — but alas, that’s for another time.
Regardless of the city, the street, the setting it happened in, I literally just couldn’t handle it — I got so angry, disturbed, and sad, often tearful, one or two times heaving with sobs in a friend or partner’s arms about how I just couldn’t escape it.
In SF, I’d be walking around Powell station with a female friend during lunch hour, and a 16 year old boy would come up behind me and press his body into mine, whispering greedily “Lady, lady, come home with me,” and grabbed my hip. Ew, no, tiny teenager. Not OK. I’d be walking home from 25th and Bartlett through the Mission, and a 40-year-old man would lean out of the truck he was driving to whistle and scream. I’d be walking home from a friend’s weekend Burning Man fundraising dance party near the Armory (wearing a disco skirt and general space-themed garb) and a guy would start moving rapidly toward me, shouting from a side street something about my legs. (The black male friend I was with would say, hey, if that happens again, let’s run – I feel like I need to protect you but I don’t think there’s any good that will happen with us getting into a fight.) (I said dude, it’s not your job to protect me on the street. You take care of you and help me figure out what the H we do about this on a larger scale.)
If these moments of surprise themselves were hard, they actually weren’t the hardest. The worst part came afterward, the hangover of the catcalls I could never quite figure out how to anticipate, respond to, or better manage.
After long periods of contemplation, I remember identifying the two worst parts, the two absolute worst sensations about why I couldn’t get rid of the fury/anger/fear/disruption after every time it happened:
  1. That, in response, I did nothing;
  2. That, ultimately, there was nothing I could do.

These were the epic fucking hangover of catcalling, that followed it like a pendulum set in new motion, every single time.

What worse thoughts are there, or could there be? For me, these were the ultimate disempowerment. The thing itself, OK. But coming home afterward and sitting in my house holding my head in my hands, ruminating on these two things, was the. absolute. worst. Dude friends, albeit well-intentioned, didn’t understand. Women understood way too well. The men I knew and loved couldn’t explain or relate to the men who cat called, and felt immense discomfort around trying to empathize with the caller’s perspective. If I got mad and made a side comment, it could ignite a whole night’s debate about whether it was “fair” for me to mutter, “I AM SO SICK OF MEN.” It was all a distraction and travesty, because really “men” weren’t my problem. Something else – the disempowerment and confusion? – was, but at the time it felt impossible to respond to and even harder to name.

My original handling

In the beginning, I sought something “to do” during the interaction itself, but could never find something that felt genuine. Friends of mine went through Lutheran Volunteer Corps’ onboarding, which trains its (often female) American new grads to work safely in cities, often in neighborhoods needing direct service and case work. Their method was to look the person in the eye and say assertively, “Show some respect.” I shared this method with friends, some of whom did it, and reported lots of good results. But for some reason the words never found me in the moment. (After years of feeling quietly guilty / insufficient about this, a friend of mine shared that in times of perceived attack, our nervous systems actually frequently freeze — so it’s literally brain / body science trying to keep us safe, not some failure of our strength of character of humans that we sometimes can’t muster up a response in person. What a relief.)
So– what to do? I’m tall and also curvy, and without a direct interactive solution, for years I found myself quietly and often unconsciously taking my shape & appearance as the most empowering medium to manage, sabotaging my own appearance with things large and gross (maintaining terrible skin compulsively, as a shield against projecting too much female power, which I less-than-consciously suspected might be attracting attackers outside the workplace, and which also felt like it helped deflect malice and competition inside work — another story) to subtle (always, always wear leggings and never dressing up when going out when I have a boyfriend). Perhaps as a feature of psyche it’s worth noting that without a boyfriend, dressing up felt like a sometimes enjoyable and frequently necessary risk, to maintain my feeling of worth and wantability even when not actively seeking out a “romie” connection. (I still cringe thinking of those influences in my life, and still, of course, sometimes find them sneaking back into my habits and psyche, particularly when I’m in the US).
What was the net effect? I wore a hoodie. I wore flip flops. I wore old, old t-shirts. I sported the messy bun. Every day was sports bra day. I would not have worn yoga pants in this stage, because they were too shapely. I Didn’t Care. It looked “feminist.” It really wasn’t coming from a place of empowerment, though it did have its benefits (extreme physical comfort as the slight relief for extreme uncertainty discomfort). It was a minimally-conscious deliberate response to this latent fear of violence, and to deeply and badly wanting NOT to feel the two ways above, just in case something happened. While this may or may not have had any effect on the occurrence itself, it did also help address the worst two parts of the hangover: making me feel like there was something I could do, and that I was doing it.

