Is There a Class Component to Catcalls

By now you’ve surely read about, if not watched, the Hollaback video footage of a normal, 30-something woman walking around NYC for ten hours getting catcalled by men. The unwanted attention is astounding, despite the fact that she’s dressed in regular clothes and neither speaking nor smiling.

It brings back all sorts of memories for me, especially one awful pre-ear-bud summer when I was a self-conscious teenager working at a non-profit in DC. I got catcalled every day. All I wanted was to be invisible and instead guys shouted things out of their cars about how they wanted me to “Lewinsky” them, or walked by and said something savvy and sophisticated like, “Tits!”

Once, I had to deliver a package and was waiting outside a door next to a guy who could have played for the Broncos. Another dude walked by and starting calling to me. I turned bright red, terrified that the guy I was next to would think I had invited the attention somehow, or liked it; and yet also desperately hoping that, as he looked like a GI Joe figurine, he might come to my aid. Instead he stood there in silence, refusing to involve himself in my shame. Afterwards I found myself equally mad at both men, and also at my mother, whose only advice on how to handle this continual misery was, “Wear another sweater.”

A few years ago in New York, my path to the office took me past a construction site. The commentary each morning was bad enough that I had to cross the street and walk instead past the early morning putrid smells generated by, of all things, a bakery. What kind of Sweeney Todd nonsense was going on in there? I never found out, but I still chose the vomit-inducing fug over the catcalls, every day.

Now I walk while listening to podcasts and ignoring everything except traffic. That’s my defense mechanism.

But though the dialogue around this video has been largely positive and consciousness-raising (largely), I keep seeing comments about race, or people saying, “Clearly she’s not walking on the Upper East Side [where the rich white people are].” It makes me grind my teeth. Both of the men who ruined my day that miserable August were white. So were the dudes in business suits who harassed me in Bethesda, MD, and in Providence, RI, where I spent a different summer. Walking with my queer friends, I’ve been called a lesbian by Men With Opinions of all colors and creeds.

There might be some class or cultural element to some catcalling. But the real issue is the degree to which women who are less privileged to begin with have to deal with even more harassment.

Street harassment disproportionately impacts women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and young people, the group says on its website: “Although the degree to which Shoshana gets harassed is shocking, the reality is that the harassment that people of color and LGBTQ individuals face is oftentimes more severe and more likely to escalate into violence.”

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