In modern feminist discussions, there’s a lot of talk about cat calling. The general sentiment seems to be that cat calling is rude and invasive.
I mean… yes, having someone shout something at you unexpectedly is by definition invasive. But… I am not yet completely satisfied with the discussion around cat calling.
For example, earlier today, I read a Guardian article trying to clarify where the line is between acceptable flirting and sexual harassment. (It’s part of Laura Bates’s series, “Everyday Sexism.”) I generally agree with the article, especially the last two points about context appropriateness (eg. “flirting” in a job interview is a definitive no go) and “am I actually, all things considered, just being a bit of a dick?”
Yeah, that last one’s a question people should probably just ask themselves, like, all the time. Sending an email? Don’t be a dick. Talking to a customer service representative over the phone? Don’t be a dick. Trying to ask someone out? Don’t be a dick. Basically unless you are somehow a sentient cock or some kind of dildo, don’t be a dick. Simple stuff.
But… I do have some hesitations about some of the Guardian article’s assertions. Obviously, pretty much all summary articles need to taken with a grain of salt. There’s no way that six very short phrases are going to capture the mess of grey complexity that is the scope of human interaction in the sexual realm. The Guardian article is by no means definitive or comprehensive. Guidelines are guidelines.
Like point number four, “Is this ‘advance’ actually just a shouted and uninvited assessment on my part of this person’s attractiveness/body/genitals?” I’d say there’s some wiggle room there.
Why? Because there’s a huge range of variation on “shouts” and “uninvited assessments.” What they are, how they were made, the vibe behind them, the person who made them, the person they were made out… There’s a spectrum there that I’m pretty sure runs the gambit from “completely acceptable” to “you will burn in hell forever.”
Let me explain. In my own subjective, personal case, if some guy (or girl) came up to me with very politely folded hands and a mousy little voice mostly mumbled under they’re breath ’cause they’re that quiet and a body posture not at all aggressive and a personal space bubble that kept them at least three feet away from, if this person came up to me and said in full blown self-defacing awkwardness, “Um, excuse me, I don’t mean to interrupt your day, but I think you’re very pretty. Okay, I’ll just let you go now…” I WOULD FEEL SUPER HELLA ALL THE UNCOMFORTABLENESS.
Ummm why was the person so awkward? Why were they so mousy about it? Were they trying to hide something inappropriate under the comment? And that body language… why were they so self-defacing? Are they okay? Are they being bullied? Abused? What’s their mental health state? DO THEY NEED A FRIEND? DO I NEED TO MAKE SURE THEY’RE OKAY? Oh god, now it’s my duty to go make sure they’re okay and make their day better and try to fix whatever hurt in their life I can ’cause they gave me a compliment and there’s so much lack of clarity in this situation and oh god all I wanted to do was go buy groceries…
Plus there’s also the fact that the person actually approached me to talk to me. Came up to me. Joined our personal spaces. Even though (s)he stayed three feet away. As unaggressive as that is, I actually feel like the flow of my life has been more violated than if I’d just been able to keep walking. It was well-intentioned, but I still ended up feeling more violated than I would have if some random stranger had just shouted something at me that I could have just immediately written off and gotten on with my life. Grocery shopping. Whatever.
But again, that’s only one scenario. I personally have actually been sexually harrassed by an ex-mentor who got too testosterone-headed and decided he wanted to tell me something outside the house of a graduation party we were attending and began saying stuff like “I’d love to see you with your hair down some time” and “man, your legs just keep going,” and decided to “wrap up” the interaction with a hug that he wouldn’t let me out of even when I started to pull away. Thank god someone else decided to leave the party at that moment and shouted at us, causing the ex-mentor to jump away from me guilty. In that case, the uninvited comments on my physicality, confidently made though they were, were most definitely sexual harassment. Too close, inappropriate context, indication of discomfort on my part – lots of reasons.
But I have a third scenario to tell you all. Earlier this week, I was actually walking to the grocery store. As I made my way towards the entrance, I had to pass by the table area nearby where people chill, eat, wait for their ride, whatever. As I approached the area, a shades-wearing guy looked up from the sandwich he was eating, smiled (thankfully after having the courtesy to smile), lowered the sandwich, and, looking at me, exclaimed a very appreciative “Woooooow!” It all happened in two seconds of knee-jerk spontaneous reaction on his part.
Yes, I blushed. But I also smiled. Genuinely smiled. And laughed, called out a thank-you, and kept walking. I went into the grocery store, and the guy went back to his sandwich. He didn’t stare at my butt as I walked away, he didn’t make any move to approach me, he didn’t make any more comments. He just smiled at me for the additional two seconds I maintained eye contact and then went back to his day, letting me go back to mine.
Did he shout? Yes. Well, he raised his voice. But it was not a holler; it was an honest-to-goodness exclamation that I was allowed to hear. If he’d just muttered it under his breath, I’d have been creeped out. Alright, you just have your private little fantasy session there, dude, whatever… His smile was sincere. It was genuinely pleased. It honestly probably is the same smile that smacks itself on my face whenever I unexpectedly encounter a dog on the sidewalk. Or that would appear if suddenly one of Van Goh’s works plopped itself in front of me. Whoa! Intense aesthetically pleasing thing that I wasn’t expecting!
Because honestly, that’s how that cat call made me feel. I was an unexpected work of art. A thing of beauty to be given admiration in its own right, not because the guy had any agenda of ownership for it. His voice was respectful, not leery. Then there’s the fact that what he said wasn’t super invasive. It was just a “wow.” A sentiment. Not a specific evaluation. He didn’t name any of my body parts, or label me anything sexual, or imply I owed him anything, or ask me for anything, or try to sound suave. He just communicated his own personal response. “Wow.” Simple. Clear. Non-aggressive. Generally not offensive.
He kept his distance, didn’t try to force himself any more into my space than he had with his prior reflexive response. He didn’t try to get anything from me. He didn’t stick around and try to interact with me more. No. He gave me a compliment – uninvited and shouted – and then went back to his sandwich. Like a normal dude who just happened to see something cool. And that was that.
I don’t think that was sexual harassment. I don’t even think that was even flirting. I think that was just one human’s positive response to the aesthetic of another human that he was kind enough to share with her.
Maybe I’m reading into the situation what I want to see. Entirely a possibility. But I don’t think I am. I have been sexually harassed. I have been cat called. I have been leered at. I have been stalked. I have been complimented. I have been respected. I have been protected. I have been allowed to fight for myself. I’ve seen a variety of human action and reaction, and I think that I have enough social intelligence to at least be able to correctly pick up on the general vibe of an interaction.
So. Cat calling. Not always a cat call. Sometimes it’s a harpy shriek. Sometimes it’s a sincere commendation.
Cat calling is grey and tremorous territory. There is an art to compliments. All in all, I suppose the lesson is that if you’re going to try to venture there – just don’t be a dick.
Unless you are a dildo. Then you may be a dick.