The paradox of dress – and managing your appearance

Truth be told, this was not *really* a full-scale solution, since in reality many days where I was dressed the most casually — pajama pants and an old t-shirt running to the store, for example — I’d actually get hollered, barked, jeered, yelled, or leered at the most. This shocked the men in my life, many of whom still sort of believed it was related to engaging/attractive dress, which perhaps I can’t blame them for as consciously, I did too. At the time this “dress down and be a target” dynamic shocked me too, but also probably created in my subconscious a ‘zone of appropriate dress’ for me which is SO much less based on expression or choice of authentic garb and so much more based on avoiding this zone of fear. It’s a narrow space of safety that’s left over — avoiding “too much” adornment at the top, yet also being sure to avoid the bottom end of “not giving an eff.” For me this became a 10,000-hours skill in 2 years of waking time as an adult living in a city (7 days a week * 16 waking hours daily * 52 weeks a year = 5,824 hours a year).
An odd side effect of the dress thing is that it’d go in phases. Every year or so (January) I’d go through a long period of no street comments. I’d hit the new year, be like, this year — no more!, get an awesome/funky new haircut, and sometimes pair some great new garb with it to match. The effect at work was astounding; managers would always comment (postiively), even a week after a shift like this, that they remember the old me wearing grungy flip-flops, and how much more professional and awesome this new change was for me.
Of course, this edged on triggering the same outside fears as catcalling, in a roundabout way. So in a matter of months or less, I’d quickly be like no, that’s not a good idea — better to go back to the grey area than deal with these dynamics of others’ engagement with my appearance in ways I have no idea how to respond to.
Rethinking this, I’m reminded that in college, as head of student government, I’d routinely meet with the president of the college with one or both of my (white male) Vice Presidents. From the very beginning, in a joint meeting, the college president would routinely look at them instead of me. Looking back, I’m perpetually aghast with myself, for so frequently wearing the bizarrely informal red flannel pants + red sweatshirt + knockoff Uggs around campus in the snowy winters, with a ski jacket and scarf, and not changing before meeting with essentially the head of our whole institution. But as I reflect on these effects, I realize that some part of me got a lot of peace out of at least “deserving” to not be the speaker acknowledged or looked at during conversations in a working space that truly was mine to lead.
Perhaps this is the opposite bookend of catcalling — that the mushy grey space that’s safer from street harassment is also, simultaneously, perhaps even relatedly? – a grey space that will guarantee you discredit and non-deservence in the workplace. You can fly under the radar. For years of skillbuilding and early career-ism, I used this grey space of appearance to avoid raising the hackles of my (totally fairly!) ambitious female colleagues and to fly away from the radar and political/relational tangle-gym of unwanted attention from male colleagues, which crumbled each year fairly regularly after I let the grey fall away, only to create yet another really “good” (again, disempowered, fear-based) rationale for stepping back to the margins, continuing to operate from the outside in, avoiding my power in order to get enough done to build skills and a new kind of influence & authority, but always from outside the screen door of natural interaction, whispering, gently knocking, and tiptoeing my way in.

