By now, we have all seen the Catcalling video that went viral a few months back as a woman walked around New York for 10 hrs with a hidden camera. She received over one hundred instances of unwanted male attention. Yes, I am calling it unwanted male attention and not catcalling because one of the largest criticisms of the video is the idea that most of the men in it, were simply being “nice”. Some were most definitely instances of catcalling as I would define it: pointing out a woman’s features in a sexual or derogatory way “God Bless you mami… Damn!”. Catcalling can also mean an obvious attempt at objectifying: “I just saw a thousand dollars” (as she walks by). Others were simply a form of intimidation and possible minor stalking as one man followed her for more than 5 minutes.
Unwanted male attention is something which many women live with everyday and I do want to acknowledge the inherently cis-gendered and heteronormative aspects of this post and this subject. But what does unwanted male attention mean to me? Not only is it the obvious inappropriate comments, the catcalling out of cars but more commonly and some times more problematic is when these men are “nice” and “polite”. By no means do I believe that you cannot trust the actions of all men as they inherently bad or that all men are just acting polite to get laid. Furthermore, I want to stress that not all men participate and do unwanted male attention and that some women are just as guilty as some men for dis-empowering women and men around them through things like catcalling. What I am saying is, there is a difference between being polite and wishing someone a good morning when entering an elevator or what have you and ending with that, and when a stranger who happens to be a man goes out of their way to call attention to you (read: a woman) or be intrusive. The worst part of this kind of unwanted male attention is the thought that women should be grateful for it and that women ultimately want to be complimented. Our sexist world says it is okay to make a woman feel incredibly uncomfortable because of unwanted male attention then expect her to not only acknowledge your “compliment” but to say thank you. Even in the catcalling video, one man points this out clearly: “What’s up, beautiful. Somebodies acknowledging you for being beautiful, you should say thank you more!”. Thank you for further making a woman feel uncomfortable while just walking down the street? Of course, some critics of the video have voiced the prevailing thought that all women love to be called beautiful. Sure, women like to be called beautiful, also intelligent, independent, funny, charming but don’t men like to be called that too? Ohhh, sorry I mean handsome because guess what? Our gender system means that beautiful and handsome are highly gendered terms which mean very different things. Men do not get catcalled nearly as much as women because men enjoy a certain privilege within systems of patriarchy. Men don’t feel the need to catcall other men and most women don’t feel the need to catcall men. It’s a difference of power, not biological difference.
Catcalling is not the only instance of unwanted male attention that women experience daily. I myself experienced two different kinds of unwanted male attention in one night recently. I write these experiences in this post because I want to illustrate why women feel so uncomfortable with unwanted male attention in multiple ways and why being a “polite” man is simply not appropriate sometimes.
1) I was at a friend’s housewarming party and the night was going well. I didn’t know a lot of people there but I was making friends and all was well. Eventually, some people were starting to have a little too much to drink (as is their prerogative). I end up with a group of people in my friends bedroom just chatting and hanging out (read: there was nothing sexual at all happening) when a man I had just met that night grabbed my wrists and started to pull me to the bed. He was drunk. Yet, his vise-grip on my wrists and me saying no and resisting being pulled to the bed made him pull harder. There were people there and I was sober enough to be able to out maneuver him. His friend justified the action by simply saying he’s drunk… it happens. This level of unwanted male attention is rare but not as rare as we think and that is something which women are constantly reminded of. The fear of rape is huge because it happens all of the time.
2) At the end of the night I took a taxi home by myself. When the taxi arrived, the man driving took many opportunities to dis-empower me by consistently calling me Girl. Lets be clear, if you are in a friend group and there is an spoken or unspoken agreement that Girl is appropriate to call each other, cool, all the power to you. Between absolute strangers, who’s power imbalance is incredibly different, it’s not appropriate. The constant use of Girl made my vulnerability even more prominent as I was alone with a strange men, taking a taxi (which he was driving) alone at 3 am. Let alone he kept saying things like: “Hey Girl, it’s okay, trust me Girl, I’ll take care of you Girl”. At one point he called me sweetheart while he was asking some pretty invasive questions. I felt so dis-empowered and vulnerable that I was kinda afraid to tell him to stop calling me Girl and I was afraid of not answering his questions. This is an instance of “politeness” which is wrong because whether intentionally or not, this stranger made me feel incredibly powerless. He also forced me to take his number: “if you need anything at all, Girl”.
I bring up these examples to show how unwanted male attention is not about women being ungrateful or not know what they want but its a issue of power imbalance. It’s a way for women to feel more objectified, powerless and vulnerable in a world which already shoves in our faces that we could be raped or murdered any minute by a stranger or someone we know. There is a line between being polite and courteous in public, which does not include physical force, intimidation or unwanted male attention.