Young women in progressive societies have found themselves at an interesting new phase of their feminism. ‘What to do in the face of cat calling?’. Just recently I found myself giving this problem a lot of thought, I am a person who thrives on informed and respectful debate but as soon as I am faced with poorly reasoned attacks I’m a red-faced bumbling mess trying to comprehend how I can change this persons mind whilst getting so confused I end up in verbal inertia.
Recently I was walking with one of my most bold and outspoken friends when a man in a group of other men thought it an appropriate time to recommend that she should be wearing a bra. Before my eyes I watched in slow comprehension as she stood her ground asking him to come back and explain himself. I read his body language that he had no intention of doing so until she yelled after him asking him to face her. He looked threatened and I’m almost certain he felt as pathetic as he looked. She on the other hand did not look threatened and was instead emboldened.
The power had shifted in the interaction from him using her appearance as grounds to ridicule and humiliate her to him being shocked at her retaliation forcing him to abandon the comfortable bosom of his posse. The term ‘posse’ originally referred to a body of men summoned by a sheriff to enforce the law. The image of my tiny pocket rocket buddy standing up to such a group is a pretty powerful challenge to the old way of things. Women lucky enough to live in privileged societies that can take their power back and change the social law in such a situation are at a transformative juncture.
His response was to yell at her for not being cool with being the butt of his “joke”, he was exasperated that she couldn’t just accept being humiliated. It is usually those who have privilege who fail to see the truth behind such a “joke”. Their lack of empathy comes from their privilege meaning they never have to rely on the empathy of others. His reaction was overly emotional as his anger reached fever pitch he stormed off like a petulant 3 year old aghast at her incompetence and ironically refusing to accept his own humiliation. My friend walked from that interaction completely unscathed and immediately sparked up the conversation we had been having pre-bragate.
This interaction challenged how I thought about power structures in cat calling. At a time of social norm change I am constantly hearing about women who choose to stand up for themselves in different ways. It can be a humiliating retaliation pointing out hypocrisy like the above, a simple flipping of the bird or a calm confrontational discussion about his motivations. Cat-callers are not necessarily sadists or misogynists, it is a social behaviour thats been accepted for a millennia that often is enacted without real thought. Men are the main perpetrators and they often do it from the safety of their posse making any response from the victim extremely intimidating (unless of course you are the pocket rocket).
Recent work in psychology like Sexual objectification in women’s daily lives: An ecological momentary assessment study by Jennifer Makovec Knight has shown that cat calling is extremely harmful to a female’s psyche. Objectification varying from cat calling to leering has proved to create complex and ingrained damage to a woman’s self-esteem, social anxiety and body image. This information needs to be shared if we are to create awarness that can overcome these problems. This new wave of retaliation can change how women think about themselves in the world and how men think about their cognitive bias towards women they don’t know.
The power structure can change as women find the power within themselves to turn the situation back on the perpetrator by highlighting his hypocrisy in the face of just a “joke” or asking him why he finds it funny to make a spectacle of a total stranger. Women are free to interpret this new found power in whatever nonviolent way they wish. I do not have the heat of the moment gumption of the pocket rocket, the words don’t come to me and I am an emotional mess after witnessing such an injustice (made clear by me sitting down to write this post weeks later). The cost of confronting such an individual is too high for me to do so.
There is no smoking gun in finding a solution to cat calling. Each victim and perpetrator is different. What is important is social norm change. This happens through sanctioning those who violate this new-found social rule that recognises the true consequences of behaviour. Sanctions need legitimacy if they are to work, so teaching respect through social sanctions needs to permeate respect.
I don’t feel ashamed that I don’t have it in me to challenge such an individual and situation face to face because of the type of communicator I am. I like to write not yell, so here I am. My power comes from recognising that this is a cruel act and that I cannot respect the opinions of perpetrators. The male subject of my anecdote could possibly have left that situation a bigger misogynist than he already was. Reasoning with the unreasonable is a waste of a woman’s precious time but his humiliation will make him think twice about behaving in such a way again.
We are a social species who define ourselves by our place in society and communities. Informal sanctions and punishments based on social norm violation has defined our evolutionary processes as a species (as seen in anthropological research by Samuel Bowles). Cat calling as a social norm is being challenged at new heights and from a growing demographic of both men and women. I encourage anyone to decide for themselves in how they choose to sanction such behaviour as long as it maintains integrity and the sense of justice and respect the feminist movement is in pursuit of in the first place.