As someone who had several summer jobs in New York — foot-messenger (I didn’t deliver feet, I walked), ice-cream vender etc — never mind someone who grew up in New York City and now lives in Washington, D.C., I find it bizarre that anyone needs to argue that cat-calling is real. It is as much a fixture of urban life as panhandling and smoking outdoors. But I gather from Christine Sisto’s piece that even the phenomenon’s existence is controversial. In a world where “microaggressions” are being scrubbed from elite institutions, it is remarkable that it took this long for anyone to make a fuss about this cultural phenomenon.
It’d be nice to know if the practice is more common today than it was in years past. I’m not sure how one would go about investigating that. One data point might help. When I was a messenger, I worked for a company near the Flatiron Building. According to at least one legend, the term “23 skidoo” was born there. Men would congregate on 23rd Street in front of the Flatiron building, to watch the wind blow the skirts of women walking by. The police would periodically tell the men — who no doubt verbalized their appreciation of the female form — to vamoose, or rather, skidoo. Thanks to sartorial advances, the male gaze no longer needs the help of the wind.
Two things can be taken from this story, even if it’s not true that the phrase was born on 23rd Street. First, men have been pigs for a very long time (would that I were more of a classicist and could conjure a similar story about stiff Mediterranean breezes and togas). Second, we used to live in a country where even New York police considered such behavior worthy of, well, policing. Those days are gone, and on the whole that’s a good thing. But it doesn’t change the fact that men are often pigs. That goes for men who don’t catcall either. I wouldn’t dare deny that, on occasion, I like to look at pretty women on the street. But I would never dream of saying any of the things I’ve heard men say to women. Indeed, I can’t see myself ever saying anything at all to such women, and not just because I am happily married.
The video going around has come under criticism for not showing white men catcalling women. It’s a fair criticism, I think, because it’s absolutely true that white guys do it too. Do they do it less? Maybe, maybe not. But that discussion strikes me as a distraction. If white guys do it less in New York, that probably has more to do with the changing economics and demographics of New York. When I was a kid, most construction workers and similar trades were white. Their complexion didn’t stop them from raining “compliments” on female passers-by.
Christine tries to avoid the “elephant in the room” by talking about “socioeconomic status.” She writes:
And now to address the elephant in the room. It’s impossible not to notice that most of the men who shouted at Roberts seem, generally, to be of relatively low socioeconomic status. That’s judging by their speech, choice of clothing, and the fact that they don’t seem to be rushing off to work and have nothing better to do than shout at random women on the street. Most men who have harassed me on the street have been similar in appearance to Roberts’s harassers. It is very rare, if ever, that a man in a suit on his way to work has shouted obscenities at me.
Street harassment may be a side effect of poor urban culture, one that’s perhaps not surprising if you’re familiar with aggressive rap lyrics and videos that depict women as nothing more than sexual objects. Whatever the cause of cat-calling may be, it should stop, but it’s not clear how donating to a charity like Hollaback will help the problem. (What would the money even go toward?) A societal change is needed, one that can start with a guy not clapping his buddy on the back for telling some girl how much he enjoys her assets. Maybe, someday, we ladies can walk to work in peace.