The first time I was catcalled, I was a fresh sixteen, and my first reaction wasn’t anger, embarrassment, or rage, but utter confusion. It was in my hometown’s downtown where my sister and I had gone to meet our mom for lunch; it must have been a half day at school, probably for midterms or a holiday or something. We were just outside the old market building, on either North Beaver or North George; it’s odd how clearly I remember it. I think it was spring time.
My sister and I were wearing out school uniforms, those itchy layers of cheap polyester that are the particular burden of generations of wearers, yet remain mythical in the realm of creepy men’s fetishes. This was not the uniform of movies–short shirts and fitted blouses and whatever else directors dream up–, but a uniform dictated by the strict [sexist] dress code of my high school. I had sweaty socks hiked all the way up to my knees, and my pleated green “kilt” (every day for 6 years, people) hung low on my long legs, grazing just an inch or two above my kneecap. I wore clogs. I remember the specifics of my outfit so distinctly, because the modesty created my confusion when it happened, when a pick-up truck sped by and a middle-aged man with one arm out of the window leaned out farther, yelled “Nice legs!” and drove away.
My first reaction: confusion. “Nice legs?” I had approximately one and a half inches of legs on display. “Display”–it can hardly be called that, even. My cheeks brightened and grew hot; I don’t even remember what I said to Caroline.
Why do I remember the specifics of that instance so clearly, over seven years later, at the age of twenty-three, when the instances of public harassment, comments, and catcalling have become too numerous to even name or remember? I’ll wager it was because it was the first time it happened, and you always remember your first time, right? With that instance, with that gross dude shouting at me as he sped off in his truck, as I looked at my sister embarrassed but mostly confused, I was introduced (ie: forced into) the reality of being a woman in public space, of the sheet, chronic exhaustion that a female body begets. We put on armor every time we leave the front door. The street is often like a video game to be navigated. We enter the door at work and wonder if the leering eyes of that one coworker will be on us that day. We know we’ll be told to smile.
I know that all women have these stories, and so I reached out on Facebook and asked people to share them. The response was incredible, and here are the answers I received. Sexual harassment is real, and it happens every day, and the fear of it and its consequences permeate female life. As Margaret Atwood says, “A man’s biggest fear is that a woman will laugh at him. A woman’s biggest fear is that a man will kill her.”
ON THE STREET
“I was abroad in South Africa and it was hot, so I wore a sundress. I walked to the local coffee shop and was shouted and honked at more times than I could count. A cop car even slowed down to catcall me. By the time I got to the coffee shop, I was shaking from fear and completely in tears. The fucking cops. Who would have protected me if it had gotten dangerous? I never wore that dress again. I’ve also been cat-called wearing everything from leggings-to-the-ankle to puffy winter coats. It doesn’t fucking matter.”
“I also get people yelling stuff out of their cars at me while I’m on my way to work since I wear dresses and skirt to work. And a lot of guys tell me to smile when I pass them on the street. It just happened again Thursday actually, so I’ve started wearing headphones everywhere I go so I can’t hear it.”
“If one more man tells me to smile on the street, I’m going to lose my fucking mind. This is my face. Tell that dude to smile, why don’t you?”
“When I was abroad and walking to school when a man STOPPED HIS CAR while driving to pull up beside me and shout out the window at me — totally frightened me and I was even afraid he might follow me to school.”
“After living in the city of Philadelphia for a year, my gut instinct was to yell back at catcallers with some version of ‘N-no, don’t talk to women you don’t know like that’ until a guy got mad and chased after me calling me a ‘fucking bitch’ and a ‘cunt.’ It was a Sunday at noon, and there were other people around.”
IN SCHOOL/ THE WORKPLACE
“I just started my first job after college and had been working really hard on this project. When I was asked to go to the client meeting to explain what was changing and field any questions, I was extremely excited. I go to the meeting and the first thing the client asks me is if I could get him a cup of coffee. He thought I was an assistant because apparently it’s too difficult to imagine a woman engineer. I have never been more embarrassed and it really ruined how excited I was for the opportunity to be a part of the meeting. I just wanted to curl up and hide after it.”
“When I had my first internship at 17, I was working as a marketing and sales intern for a company that my neighbor worked at. He got me the job and one day called me into his office to compliment my dress and offer me a website for free porn. I am not only friends with his daughter but he also is very close with my parents. Needless to say, I don’t really speak to him much now. I only recently told my parents about the incident.”
“I bought a new pair of shoes and starting wearing them at work. One day a man at my work pulled me into his office as I was walking down the hallway and began to tell me (all while standing very close to me) that he had noticed my new shoes and wanted to let me know that he thought that they made me look professional and went on a long tangent about how tall women shy away from wearing heels but they shouldn’t because they make them look powerful. This went on for about five minutes. It never occurred to him that I wore the shoes because I liked them and that him sharing his thoughts on the matter (of me wearing shoes) were totally unwanted and inappropriate. I just said thank you and went back to my desk but I wish I had asked him if he would ever pull a man into his office and comment on their shoes or why he thought he had free reign to comment on any part of my appearance at all. I know the man well enough to know he was well intentioned and thought he was paying me a compliment. Instead he made me feel very self conscious about a pair of shoes I really liked and had splurged to purchase.”
“In one of my accounting classes at nova, I was struggling and went to the professor for help after tanking the midterm. He asked if I spent more time studying in the library or if I was looking for a date for Friday night. He then told me that I was a pretty woman and I shouldn’t bother myself with business but that I should instead find a nice husband.”
“I had a coworker refer to me as ‘beautiful’ once. As in, ‘Hello, beautiful.’ NOT OK, dude. Not fucking OK. I know I’m beautiful, don’t need you commenting on it while we’re working, thanks. Also, I’m not going to go out with you, so please stop trying.”
