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GAMBLE: Catcalls are not compliments

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It’s officially spring, and you know what that means: strange, degenerate men on the street are going to start asking you to have their babies.

If you’re a woman who’s never had to deal with this type of attention, you’re part of a tiny minority. A survey by Stop Street Harassment, an organization with self-explanatory aims, found that 99 percent of women have experienced leering, honking, whistling, sexist and sexually explicit comments, vulgar gestures and kissing noises.

More than half of all women have also reported being followed, touched, grabbed and having their path blocked, and well over a quarter have been the target of public masturbation and assault.

Despite the overwhelming prevalence of street harassment in the United States, it remains an issue of little consequence for perpetrators. Incidents can be reported and qualified as disorderly conduct charges, but victims rarely linger on the scene long enough for the police to come and take proper action. So the catcalls continue.

One of Stop Street Harassment’s central goals is empowering girls, women, and members of the LGBTQ community by reminding them of their natural-born right to walk down the street safely and securely — something that, sadly, we’re conditioned to treat as a privilege, especially when temperatures and hemlines rise. If even the most basic safety was ensured and, as a result, everyone reported street harassment, thousands of tickets would be issued per day in every major U.S. city.

But we’re just not there yet.

Since summers in middle school, I’ve been weary of walking past construction sites and male-dominated bus stops. Like virtually all women, I’ve seen and heard it all: whistles, minute-long stares, hip thrusts and, yes, requests to mother strangers’ children, among a list of more unspeakable pleas.

I’ve never taken catcalls as compliments, but I’ve also never felt violated upon hearing them, largely because they don’t threaten me physically. At most, the attention is embarrassing, but my comfort is restored as soon as I’m out of earshot.

Maybe this is why I’ve had trouble explaining to the men in my life, who claim they’d be “flattered” to be met with whistles every day, why street harassment is as terrible as it is: I don’t truly understand.

While researching the issue, I read a testimonial by reproductive rights activist Louise Melling in which she detailed her decades of experience with street harassment.

Melling, who is in her fifties, has endured sexual assaults from strangers, a butt-patting boss and whistling male students, situations I’ve never experienced, 30 years her junior.

Even though women’s rights have progressed substantially in the last half century, sexist and sexually explicit comments remain significant problems that are even trickier to obliterate than the outright social discrimination that Melling detailed.

For that reason, each catcall is more than just a comment, Melling explained. “It’s a comment in a culture where I see its effect on me and other women.”

Street harassment doesn’t end when the light changes, the bus comes or the block ends, and it’s not only an indication of our sexist society: It’s a perpetuation. It forces every woman to be ashamed, even if just for a second, about the way her body naturally looks.

“The guys who commented, meanwhile, don’t look ashamed,” Melling said. “They sometimes even grin. That’s all messed up. That’s not the kind of world in which I want to live.”
Changing the world in a week is a tall order, but Anti-Street Harassment Week, which ends on March 24, is devoted to starting the conversation. And the timing (79 degrees in March?) couldn’t be more prime. Keep an eye open and an ear out; you won’t be witnessing anything new, but you’re free to react in a way that is.

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