Why “Hey baby!” is a big deal

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D.C.’s alt-weekly, the City Paper has a package of stories this week on street harassment. One, a catcall diary a woman kept for a year. Two, a very poorly-written essay by that same woman about how now she’s a racist because of all the harassment she gets from Latino men. And three, a piece by some dude who was apparently totally unaware that your average woman experiences street harassment on a daily basis. It also has a companion video, in which exactly two people (a male harasser and a female harass-ee) are interviewed. Taken as a package, it’s a real trainwreck. [Warning, massive post to follow.]
What I found most remarkable about the catcall diary is that she is careful to record what she’s wearing when she’s harassed on the street. While it’s true that short skirts can sometimes bring a different type of harassment, I find that I get unwelcome attention even if I’m wearing dirty jeans and a bulky winter coat. But I suppose it’s nice for those who don’t regularly experience street harassment (i.e. men) to read and take note that a short skirt and low-cut top do not necessarily correlate with catcalls. (In fact, it seemed like the subtext of the diary was: Hey guys, this is what it’s like to walk outside as a woman.) The male writer seems shocked by this. In his piece, he writes,

I am leaving the Chinatown Metro station when I see a blond woman standing well over 6 feet in platform heels. Her tight black dress hangs inches below her ass and drops deep in the front, exposing a good portion of breasts that are surprisingly large for her rail-thin body. Catcall bait for sure. I step in behind her as she walks.

Isn’t his tone disgusting? It’s as if he wants to find a slobbering harasser to channel what he wishes he could shout at this woman. And he’s then astonished when no one — not homeless men, not construction workers, not dudes in power suits, not young men at the bus stop — calls out to her.


The male-perspective piece began like this,

It’s early evening in Adams Morgan, and I’m tracking a nice ass in a pair of bluejeans as it glides down the Columbia Road sidewalk. I’m matching its pace, keeping my distance, 15 steps or so behind, so I can watch, so no one notices I’m watching.

Ew. Set aside for a moment Intrepid Reporter Joe’s totally disgusting, sexist language. Turns out that nice, disembodied ass actually belongs to the woman who penned the other two pieces, Kimberly Klinger. He’s following her to observe just how much shit women take for daring to walk down the street alone. And then he has some man-to-man chats with catcallers. The patronizing attitude of the guys he interviews is quite telling. A sampling:

“It depends on what she looks like,� adds Daniel Smallwood, a 16-year-old in a red polo shirt and a visor turned backward. “If she’s a slut, you have to treat her like a slut. If she’s not, I say, ‘How you doing young lady?’ Everybody says ‘baby’ or ‘shorty.’ I say ‘young lady.’�

And:

“Yeah, I always do it,� says Contreras [a proud street harasser]. He is happy to explain the process. “What I do is I ask how is their day. I ask to help with their bags. I give a nice compliment to her. I say, ‘You are beautiful. Can I get to know you?’� [...]
I ask him about Klinger, the fastball he just whiffed. He’s excited to talk about that, too. “It’s tough in D.C.,� he says. “Especially with white girls. They are stuck up, man. Bitches.�
Contreras thinks it is bad form for women like Klinger to walk by without acknowledging a compliment, to just ignore you like you aren’t even there. It pisses him off. “At least wink at me or wave back,� he says. “Giggle or something. Don’t walk past like you didn’t hear me.� He says it’s different in Texas. He says white women there are crazy about Hispanic guys and yes, they do respond to catcalls.

(Back to the race thing in a second.) Intrepid Reporter Joe’s next question is not, “Have you considered that most women, regardless of their race, do not enjoy being hit on as they walk from point A to point B?” Instead, he asks, rhetorically,

So why the hell do you take Columbia Road home and why live in Mount Pleasant, anyway, if you can’t tolerate a few catcalls?

Maybe because it’s the fastest route to my apartment, you asshole!? Intrepid Reporter Joe is not quite at the point yet where his reptilian brain can handle the idea that maybe it’s men’s responsibility to keep their traps shut; that they don’t have a right to yell at every passing woman about her body.
Then he writes, “Klinger knows the argument about how catcalling is part of Hispanic culture and how she shouldn’t impose her values on others.” I’m sorry, but men of all cultures harass women. And women of all colors are on the receiving end of harassment. In her essay, Klinger writes,

White men don’t do this to me with the same frequency, so when I pass a group of them on the street, I don’t clench my jaw, tense up, and walk faster. But when I pass Latino men, I assume the worst. Black men, too, sometimes, since after Latino men, they harass me the most. Hell, if you’re at all brown, I’m gonna get worried. So I have this conflict every damn day.

