Opinion: Calling out the catcallers on the streets and in the classroom

On and off campus, street harassment perpetuates a dangerous dangerous sexual culture; we need to confront it head-on

Content warning: sexual harassment and sexual assault

In the age of #MeToo, activists have spurred a surge in awareness of the realities of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Despite the movement’s success, the culture surrounding sexual harassment has largely remained the same – at least in my experience in Nashville and at Vanderbilt. It is especially obvious when one considers verbal street harassment, more commonly known as catcalling.

It happens everywhere and often, whether it’s a Friday night while you’re waiting in line at a bar or a Tuesday afternoon on your way to CVS. I and most of my female friends have either become desensitized to the shock of this behavior or we’ve come to accept it. Maybe it just happens so often that it would be exhausting to react to it all the time. That, however, does not mean it’s acceptable.

To illustrate the point: one study found that over 99 percent of women have experienced catcalling or some form of street harassment. Most women first experience street harassment as young teenagers, but they continue to experience it throughout their lives, to the point where it almost feels normal.

This summer, when I was walking with a friend down 14th Avenue near Belmont, a neighborhood road, a man in his truck – in broad daylight – yelled, “Hot mama!” from across the street. Unfazed, or at least pretending to be unfazed, we ignored him and kept walking, and he drove slowly in sync with our pace. He kept yelling, “Mama!” until my friend finally responded with, “What!?” And he drove off, laughing. Although we found the incident more annoying than frightening, it sticks with me because of how uncomfortable I felt in that moment.

catcalls are, fundamentally, not compliments. They are unsolicited and unwanted.

Despite affecting so many women, the severity of the problem of street harassment is often questioned. To belittle women’s experiences, people say that men are just bad at expressing themselves, that they’re just trying to offer compliments. The least we can do is have the decency to say “thank you” or to “smile, sweetheart.” Right?

Wrong. The thing is, the “Hey, sexy!” and two-syllable “Day-umn!” are not compliments. They indicate possessive attitudes and offer no flattery. They embody the idea that public spaces belong to men, and, when women are present in those spaces, their bodies are automatically the property of men as well. As such, men can offer critique and commentary toward these bodies. This is why the majority of women report feeling “uneasy, angry, and fearful” when catcalled: catcalls are, fundamentally, not compliments. They are unsolicited and unwanted.

“Well, look at what she was wearing. She knew that she had it coming.” I heard these exact words come out of a Vandy boy’s mouth in an elevator after a Friday night out. Why would a girl wear makeup or wear fitted clothing if she didn’t want to draw attention to herself? She must be begging for men’s attention, yet she yells harassment when she gets it. Here’s a thought: women dress up to express themselves, to feel good about themselves.

We tend to think of Vanderbilt and its students as progressive on women’s issues. Before coming to campus, every student is required to take the Safe Haven modules, which specifically address sexual harassment and sexual assault. Yet, even among a highly educated population that has specifically discussed these issues, harassment is still a problem. It’s not just men in trucks trying to make us feel unsafe – it’s the men who live on our floors, who go to the same parties and who sit next to us in class.

At the end of the day, street harassment seems like a minor nuisance considering that crimes against women can get a lot worse. The thing is, street harassment is much more than a few brief remarks. It perpetuates the idea that women don’t control their own bodies because they’re subject to men. Rape culture, and the normalization of sexual assault that comes with it, is fundamentally built on this idea. So, while a catcall is not a physical attack, it reflects the same sense of entitlement over women’s bodies that could easily lead a man to commit one of the acts so often described by VUPD in our inboxes: “Security Notice: Sexual Assault.”

So, next time you want to express appreciation for a woman, don’t “Hot mama!” her. She’s not “hot mama”-ing for you, or your friend or that other guy over there either. She’s “hot mama”-ing for herself. And you don’t need to remind her.

Klara Lou is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Science. She can be reached at klara.k.lou@vanderbilt.edu.

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