“Guy in charge of my project at work IM’d me he saying ‘wanted to feel the warm caress of my soft lips’ and ‘the sharp bite of my shining teeth’. This was followed up with an admission of having ‘yellow fever’, referring to liking women of east Asian origin. When my boss found out, he told me he wouldn’t do anything about it.”
“That time when a client pulled up my dress in public. We are a female run business in a male dominant industry, so why have any respect for our work. He was fired from his job, but apparently you cant explain to people why they are fired and sure enough he was rehired by another company in our industry. Our paths still cross and I’m terrified.”
IN BARS / ONLINE / POTENTIAL DATING SITUATIONS
“Senior year I was at a bar with some friends and a guy tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to dance. I very politely thanked him and said I really appreciated him asking me, but that I was just here with my friends that night and wanted to stick with them. He got right in my face and told me I ‘didn’t have to be such a fucking bitch’ and that I ‘should be grateful someone would ask an ugly bitch like me to dance at all.’ He didn’t go away until my (much taller) friend pushed him back a bit and told him to leave. His friends watched the whole thing happen and didn’t step in.”
“I went out one night in Pittsburgh with my best friend when a guy approached me asking to dance. I told him ‘Thanks but I’m just going to dance with my friend tonight’ very politely and not in any sort of condescending or rude manner. This was obviously the wrong answer as he felt necessary to approach me SEVERAL times throughout the night telling me that ‘I’m not even that fucking hot.’ Because obviously, only ‘hot’ people have the option to say no and have authority over men.”
“I had a guy send me a photo of his shower telling me to come over. We had been having ZERO conversation prior to the text which was totally unwarranted. When I told him that it was pretty clear he was only talking to me to hook up with me he replied by saying ‘yeah I thought that was pretty obvious.’ No, actually it wasn’t. I thought you were talking to me because you thought I was an interesting and smart individual whom you would respect.”
“This guy from high school who was a year or two older started following me on Instagram and then asked for my number. I thought it was harmless/he was cute and interesting so I gave it to him and we started texting. The conversation started off well with him saying he wanted to take me out to dinner/drinks and then very quickly escalated to him drunk texting me more than once asking for pictures of my butt and saying ‘I hope we hangout and have a lot of sex because I know it’d be fun with you.’ needless to say we don’t speak anymore.”
“I was getting a drink at a bar last week and the man next to me started caressing my elbow. I pulled away and asked him to stop touching me. He immediately got defensive and claimed he was just trying to be friendly. I told him that I didn’t want to be touched by someone I didn’t know, unfortunately I just had to walk away because he didn’t get it.”
IN LITERALLY ANY PUBLIC PLACE THAT EXISTS
“My mom, sister, and I visited the market in the city a couple days and the trip unfortunately made me wish I had brought my husband. While being there (public, seemingly friendly place) men made snide remarks like ‘such cute asses’ and ‘you’re lucky there are so many people around.'”
“Recently on my commute home at 5PM a man sat directly across from me on an empty subway car and tried to get my attention. I had earbuds in and ignored him. A couple stops later, I moved cars to get away from him, and he followed me. I stared at the floor and away from him, still ignoring him. Then he spit directly in my line of sight to try to get me to look up at him. He followed me to another car again and stood directly in front of me until I got off at my stop.”
“Waiting on line at a 7/11 an old woman with arthritic hands is fumbling with trying to get coins out of a change purse. The man behind the counter is acting super rude to her, but then he sees me (young woman in a pencil skirt and heels) and starts acting super sweet. ‘Hey baby..how you doing, doll?’ I tersely say fine and put my water bottle and snack, a pay day bar, in the counter. ‘Oh babe if you worked for me I’d pay you every day of the week.’ Meanwhile, the older lady is hobbling out of the store with bags and he is of no assistance to her.”
“While registering voters outside of a grocery store, I had an old white man come up to me and tell me what a ‘corrupt, horrible’ woman Hillary Clinton is, and how she ‘ruined Bill with her evil ways.’ He then kept tapping my shoulder as if we were old buddies–as if he had ANY right to touch me.”
“I was on a bus in Seattle late a night with a friend. The bus was mostly empty, and my friend likes to sit in the back, so we both headed back that way and pulled out books to read. We were sitting a few rows apart. This guy enters the bus, and of course he passes all the empty seats to sit directly next to me, then he tries to start a conversation. ‘What are you reading?’ I acted as I do in these situations, which is to be terse but polite (knowing that if you’re not polite, it could get dangerous). I showed him the book cover and deliberately went back to reading. He kept trying to talk to me. I kept my answers to one or two words and kept turning back to the book. He then made a joke about how he was bothering me, to which I responded, ‘Yeah, I’m really just trying to read, thanks.’ He would not stop talking to me, and I got so nervous and uncomfortable about what he might do that I got my friend’s attention, gave her the secret girl signal for ‘We need to get out of here,’ and without a question we hopped off the next stop, even though it was the wrong one. I was really shaken. That guy NEVER would have talked to a dude. Equally interesting was the fact that my friend knew exactly what was happening and exactly what I needed just from a look from me. Girls just understand, because it happens to all of us.”
So, men of the world who do this shit: WE ARE NOT HERE FOR YOU. We do not exist for your eyes, nor are you entitled to anything about us–not our time, or our attention, or our politeness. You own no part of us. We are not here for you; we are here for ourselves.
Men of the world who love us and are horrified to read these stories: Keep believing us. Keep working to make this shit go away. Keep calling out sexist nonsense you see, wherever it may be.