Wow. So is this just honest, or totally racist, or both? I can say that, while I’ve most definitely been harassed by men of all ages and races, I feel like I receive more harassment from men of color on the street, and more harassment from white men in bars. Is it racist of me to speak to my experience, that street harassment directed toward me is more likely to come from men of color? I don’t think it is. (But I do think there’s a discussion to be had here.) But I do think it’s racist to make general statements that Latino and black men are harassers and white men are not. I like the statement from this site:

Different people may find themselves harassed more by different people, depending on where they live and specifics of their community. Sometimes some groups of people are outside and in the streets more often then other groups. Think before generalizing.

The folks at Hollaback are sensitive to the race issue, and have an antiracism statement on their site. The one time I submitted a cellphone photo of some guys who had harassed me on the street, they informed me that there might be a wait to see my incident appear on their blog, as they make a conscious effort to publish photos of street harassers of all races. And they explicitly ask that submissions not mention race unless it is somehow relevant to the incident of harassment.
A DC street harassment blogger writes,

I came home Saturday feeling hurt, frustrated and just plain angry at the mess I deal with on the streets. I went to the neighborhood I used to live in, Petworth, to check out Domku and Flip It (the former is a sleek restaurant and the latter a sweet bakery…check them out). I had my path blocked by these men, was followed, had men stopping in the middle of the road trying to talk to me, beeping their horns so loudly that I jumped, had men coming too daggone close on the sidewalk, and calling me names such as “shorty,” “baby,” and other stupid nonsense. The thing that bothers me the most about Saturday’s ordeal with the men on the streets is that all of my harassers were black. It upsets me, makes no sense, and had me getting on the Internet to try to find answers. Why do so many Black men do this mess to me, a Black female, on the streets?

Klinger’s piece doesn’t even begin to do this issue justice. The intersection of race and harassment is a big and complicated issue — not exactly manageable subject matter for just three paragraphs in a flip essay. Which is also why I’m not a huge fan of Jezebel’s take on these three City Paper pieces:

Which is to say, it’s what, at most five seconds of discomfort for a lifetime of funny stories? We have fucked dudes to achieve the same result!

Ok, I’ll bite and play humorless feminist on this one. I, for one, don’t particularly like it when a strange man on the street grabs my elbow and says, “There’s a nice pussy.” (True story. Shudder.) While I do sort of keep a mental catalog of, shall we say, most original cat-calls I’ve received (“I’d climb that tree!”), their cumulative effect is much greater than five seconds of discomfort a day. It’s a reality of life that affects how I dress, where I walk, how safe I feel. Which is to say it’s usually not very hilarious.

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466 Comments

  1. Mina
    Posted June 28, 2007 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    “Then if it is not you, and you think it can be rude, and that even when it is not meant rudely, it can *reasonably* be taken that way–
    “WHY ARE YOU STICKING UP FOR THESE GUYS!”
    Exactly. It’s like when I’ve heard a secular Muslim get offended by non-Muslims criticizing the domestic violence done by some fundie Muslims.
    “Doug S- I would think the best thing to do would be just to smile at her. Don’t go out of your way to do it or force her into eye contact with you or anything, but if you get the chance, just smile. A well-timed, unintrusive, genuine smile from a stranger has made my day many times. Or, better yet, pass that smile onto someone who isn’t a pretty female but deserves it all the same.”
    Yeah, good advice. :)
    “Women do not exist for your viewing pleasure. And if I knew a stranger was smiling at me or saying hi to me because my appearance brightened his day, I’d be sickened. I’m just really sick of guys believing we women exist on this planet in order to titilate them.”
    Um, how does “thank you for doing X” necessarily mean “you exist for doing X”?

  2. SarahMC
    Posted June 28, 2007 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    Um, how does “thank you for doing X” necessarily mean “you exist for doing X”?
    Personally, I think it’s pretty othering. Like, it’s so-and-so’s world and women are just livin’ in it.
    Derek: How are women supposed to know if they’re being cat-called by white-collar guys? These incidents happen pretty fast. I suppose I’ve been hollared at by working-class men in pick-up trucks just as often as I’ve been cat-called by 20-something or teenaged dudes in SUVs. I don’t have any supporting documentation for ya. Sorry.

  3. SarahMC
    Posted June 28, 2007 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    Um, how does “thank you for doing X” necessarily mean “you exist for doing X”?
    Personally, I think it’s pretty othering. Like, it’s so-and-so’s world and women are just livin’ in it.
    Derek: How are women supposed to know if they’re being cat-called by white-collar guys? These incidents happen pretty fast. I suppose I’ve been hollared at by working-class men in pick-up trucks just as often as I’ve been cat-called by 20-something or teenaged dudes in SUVs. I don’t have any supporting documentation for ya. Sorry.

  4. Ann
    Posted June 28, 2007 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    All right, folks. Seeing what this thread has turned into, we’re about to shut it down. So if ya’ll want to say anything more, get it out in the next few hours. Then I’m going to turn off comments.

