Why “Hey baby!” is a big deal

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.’�


“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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