Catcalling, explained for people who have never been catcalled

Back in October of 2014, this video stirred up some discourse about harrassment and public comportment:

The video features a sampling of the 100+ catcalls that a woman received while walking around Manhattan for ten hours.

It’s probably not surprising to any of you that I support gender equality in business and pleasure, but I think this discussion is about something bigger than just “women’s lives suck and it should be obvious why.” In particular, my friend J brought up something really interesting: he pointed to that video and asked how much of the catcalling therein was unreasonable (and, by extension, assuming the worst catcalls were chosen for the video, how many of the catcalls that didn’t appear in the video were unreasonable).

Here’s the thing, though:

None of it is appropriate.

Of course, some of the language and behavior itself is inappropriate. But I imagine those incidents in question are the ones where the inappropriateness doesn’t stem from the language. That is, there are cases in which a catcall sounds like a normal thing that you might say to a friend: “Hi,” “Hello,” “How are you doing,” et cetera. And in these cases I can see how, on the literal level, the catcall doesn’t seem intrusive or instigating.

There is, however, a difference between when your friend says hi or compliments your appearance and when a stranger on the street does it.

Allow me to back up for a moment—all the way up, actually, to affirmative consent. The essence of affirmative consent, as we typically hear about it, is “yes means yes,” or “don’t engage in sex without obtaining the explicit permission of your partner.” The purpose is affirmative consent is to make sure all parties are comfortable with what’s happening in this relationship. Therefore, the idea of affirmative consent can be abstracted away from sex specifically and used more generally to denote the necessity of consent in any situation that deepens or closens a relationship. With this more general idea of affirmative consent in place, we can examine how a catcall violates it and why the same words, coming from someone else, might not.

Here’s the thing about a catcall. When you receive one, you only have two choices:

Option 1—Respond positively (‘thank you’ or smiling): The catcaller interprets this as consent—as “I like you/let’s keep talking/I want you to follow me,” even though it’s not. Allow me to draw an analogy to an experience that I’m almost positive you’ve had before: encountering a member of an advocacy group on the street. They say “Do you have just a minute for human rights?” But here’s the thing. If you say “yes,” you know it’s not “a minute for human rights.” It’s several minutes, and probably also your credit card number, at this exact time that you did not get to choose at all, for an issue that’s actually far narrower than ‘human rights,’ and may even be an issue you need to think about, and don’t feel prepared to take a stand on just yet. Or maybe you’re just in a hurry. But at any rate, now you’re unhappy. Why? Because the advocacy person asked you for one thing, but if you agree, s/he interprets that as your consent to something significantly bigger than what s/he asked for. So you hate receiving the request. And if the requesters’ presence doesn’t make you feel guilty, it at least makes you feel extremely annoyed.

Now imagine if you were in that situation, but you also didn’t know exactly how the requester was going to behave. We know the drill with the advocacy people, and though they’re annoying, they’re not unsafe. Not so with catcallers. Yeah, most of them aren’t gonna do anything unsafe. But the consequences of them doing something unsafe are so high that, even though the probability of it is extremely low, the product of the consequences (an extremely high negative number) and the probability (an extremely low positive number) is still a negative number large enough to make the logical behavior an attempt to avoid that kind of encounter. Which is where we’re going next:

Option 2—Respond negatively/don’t respond: In either case, suddenly I’m ‘a bitch.’ I am judged for refusing the smaller thing was asked of me (like a smile or a thank you), and not the actual, bigger thing that the person wanted from me (see above). This is like when you walk past an advocacy person and they say “Oh, you don’t have one minute for human rights?? You must be suchhhh a bigshot.” How would that make you feel? Now again, imagine that you were in that scenario, but there was a small-probability high-cost scenario in which the requester attacked you for being a bigshot. Not the greatest feeling.

And when you put the above two options together, you see that, no matter which course of action the recipient of a catcall decides to take, said recipient is forced into a deeper relationship with the catcaller: whether s/he responds positively and therefore encourages the catcaller not to leave her alone, or she responds negatively and now the catcaller knows him/her and knows him/her to be a bitch/bigshot, as opposed to not knowing that person.

Compare this to when a friend greets you or compliments your appearance. In those cases, the friend is either a) requesting nothing more than a return greeting (almost never the case with catcallers), b) trying to start a conversation that you want to have, in which case, have it, or c) trying to start a conversation you don’t want to have, in which case you can normally turn them down in the meantime without garnering any kind of reputation in their mind as a giant bitch.

So, how do you approach a stranger without being a catcaller? Sounds like a dumb question, maybe, but it preys on the mind because some of the normal things you might say in polite conversation can be interpreted as catcalls, as we know from the video. A catcall is any kind of verbal ejaculation that makes the recipient feel at risk, and normal, polite greetings aren’t a safe bet. So, what the hell are you supposed to do?

Tough question, and this is why: everybody gets to set their own risk tolerance. The would-be greeter doesn’t get to set it, society doesn’t get to set it—the recipient gets to set it, and they can set it wherever they want. On average, women’s risk tolerances fall lower than men’s, and that’s for a variety of reasons, but it is an individual choice. So you don’t know, when you approach someone, where theirs is set.

Stuff I have found useful in making this judgment:*

*DISCLAIMER: I am a petite white woman. My experience with approaching people will be different from those of someone who doesn’t have all three of those qualifiers because all three of them skew lower on most people’s riskometers than their alternatives. No, it’s not fair. I know. That said, I’d be interested to hear the experiences of other people on how to gauge and respond to strangers’ risk tolerances. Others, especially of different demographics to mine, might have something different to say from experience on this topic than I do.

Okay, on to the list:

  • If someone is walking, especially quickly, they are going somewhere and most likely don’t want to, or don’t have time to, be approached right now. This is clearly not a universal rule. We are dealing heavily in probabilities here.
  • If someone is heads-down in a cafe, working or reading, they also probably aren’t all about being approached right now. This one you can check by sending a note and then leaving. The note can be as simple as your name and number. The note, plus your absence, frees them up to look at the message on their own time and then, if they want to, contact you later.
  • If someone is at a party, networking event, or conference*, they are in a place designed for meeting people and probably do want to be approached. EXCEPTION (hence the *): some conferences use a button system in which people wear red, green, and yellow buttons. Green means “come talk to me,” yellow means “only come talk to me if you are already my friend,” and red means “nobody talk to me.” Once again we see the distinction here between friends and strangers, despite the fact that each might approach a person the exact same way.
  • People’s risk tolerances tend to be lower when they are in deserted areas, in the dark (outdoors), or alone. They tend to be higher in public places and during the daytime.

But the point here is to recognize and respect other people’s risk tolerances. Just because you don’t agree with someone’s assessment of risk, doesn’t mean you can’t respect it.

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