  5. Ismone
    Posted June 28, 2007 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    I have a question–has anyone ever confronted a street harasser and gotten an apology?
    I have confronted some, but never gotten an apology (although I don’t think that a middle finger would usually generate an apology.)

  6. Rona
    Posted June 28, 2007 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    I was thinking about the issue of street harassment as I walked around Brussels today (a city of people who seem much friendlier than average). At some point, I think what’s construed as harassment can instead be an opportunity to interact with a new person. Obviously, if someone treats you in a derogatory way, that’s not what I mean. But getting a nod, smile, “how are you”, the up-and-down look as you walk down the street is not always unkind. I experimented with this idea, talking to people who contacted me (in a safe area), and met some very lovely folk. If someone feels a reason to contact you, there may be more than vulgarity on their mind, and in that case, deserve respect. The question of how to determine this is of course complicated and case-by-case.

  7. Rona
    Posted June 28, 2007 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    I was thinking about the issue of street harassment as I walked around Brussels today (a city of people who seem much friendlier than average). At some point, I think what’s construed as harassment can instead be an opportunity to interact with a new person. Obviously, if someone treats you in a derogatory way, that’s not what I mean. But getting a nod, smile, “how are you”, the up-and-down look as you walk down the street is not always unkind. I experimented with this idea, talking to people who contacted me (in a safe area), and met some very lovely folk. If someone feels a reason to contact you, there may be more than vulgarity on their mind, and in that case, deserve respect. The question of how to determine this is of course complicated and case-by-case.

  8. Mina
    Posted June 28, 2007 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    “‘Um, how does “thank you for doing X” necessarily mean “you exist for doing X”‘?
    “Personally, I think it’s pretty othering. Like, it’s so-and-so’s world and women are just livin’ in it.”
    OTOH, if someone does me a favor and I thank her or him for it I still don’t think it’s my works and she or he is just living in it…

  9. annejumps
    Posted June 28, 2007 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    OTOH, if someone does me a favor and I thank her or him for it I still don’t think it’s my works and she or he is just living in it…
    Such a person actually did something for you; they were not, presumably, a stranger walking down the street minding their own business and happening to be attractive to your taste.

  10. Doug S.
    Posted June 29, 2007 at 1:47 am | Permalink

    Birds don’t sing to make people happy, but some people like listening to birdsong anyway. If I happen to be in, say, a shopping mall food court at the same time the proverbial vision of loveliness walks by, her reasons for being there have nothing to do with giving me the opportunity to see them, but I can still be happy about what’s nothing more than (from my perspective) a lucky coincidence.
    (For the record, I seem to have a rather idiosyncratic standard of beauty that seems to depend on factors other than anatomy; having a generic “hot body” doesn’t seem to trigger the “gosh, she’s pretty” reaction as much as a wide, friendly smile or a book in one’s hand does.) ;)

  11. annejumps
    Posted June 29, 2007 at 10:21 am | Permalink
  12. Ninapendamaishi
    Posted June 29, 2007 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Rona: I think I used to have that attitude more than I do now, as at least in my experience in the states, trying to have a normal conversation with a stranger on the streets that starts out with them hitting on me inevitably becomes much creepier/results in them trying to ask me out

  13. Ninapendamaishi
    Posted June 29, 2007 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Doug S.: I feel like you’re still making this way too much about you. Like I’ve said, I’ve noticed in my experience guys don’t like being hit on uninvitedly much either. What if the women you find attractive don’t always find you attractive? Then it just puts them in an awkward position, because they have to be “nice” to you. I thought your input into this whole conversation started with you wanting to know how to get dates anyway…

  14. Ninapendamaishi
    Posted June 29, 2007 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    There’s nothing wrong with being happy people you find attractive live in the world. It’s more the commenting on it to them that is questionable (unlike doing you a favor, you’re not talking about complimenting people who are consciously doing something for you, you’re talking about being selectively happy that certain people exist. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with smiling at a person, but if you want to hook up with them that aspect of the compliment will pretty much shine through, no matter what you’re saying. (If not in your tone, humans the world over do the same things with their eyes when they make eye contact with someone they’re attracted to) And maybe you’re missing this, but you’re still focusing more on /your/ intent than on /her/ reaction (and according to you, reactions aren’t usually that good). That’s a little thing we’re all guilty of occasionally, called self-centeredness.

  15. Posted June 29, 2007 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    For the record, the Yankees fan (by his cap) who offered me a ride while I was waiting for my bus? Was white. White-collar, I don’t know; he was, by my guess, in his twenties, and in casual clothing, and his car was neither notably expensive or notably crappy. Is a drive-by “wanna ride?” a cat-call? And does he have to be in a suit to count as white collar?

  16. Posted June 29, 2007 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    I dunno. It was just something I was curious about. No point, really. I am certain that in the history of mankind there has been some some i-banker who has gotten drunk and made lewd comments to a woman on the street.

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