Something cracked

Perhaps the good news is that today, I feel like I have strongly cracked this (or am well on my way to cracking a new reality) through a lot of reading and probably a lot of other work, too. Healing from and gently opening / restoring where other adjacent traumas existed has opened up an immense amount of space (as meditation can and, for me, almost always does). I never anticipated I would feel this differently about it. I remember months were I starvingly gobbled up friends’ stories on their Facebook feeds and mailing lists about what’d happened to them this week, what they’d tried to do about it (or wanted to do but felt to afraid to have done), what it all felt like, what they were terrified would happen or would continue to happen, all with no option. We Google Reader-binged on articles on How To Dress At Work, nailing that perfect Ann Taylor Unremarkable and Perfectly Fathomable sweet spot between blending in ideally to the background while also not raising the hackles of female leadership and HR-commissioned workshops on “how to dress appropriately for work without attracting too much attention.”
Among many sad or weird articles, there were some wonderful, empowering finds.
The best thing I ever heard on Facebook was from a brilliant, strong, powerful, awesome, compassionate lady friend, who after being catcalled two days from a construction site near her work, strode over to the men, said a variation of “Shame on you!”, asked to talk to their manager, and when he wasn’t available, said she’d be back tomorrow to talk to him. The next day, the manager was waiting for her outside on her way to work. She said he apologized and took complete responsibility, and gave her his personal commitment that it would never happen again without dire consequences and that those involved had been put on probation. To my knowledge it never happened again. Years later, she (a total badass) works as a COO in a construction-oriented startup. The gender dynamics there aren’t perfect, but I’m moved by her prior experience of standing in her power in this kind of an environment, and definitely wonder if that helped and helps her feel more at home working as one of the few women in the management offices of the same field today.
There was a video series of moms in, I believe, Peru, who went undercover to walk by their sons on the street, until their sons called out to them — and mom took off her wig to tell them what’s what.
Then third, probably the best things I’ve done for my own relationship with my body are through a rockin’ intensive support campaign I am still amping up to this day. This has included:
  • LOTS of meditation;
  • Yin yoga (which refocuses you accountably on really feeling the sensations arising in your body, and releasing into those – instead of judging them);
  • Getting an effing amazing therapist who I paid to listen and feed back on this kind of issue WITH ONLY ME in mind, so nothing needed to be held back and EVERYTHING was fair game for discussion, troubleshooting, reflection, without worrying about anyone else’s thoughts or opinions; (everyone deserves this, by the way — I was certain that did not apply to me, but it does and if you wonder if it applies to you too, it freaking does so go get a therapist or comment if you’d like help and I will help you or find someone who can);
  • Yoga teacher training in Vinyasa style (which took weight and fog off my body that I’d been direly clinging to for years, making me totally uncomfortable but also safely holding me in the same period);
  • Being single for almost two years deliberately to walk my own path, writing as constantly as possible, learning to value my own solitude, practicing LOTS of self-reliance and taking care of every aspect of my housing & sustaining my own city lifestyle, finances, relationships, and career;
  • And totally transforming my relationship and understanding of men.

This last part happened through a few different experiences. Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s documentary The Mask We Live In is something I recommend to every woman and man in the universe, ideally to watch with someone of the opposite identified gender and discuss your surprises and horrors. One of my deepest reshaping experiences across gender lines was Travis Sigley’s workshop on platonic cuddles / human touch, a vast lightning bolt of new insights and energy about the barriers that scare ALL of us away from intimacy. And adult summer camp, sans any alcohol, work, booze, social hierarchies, technology, or posturing. Living this way for 4 days with counselors everywhere creating a fundamentlaly different society showed me what is possible in microcosmic human relationship and experience. Once you see that kind of thing, like how some people talk about drug trips or amazing travel, you simply can’t forget or unfeel it.

Along that path, I was able to learn to trust and hold my aperature of belief open juuuust long enough and far enough that I’ve found a wonderful Enormous Human Soul of a partner who is empathetic but ultimately does not create space for these old ghosts, lovingly but constantly reminding me that bodies are beautiful through his constant smile and enjoyment of aesthetic expression that brings us to life. He compassionately reminds me, as we have lots and lots of romance and non-controllingly celebrate how much we love each other’s outsides and insides, that loving limits are the totally appropriate right response to other people’s controlling of our bodies – which is definitely worth resisting to avoid cutting us off from the deepest part of ourselves (and those who *do* love us in a way that makes us free). Because that is what is important. Fucking catcalling is NOT what maters most.

When did things change?

I’m not sure when my felt transition happened, but today I either don’t get cat called as often because of this mindset shift, or because I am just not noticing as much. (Or because the dynamics of SF have changed through gentrification, which no doubt has introduced its own host of dynamics that create invisible boxes for women, among others). Either way, I’ve enjoyed a much more positive life experience around catcalling, starting somewhere in the last year or so.

