The Reality Of Sexism: Why Catcalling Is Dehumanizing


My friend and I stood in Union Square last week and cried. I realized a pain inside of me that I rarely acknowledged for fear of being told I was overreacting. I told her my sex had become an insecurity. I felt anxious every day, and I lacked confidence for something I couldn’t help.

I felt as if all eyes were on me at all times, judging me to the point of criticism -- because I was a woman.

I feared being told I was irrational. I feared being told I was insane. Instead, my friend revealed that she felt the same way. Our confirmation of each other’s feelings was enough to drive us to tears.

We stood there together, under the lights of the stores nearby, at the foot of the stairs towards the subway station, and just cried.

It’s paradoxical: Neither of us wants to be a man, and we don’t feel trapped in our bodies. We both desire to love and to be loved by a man, and we both desire to be mothers one day. How could our sex, then, ever become an insecurity?

We exchanged stories. I told her I had a feeling it first started when the catcalling began. I was 13 when I sat in the passenger’s side of my mom’s car as an older man walked by in the parking lot, pursed his lips at me and kissed the air before smiling with his lip curled up.

When I acquired my first part-time job, male customers repeatedly told me to smile. They commented on my personal appearance, insisting I was “too pretty to work in a grocery store.”

One customer stayed longer; he told me he was sweating from looking at me, that I made him breathless. My smile was “killer,” and he said he’d have to come by more often just to look at me. He appeared to be 40; I was 17.

On my first driving lesson with my father, a group of young men in a car pulled up beside us on the highway. They rolled their windows down, called something sexual out to me and laughed. My father fumed, and I sat there humiliated.

When I was a florist in college, men leaned against the flower counter, dropped a tip in my jar and then commented on my physical appearance and inquired about my relationship status.

When I received my license and drove alone, I maneuvered the highways some nights to avoid the honking and the catcalling of the men my age that shared the road with me.

On my first internship, a much older employee at the firm I worked at stopped me outside to comb my hair behind my ear, kiss my cheeks and invite me to drinks.

When I studied abroad in England, a man chased me and repeatedly inquired about my relationship status. He didn’t leave me alone until I rejected him repeatedly and fervently.

After my first major job interview, my interviewer followed up not to talk to me about the job, my qualifications or my GPA, but to tell me he found me attractive.

When I moved alone to New York City, my worried father insisted I live in a quiet neighborhood in Queens to be safe. I had my ass grabbed walking down the sidewalk. Another man screamed at me to say “thank you” and called me a name when I didn’t reply to his call of, “You’re gorgeous."

When I went out dancing with my friends, three men refused to leave me alone when I declined their offers to dance until a male friend pretended to be my husband. Each of the three men apologized fervently to my “husband” and shook his hand. Not a single one of them said sorry to me.

My neighbor in my apartment building told me I must have been good at my job as a teacher because “[I am] beautiful.” Why else would the kids listen to me? I had more stories for my friend; I could have told her the disgusting, persistent staring I endured often on the subways. I didn’t mention the coos of “sexy” and “oh baby” that had become a part of everyday life.

I didn’t tell her of the sexual assaults six of my friends and loved ones endured and how not one of them reported it because of the shame, humiliation and pain associated with the experiences.

My friend’s stories were strikingly similar to mine. She had the tales of the harassers under the guise of protectors, professors, bosses, leaders, acquaintances and strangers. She had the stories of the men who chased her in Washington Square Park in broad daylight to harass her for her number.

Every single one of these experiences has eaten away at my humanity, as each and every single one these experiences involved being seen as a “female” before being seen as a genuine human being.

As I walk the streets today, continuing to live my life in the best way I know how, I carry this feeling with me. So much of the world sees as me as an object. That truth has been reiterated in my experiences over and over again. It is just as painful as it is humiliating.

I can anticipate the responses others might have to this. Many will likely turn their attention to me: Who am I? How do I dress? How do I behave? What have I done to deserve this?

Some might ask, how could I possibly know so many women close to me who have been the victims of assault and rape? Are they not being safe?

I will refrain from discussing my personality and those of my friends because it is irrelevant to the issue. I would recommend that no one but my friends, family and colleagues comment on my character and my virtue.

Beyond that, it is important to recognize that the law is not in place to protect a person’s virtue. It’s in place to protect a person’s human rights.

Regardless of what anyone would think of my behavior, being consistently objectified in public is a violation of my human rights. Regardless of what anyone would think of the character of my friends, assault is a serious crime.

Others might doubt my stories: What right-minded man would possibly dare to touch me? Who would seriously chase a woman down a street?

My harassers knew no color, creed, socioeconomic level, neighborhood or age. Some were certainly mentally ill, but most were not. They were right-minded, and it happens more often than many of us recognize or acknowledge.

It’s not unheard of, so it should not be doubted. One in three women will experience workplace sexual harassment. One in four college-aged women will be raped. Some statistics point to over 90 percent of women experiencing street harassment in their lifetimes.

I’m sure some will take this personally. Many men might immediately come out and argue that I shouldn’t be upset, as all men are not like this. I know all men are not like this. My father is not, nor is my brother; the majority of my colleagues are men and they are not like this.

In fact, the majority of men I know are good men. They are good people; they are my friends and no right-minded woman doubts the existence of good men.

But insisting that there are good men is irrelevant to the problem. The existence of good men does not negate my many negative experiences.

Furthermore, when I express that I am upset over sexual harassment, I am not making a blanket statement against all men. I am making a statement about a violation of my rights. Claiming “there are good men” or that “I am against men” both undermines my experiences and ignores it.

Still, others might insist I have no reason to be upset, as I have all the rights in the world: I can go to work; I live alone; I make my own money; I travel freely; I wear what I like; I’m free to marry whomever I choose. Women have come so far. Get over it, they might say. It will always happen, and I should take what I have and be happy.

So long as the prevalence of sexual assault and rape remains, I will never get over it. So long as I am continued to be humiliated and objectified in public, I will never get over it.

I refuse to accept that I am overreacting to being so upset by every single incident that has attempted to undermine my humanity. No one should feel as if he or she should accept being harassed every day. No one should feel as if he or she must “get used to it.”

It is not acceptable behavior. Harassment is a deliberate expression of power that is meant to undermine a woman’s confidence and free will. It is a deliberate act of condescension. It is illegal; it is wrong and I should never have to get used to it.

These are the remnants of sexism, still permeating strongly throughout our society. Sexism reveals itself when people are defined by their “sex,” rather than their humanity.

If you want to know why I am a feminist, it’s because I don’t believe anyone is anything before he or she is a human -- that belief extends to women and men.

I want to make this clear: Sexism, objectification and sexualizing happen every day. It’s an obvious problem that needs to be addressed and spoken about with honesty and frankness. It is a problem that is standing in the way of meaningful relationships between the sexes.

Listen, love and learn. Sexism is still here, and it’s still painful.

Photo Courtesy: We Heart It