Friday, August 22, 2014

Caterwauling About Catcalling. . .

This article, provocatively titled Hey, Ladies--Catcalls Are Flattering! Deal With It, by Doree Lewak, a writer for the NY Post, has been making the rounds on Facebook and generating a lot of conversation.  Some people think it’s a joke, satire a la the Onion, others agree, but the most vocal group seems to be utterly enraged and contemptuous.  While I don't think ladies should have to just "Deal With It", I don't think the rage and contempt that's being directed at this piece is reasonable either.  Of course, unwanted male behavior can be threatening and uncomfortable; however, I think one key point the author makes is the distinction between relatively tame compliments (enjoyed) and x-rated lewdness (inappropriate harassment).

Meanwhile, the comment section is distressing, with many questioning her mental health or asking her how she'll feel when one of those men rapes her. The author is expressing a personal opinion; she identifies opposing opinions, but does not make a value judgement.

Instead, she carefully delineates why she does not experience catcalls in the same way, and explains what actions she takes and reactions she enjoys as a result. Is the enjoyment of a little PG-13 rated exhibitionism and titillation really that deserving of our contempt? How is expressing outrage at this significantly different from slut-shaming?

In the text of the op-ed she never addresses how she thinks other women should feel, just how she feels. The worst jab she makes is at the "sanctimonious... young women of Vassar". I take this in the same usually playful spirit as articles that reference "patchouli-soaked hippies at Oberlin", i.e. not that seriously, and she's not in fact telling them they should get over catcalling and enjoy it, just that they shouldn't roll their eyes at her for her enjoyment.

Really the most unreasonable part of the article is the title, which generalizes, and is the only confrontational part: I wonder if she wrote it, or if that's a little tabloid-style treat NYP added to rile people up and generate traffic (in which case, it worked!).  Then again, put this in the context of the titles and topics of some of Lewak's other journalism [some titles truncated[: "Nudists Fight Nude Beach Ban By Getting Naked", "Best Celebrity Tweets about 'Sharknado 2'", "Can You Spot a Gold Digger", "Mother Daughter Duos Party Until 4am" etc...

Denizens of the internet: have you ever dressed to impress and solicit male (or female, though that's obviously different) attention and comments?  Or is all catcalling categorically bad and attempts to solicit it a sign that people weren't loved correctly as children?

Postscript Added: I've never catcalled, aside from people I know, and I think cat-callers need to be cognizant of how they are perceived and respect peoples' boundaries (which should almost always result in nothing being said). That said, once you take the title off, the editorial is composed almost entirely of "I" and "me" statements. It doesn't tell other women to "get over it", say "you should enjoy it", or that it's "not a big deal", though I'll admit it's troubling when she asks "What’s so wrong about a “You are sexy!” comment from any observant man?" Obviously, there can be plenty wrong with that. One could also ask the over-arching question of why this op-ed is necessary at all, particularly in a culture where most men think they have a free-pass for bad behavior, and it's possible this was intended purely as click-bait. But I also don't think anyone who actively enjoys attention when dressing-sexy should be vilified for expressing that opinion, and that's the gut reaction I'm seeing most.
Additional Postscript Added: I've heard from a number of people who didn't want to comment on the blog that there are other issues with this op-ed and that there are in fact several places where it's prescriptive to how other women should feel and the ethics of street harassment:

"The wolf whistles that follow will send your ego soaring."
"It’s as primal as it gets, ladies! ... It’s not brain science — when a total stranger notices you, it’s validating."
"What’s so wrong about a “You are sexy!” comment from any observant man?"

The latter I caught, but in context with the others, they put the piece in a different light.  Still, I largely wanted to discuss this, not because I agree with Lewak's assessment or what she's advocating, but because of the comments that followed the piece, many by woman (or posters using female-gendered profile names) suggesting that she'd be singing a different tune once she was raped, or even that she that she deserved to be raped for encouraging the catcalls: to me that gets dangerously close, or is nearly identical to the "if she didn't want it she shouldn't have dressed that way" line.  That seems a worse than the article, though to be fair, the article has significantly farther reach. The other side, of why this article should not be celebrated and does not add to a positive discourse about this topic has, fortunately, been captured in some more nuanced posts in the comments board under the article.  The best of which I've seen was posted by "Alexis":

“I think that unfortunately for those who can appreciate a less aggressive catcall, myself included, giving up small moments of flattery to set a standard that protects ourselves and other women from the potential for harassment should be a small price to pay. It's all about consent, after all, and we need to establish standards for behaviour where consent for the many is not assumed based on the actions of a few.”

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