So what changed? Ideas that helped

As I mentioned, personal practices and the resources above have really helped. But if there’s one thing I read that gave me a new storyline and perspective on catcalling itself, it’s Walter Wink’s theological study The Powers That Be. In it, he describes an experience from the South African experience with Apartheid, where on (illegal) visits in the ’80s to teach nonviolent communication and organizing workshops, he spent a lot of time with families in their homes. He recalls that if the white police came to the door of a house where a peace group was meeting, the family would say “The System is here” — not “the police are here.” At first he was amazed. But then he noticed that, in studying how to resist apartheid, they began to see that the forces influencing the interaction weren’t the white police themselves (the individuals) but instead the whole system. And then instead of staring dumbfounded at the individuals, they started asking more of, “What has the system promised these individuals, what has it taken from them, and with what has it threatened them?” (my interpretation.)  This allowed them to get more space from the individuals and to actually take action in response to the system itself — the root cause / driving force — rather than provoking, wasting energy, or losing cycles in painful interactions with the individuals performing the system’s roles.
When I apply this to catcalling, another excerpt from Wink’s the Powers that Be struck me. I begin to wonder, what IS the system of catcalling? What role is assigned to the catcallers in the larger system? What are they getting out of it? What are they trying to get out of it? What would be harder for them if they stopped? What reactions are they looking for from me (either with hope or disappointment) from these interactions, what’s driving those, and why?
Wink’s theory of the origin of power systems (more theological than empirical) is that once the wheel was invented, tribes had a new way and incentive to loot one another’s villages. Nobody cared to loot when you had to carry away the booty by hand. This new ability to loot created a massive incentive for “someone” to organize a BUNCH of looting, and to assemble the booty somewhere remote, then sitting on all of it and being a fat, rich, dragon king.
Wink argues that with this invention, greedy men with wheels conceived of the original business case / compelling promise of patriarchy: That if they wanted to become dragon kings sitting on a bunch of looted resources, they were going to have to get a lot more men to do the looting and wheeling-around of all the conquered goods, and find a way to motivate those other men to ransack other men’s resources and power.
The fear of being ransacked themselves was one really good way for the Dragon King hopefuls to get fellow men listening. But in order to be put in charge of “keeping the men safe” and thus guarding/owning all the collective gold, those seeking rulership had to trade their equals something in order to justify this new psychological dominance over them. They henceforth very creatively invented the subjugation of other classes, so that they could trade the men new power (over others) for giving up power over themselves. Women and other visible minorities were continually subjugated in a domino effect of this trade. It was a sick kind of Pareto optimality that relied on declassifying women / minorities as humans in the Pareto equation, perhaps because they are 1-10% biologically less susceptible to fight or flight versus tend and befriend, and it kicked off centuries of patriarchy, subjugation, etc., that are all codified in subtle ways, still within our system today.
Whether it’s empirical or narrative, this vignette really helps me.
With this idea of Wink’s “The System,” I can now choose to look at street harassment as one structurally disempowered party clinging miserably to the false promise of “power over” another structurally disempowered party.
With this view, I recharacterize “this man” doing the catcalling (whom I frequently realize is often demographically often socioeconomically disadvantaged and cast out, or trying to prove something to the patriarchy’s system of other men exclusion/inclusion) has had his power taken from him by The System in this goofy, false, betraying trade. This has cost him almost everything, and continues to, which is very painful. But the myth of the system is that its one benefit is that he gets power over others. He has MANY reasons to disbelieve this and frequently sees this false promise disproven. However (in sometimes sadness/isolation/desparation), he halfheartedly experiments to see if this is true by hollering at women passersby as a weird last-ditch hope. Half the time they don’t give a fuck, and he’s back to confusion and dystopia of being so cast out and yet pretty much f-ed economically and socially in this main faceless system. Sometimes it does temporarily work, which is probably like a shot of adrenaline when someone reacts in any way.
But in every case it’s about power, not about actually wanting to connect… at least with the person he’s shouting at.
That’s the thing that most baffled me before. I just *couldn’t understand* how someone would think that hollering at a passerby was actually in any way a promising prototype of how to feasibly engage romantically with someone else, which is (on the surface) what seemed to be the motivation.

Conclusion & connections – how it all most certainly intersects

Ultimately, conceiving of “the System” brings me peace, probably because it quells this instinctive desire I have to give someone helpful feedback (even a catcaller) when the way they’re going about an honest aim is actually causing more problems and isolating them further from their goal…. and also scaring me at the same time.
A recent article suggested that this “system” too is governing the dynamic between Trump’s willingly-racist white lower/middle-class populist followers, and the black and brown faces they believe their “birthright” is to be given dominion over – because otherwise it would be appalling, death-demanding, soul-crushing, the OPPOSITE of emancipating, how horrifying and absolutely outrageous it is that they’ve given up *so much of their personal power* today to the absurdity of the almost-fascist US ruling class.
I’m poeticizing this a bit.
But Walter Wink and the South African resistance to apartheid — these traditions have really made me think.
* – a bit more on my background: I’m learning as I grow up that the culture I grew up in is relatively communal, family-based, car-centered, time:slow, wholly wage-funded, populationally stable (few people or demographics of people ever come or go), hardworking, individual emotion-deprioritizing, chronically polite (sometimes to the point of dysfunction), with mid- to low-quality public schools and almost no concept of capitalism in terms of wealth accumulation, but some poverty, mostly intergenerational. Most who obtain very good education now leave for a major city, though we didn’t grow up in one. Perhaps this informs my perspective.

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