Let’s say a stranger wants to offer you a slice of cake. Let’s even say they made this cake themselves. It’s their favorite, I bet, the stranger thinks. Even if it’s not their number one choice of cake, I’m sure they’ll love it. Instead of offering you the slice of cake with a simple, “Hello, would you like a slice of cake?” they take a forkful of it and shove it into your closed mouth, saying, “Bitch, if you spit this out, there will be consequences.”
In the event that this metaphor is lost on you, this is what living in a rape culture feels like. The stranger is cisgender heterosexual men who catcall...pretty much everywhere. And the cake, well, those are the not-so-subtle stares, whistles, comments, and other forms of unsolicited sexual attention that girls, women, femmes, trans women, and gender nonconforming people all over the world are expected to simply swallow, with or without our consent.
Catcalling is a symptom of rape culture, a culture in which violence against women is common and widely accepted as the norm. On a global level, rape culture denies its victims of agency—the universal right to act independently and make free choices. Catcalling, accepted by many as just the way things are, is a not-so-subtle way of saying to its victims, “I can do or say whatever I want to you, and you can’t do anything about it.”
Like most people, I’d imagine, I’d like to walk from place to place uninterrupted or simply have a few quiet, solitary moments while waiting for a bus or a train. Not having a say in the terms of engagement between myself and another human being denies me of my right to choose my experience. Certainly, I can “do” something about catcalling insomuch as I can shout back, “Fuck you! Leave me alone!” or offer the debatably less offensive, “Thank you but no thank you, I do not want to engage with you right now,” but most of the time I just keep walking and pretend it’s not happening. I am silent not because it doesn’t bother me, but because I am afraid of the violence that might ensue if I respond any other way.
Every single day that I leave my house to walk somewhere, I prepare for the inevitable onslaught of lewd comments and aggressive stare-downs from dudes on the street. If I am lucky enough to be spared direct affront, I see it happening all around me. I see men’s eyes follow women down the block, I see clusters of men halting their game of cards or jovial conversation to stare down a woman’s body as she is passing by.
I can “do” something about catcalling insomuch as I can stop and engage with these men and say, “Hey brother, I want to let you know that when you whistle at me, stare at my ass as I’m walking past you, or shout things like “Smile, sexy!”, it actually makes me feel really uncomfortable.” At which point, said kissy-face-maker or Mr. Can-I-have-a-sip-of-that-drink-baby might respond, “I didn’t mean any harm by it, sweetheart, I just think you’re a beautiful lady and wanted to let you know!” At which point, I might offer, “I understand that your intention wasn’t to cause me harm, but your impact—despite your good intentions—is that I feel uncomfortable at best and fearful, at worst, especially when you continue to try and talk at me even after I have made it very clear that I do not want to engage with you. I feel afraid for my safety because what you are communicating in that moment is that you get to do and say whatever you want to me, like whistle at me, shout at me, grab at me, touch me, rape me, and it doesn’t matter if I want you to or not.”
Believe it or not, I’ve actually given this approach a try. The man who told me to smile initially seemed surprised that I was talking to him, then confused about what he was hearing, and then, very quickly became angry. I walked away before I could see the end of the conversation through.
I know, I know. #Notallmen. Though I’d love to have the time and energy to give every man who catcalls me the benefit of the doubt and proceed with the aforementioned level of engagement, most of the time I’m just trying to get somewhere without having to take an extra two hours of my day for the three to seven rape-culture awareness sessions with strangers I pass on the sidewalk.
I literally do not have the time to put my moves on pause to educate these people and I have serious doubts about the effectiveness of a one-woman grassroots effort.
I’m tired just thinking about what it would mean to actually commit to talking to men who catcall me about why their behavior is problematic. Where would I begin? “Hey, thanks for the compliment, have you heard of rape culture?” And so, when I am catcalled, my attempts at maintaining agency—headphones blasting, averting my gaze, quickening my pace—feel complicit and disempowered; not only does my silence uphold the norm that this shit is okay, my silence is an act of survival; an effort to protect myself from further harm.
I like to think of myself as a citizen of the world—someone whose behaviors seek to manifest the kind of world in which I want to live. That said, I’ve got to pick my battles. Personally, it’s not my work to be the hall monitor of appropriate social encounters. It is, however, my work to uplift a culture of consent in my own life in hopes that my doing so will extend to my environment. It is my work to help establish a culture of consent — one in which we honor the universal, individual human right to make choices, however grand or small.
Until we acknowledge dysfunction as dysfunction, it will continue to operate as is. Rape culture is sustained when we pretend that it’s not happening; when we make no intentional actions against it, when we tolerate it, when we say, “that’s just how it is.” It’s time for us to start having actual intentional conversations with each other about rape culture and how we all, unwillingly or with intent, participate in it. It’s time we start talking to our friends, family, coworkers and peers about what it means to establish consent culture in our own lives such that, over time, the norm evolves.
It’s time we start talking about catcalling, and letting people who do it know that it’s not okay. If the voices of the people who are catcalled were enough to end the phenomenon, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. Trust me, if we could do this shit alone, it would be done. I can’t make assumptions about the intentions of every man who tries to to talk to me, but I’m not going to put my safety on the line to find out.
What I will do is have these conversations in spaces in which I feel safe, knowing that a man who catcalls is someone’s brother, someone’s uncle, someone’s father, someone’s son—in hopes that they know someone able and willing to have this conversation without feeling unsafe.
Zora Neal Hurston made it clear, “If you are silent about your pain, they'll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” So here’s my part; I’ve said my piece. I can only hope the message gets through to whoever needs to hear it.
Jamila Reddy is a writer and creative producer based in Los Angeles but always in pursuit of magic, wherever it may be. Born and raised in North Carolina, she is thankful for her freedom and likes to say hello to strangers. The intention of her work is to deepen a collective understanding of the complexities of the human experience. She wants to throw your next party. She wants to make you brave.