The other day, while I was at Kroger buying laundry detergent and frozen waffles, a man came up to me, leaned in close, and said, "Come on now, baby. Let's see a smile on that nice little face of yours." Before I could stop myself, before I could rebuke this man for violating my space, my privacy -- or even just flip him off -- my Texas manners took control, and I cracked a polite grin. Like some mannequin doll or trained circus animal, I unquestioningly obeyed this man and provided him with a plastic smile. He walked away, satisfied.
This week Hollaback!, a nonprofit that wants to end street harassment, issued a video in which one of their staffers took a 10 hour stroll through Manhattan and recorded how many times she was catcalled. She was winked at, verbally harassed and otherwise creepily approached more than 100 times.
Watching the video, it's tempting to dismiss the narrative as unique to New York. Dallas, after all, is an incredibly car-obsessed city. Dallas women are far less likely to walk an extended time down a busy city street than to drive. And as a Southern city, we are filled to the brim with chivalrous braggarts. Still, men in this city are just as guilty of catcalling women. And to that end, Dallas men are just as guilty of making Dallas women feel afraid.
The point of catcalling is not to flatter -- or at least, flatter in a sincere rather than sinister manner. It is, like every other form of sexual predation, to induce fear and intimidation, to prove power. It is an opportunity for men to bare their fangs, clash their horns and otherwise assert their primal masculine authority.
In Dallas, women are far more likely to be catcalled in "drive-bys," as one Observer staffer pointed out -- men rolling down their car windows for a quick whistle or sleezy comment as they drive past. Women walking alone down the street, admittedly a rarer sight here than in New York, are particularly vulnerable.
Reflecting on the video, I think of the myriad of ways I have been catcalled since living in Dallas. On my morning runs, it's not unusual for a drive-by comment or honk. I get the obvious up-and-down looks and winks on my walk to and from work. I am addressed as "sweetie," "darlin'," "baby" and "honey" by strangers. I've gotten muttered comments in Spanish as I walk by, by men who think I can't understand what they're saying (everyone learns the dirty words in any language first).
These are all the relatively tame daily events that happen during the day, not the Friday and Saturday night catcalls.
When I began asking around the office, I found several fellow Observer women with stories to share: "The worst instance I can think of was when I was working in Carrollton. I stopped at this RaceTrac and as I'm opening the door, this guy says to me 'You have really nice tits for a fat chick.' I was too stunned to even cuss him out," said one contributor.
"Just standing in line at grocery stores and CVS, I've randomly been called 'witch' again and again, always by younger men who weren't saying it to be funny. Being called 'bitch,' 'cunt,' 'hag' -- a regular occurrence, whether I'm just walking in a public space around Dallas or even just sitting in a Starbucks having coffee and working on my laptop. Just out of nowhere, men have felt compelled to comment on my appearance in a negative way," said another contributor.
Another staffer described an incident in which his 15-year-old daughter experienced threats in their neighborhood, and daily catcalls. "She's had a couple scary incidents including one where the car followed her for a couple blocks, changing streets when she did. She ignored them, avoiding eye contact, and walked to an intersection. When another car pulled up behind the catcall-mobile so it was pinned in, she turned around and walked quickly away in the opposite direction and then ran to another street. I gave her a pepper-spray keychain after that."
I have been lucky that, save a few truly threatening events, I have never been physically harmed by a man. In the United States, 1 in 5 women are not so lucky. For 20 percent of American women, daily cat calls are not only the implication and threat of sexual assault, they are a reminder of every single previous threat or actual event in their lives. They are a reminder to women that, no matter how confident you may be feeling, how great a day you've had, how successful you are, you are always at the mercy of the men who walk by you on the street.
And there lies the crucial point in Hollaback!'s video: It has people talking, and reflecting on this issue. Women are sharing their stories and men are listening. Because if we don't talk about it, if we women keep rolling our eyes, pretending we didn't hear, only griping to other women -- men in Dallas will continue to cat call, and their sons will learn to cat call. The dialogue this video provokes and the audience it reaches will with time, we hope, break the cycle.