The cat call came from a parked car. I didn’t acknowledge it. I was rushing to a client meeting — hair and makeup done, heels on, showing a bit of leg in my summer wrap dress. I was feeling confident and I have to admit, the attention from a stranger made me smile ever so slightly.
So what, I thought, if random men are compelled to vie for a woman’s attention in the most useless and harmless of ways? I never make eye contact. I never acknowledge the attention. And yet, it does make me feel younger, sexier and even powerful. So what’s the harm?
That was my thinking until this morning. While walking home from the gym, a man in his late teens stopped me to ask for directions. I wasn’t exactly sure of the answer, and usually I say that much and keep walking. But he was young, and I thought I could help. So I pulled out my cell phone to look at a map. I gave him an answer and kept walking. Good deed of the day done! But then…“Hey, look at this!” I heard from behind me. I turned to see him fully exposed, fully aroused, his eyes locked on me, his face fixed with a Cheshire-cat grin.
I uttered some words not fit for print and quickened my pace. I was simultaneously nauseated and panicked. He pulled that thing out — what was he planning to do with it next? But then I stopped. I turned around. I wasn’t going to give in to fear. I was going to regain the power here. “I’m calling 9-1-1,” I told him. And I did. As soon as he heard me talking to the operator, he bolted down the avenue. I cancelled the call. There was no point, it seemed to me, to waste time on a police report. After all, if being a pervert in New York City were a crime, half the city would probably be locked up.
I returned home shaken. Disgusted. Ocularly violated. Robbed of my sense of security and confidence. It was exactly the opposite feeling from those cat calls, and yet wasn’t the experience in some way the same?
Why is hearing, “God bless you, you’re gorgeous,” from a man in a hard hat any different than having a stranger whip out his penis for your viewing displeasure? One is covert, the other overt, but, ultimately, they’re both forms of objectification. And I am nobody’s object.
Of course, by that argument, I should be getting in the face of everyone who dares to whistle at me on the street. I should demand respect for what’s above my neck, not what’s below it. I should not get any pleasure whatsoever from the sexual attention of strangers. And yet the simple truth is: a random flirtation makes me smile to myself. I’m 41 and I’ve still got it. Most of the time I feel invisible — yet another mom driving carpool in the I’ve-given-up t-shirt and jeans, yet another wife rushing through the grocery store with frizzed-out hair and minimal makeup (who has time?).
The sexual attention in complimentary words yelled across the street makes me feel powerful. Noticed. I haven’t ever thought about what might be accompanying those words.
Is the flasher just a gawker who puts words into action? If so, are the leering men as harmless as I thought?
The answer may come down to the take-away. Cat calls, the innocuous ones at least, are compliments. Compliments add to our sense of self-worth. That exposed penis, conversely, might as well have been a gun or a knife. It was a threatening act. I and other women are keenly aware that men, by virtue of their size and strength, have the ability to physically overpower us. We might be equal in every other way, but this is an inescapable truth. And for that reason, we prefer to maintain control over any sexual exchange. If we want to see a guy’s equipment, we’ll make that choice ourselves. And we’ll control the where and how. Rob me of that power to choose and I will feel violated. Even now, hours later, safe in my own home, I can’t shake the sense of panic that came over me.
Aside from wearing a habit and letting my eyebrows grow together, there is little way to stop the random cat-caller from trying to get my attention in the street. And there is no way to predict who is a stranger truly in need of help and who is someone trying to con you into reacting to his package. Should I have to be cold and rude just to avoid the risk of being harassed, or worse? And should I have to live in fear of any of it? I refuse to.
So maybe it’s time for men to wise up. Keep your thoughts to yourself. Find a hobby that doesn’t involve trying to get a woman to blush — or bolt. Evolve. I can appreciate a hot-looking guy without having to yell my appreciation out to the world. You should be able to keep your mouth zipped. And while you’re at it, keep the pants zipped too. Because all you’re really revealing is that you’re a dick.