I can't believe that I'm writing this, but apparently some people missed the memo: Street harassment is not a compliment. I repeat: Street harassment is not a compliment.
New York Post writer Doree Lewak disagrees, however, and wrote a flippant, but apparently sincere little piece in Monday's Post about why she loves being catcalled; she claims it's a compliment that gives her an ego boost and a sense of empowerment. And besides -- I'm looking at you, all you uptight, withholding ladies out there! -- Lewak is really just a philanthropist who knows that "hard hats need something to look at while they're on their lunch break. I can be that objectified sex thing for them!" (I didn't know my soul could wince until I read that.)
While she does qualify her enthusiasm for "courting unwanted male attention" (oxymoron much?) by saying that a true compliment is "You're beautiful," and not "I like your nipples," and other such vulgarities, my point still stands: Street harassment is street harassment is street harassment and is not a compliment -- it's a sexual advance. Always.
And before anyone jumps on the "Why can't it be a sincere compliment?" wagon, answer me this: If the men yelling "You're beautiful!" were really doing it innocently and to be purely complimentary to a woman with no sexual overtones, then why don't gay men catcall women? Or women other women? Hell, why don't women catcall men they find attractive? Because publicly making a "favorable" judgment about a woman's body/appearance is a sexual advance -- and a symptom of male entitlement.
When men yell, "Yo, gorgeous! Hey! Hey, sexy!" at me from the cab of their truck, what they are really saying is this:
"I have been staring at you and analyzing whether or not I find you sexually attractive. I now feel entitled to let you, a complete stranger, know that I find you sexually attractive in a public manner, totally regardless of how that might make you feel."
If you've thrown a bunch of your self-worth eggs into the Male Approval basket like Lewak has, this might make you feel validated -- for a second, until it's over. But if you stop to think about it just a little deeper, it might make you feel uncomfortable and angry.
When men catcall, they essentially foist their sexual desire onto women who have done nothing to solicit it except go about their daily lives. In a country where 1 in 3 women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime, where slut shaming and victim blaming run rampant during rape trials, and where spousal rape has only been illegal for 38 years, street harassment becomes a less acute, but just as pervasive extension of toxic cultural attitudes about women and about sexuality. Normalizing or even encouraging "compliments" from street harassers broadcasts the message, reinforced at seemingly every turn, that men are entitled in both small and large ways to express verbally and physically their sexual desires for women who have not consented to being a part of them.
When men call, "Mmm. God bless you, baby!" and then get angry and berate women who don't show gratitude -- I've had "You could say thank you!" spat at me more than once -- they are perpetuating the damaging idea that women should be grateful to be found attractive by a man -- no matter who that man is. That a woman should smile and say thank you to every toothless drunk or pompous a**hole in an overpriced suit that deigns to be attracted to her is ludicrous, no?
What is it that you think you have so generously given me, sir? Your highly subjective and probably undiscerning and definitely unsolicited approval of my outward appearance? Your snap consideration of me as a sexual partner? And why exactly should I be thankful that you find me sexually attractive? Because you're special? Because I now owe you something just because you find me attractive and have chosen to yell or creepily mumble this to me as I pass?
Look, I don't pretend that being attractive isn't a goal. It certainly is for me and for most people I know, no matter gender or orientation. But there is a significant difference between finding another human sexually attractive and vocalizing that attraction in some way, let alone publicly and often crudely. Letting someone know you find them desirable does have a time and place; say, flirting at a bar or party. Or maybe on a date. Or how about in bed? The difference is simple and monumental: Consent.
Talking with a guy who seems interested in you, even just at a bar, even if you end up saying, "No, thanks," is a dialogue. It is something you can usually willingly engage in or not. And you have the potential to interact with that guy in a non-sexual manner.
But street harassers co-opt the woman's choice in the matter. You don't get to choose to engage. You don't have the potential to interact on any level other than unreciprocated sexual desire. You just get a metaphorical (and sometimes literal) erection shoved in your face with the message being, "Here. I don't care if this is what you want. You're welcome." Guess what, Stoop Guy? When you take away my agency, I'm not going to thank you for it.
Now, I seriously doubt that many/any men who catcall women have thought of it quite in the terms I've outlined. To them, it is simply a matter of yelling something they deem to be complimentary at someone they believe should appreciate their appreciation, and it's not a consciously malicious act. But even a guy who catcalls with the misguided intention to compliment is participating in and perpetuating a system in which women are sex objects simply by existing. And women who actively encourage such a system aren't doing anything to better it.