I live in the Midwest. I’ve spent a good 22 years of my life in this town, give or take about 3 years when I lived in England, Texas, and Japan, respectively. It is a rather true stereotype that Midwesterners – especially South Dakotans – are incredibly friendly and nice. When my car broke down in the middle of one of the busiest streets in town during my senior year in college, a very nice young man with a truck took the time out of his day to tow my little Honda out of the lane of traffic and over to a parking lot where I could wait for my dad to come help me.
Basically, I live in the sort of area where people leave their cars running with the keys in the ignition when they go into the convenience store to buy a newspaper. It’s not uncommon to find cars with their doors unlocked, and to see people helping each other with groceries or whatever.
That’s why what happened last week came as such a surprise to me.
Our Barnes and Noble sits on at the intersection of two of the busiest streets in town (these are five-six lane streets, so they’re not exactly tiny), and the parking lot buts up against the intersection. Cars sitting at the corner can see the cars in the parking lot and vice versa.
On a particularly nice day last week, I went to Barnes and Noble to do some research for this post, and parked where I normally do – toward the intersection, away from other cars in the lot. It was a really nice day, so lots of people were driving with their windows rolled down, like ya do.
When I got out of my car, I heard loud music coming from one of the cars stopped at the intersection, so I looked around to locate the sound. It was a large, red, Jeep Cherokee-style car that was blasting rock music. I briefly made eye contact with the boy in the passenger seat as I was walking around to the other side of my car.
The next thing I hear is a loud, “Wooo! YEAH BABY!” and other incoherent shouts.
I got cat-called. By teenage boys.
What surprised me was my own reaction. In our friendly Midwest, people don’t get cat-called very often. It just…doesn’t happen. The only times strangers have hit on me in public were when I was in NYC or Rome – it’s never happened to me in South Dakota. I’ve read countless stories about reactions to cat-calling, and as I read them, I’d like to believe I would react quickly, flipping the offender the bird, or calling them out on treating me like an object. I, like most people, like to think I would be brave enough to confront the person who dared treat me in that manner.
My mind immediately went, “Get out of here. Ignore, ignore, ignore. Do not provoke. They know where you are, and they could follow you.” I grabbed my purse from the floor in front of the passenger seat, awkwardly sitting down to do so because I didn’t want to bend over in front of these boys and give them any sort of affirmation. I then turned and race-walked into Barnes and Noble, determinedly not looking back over my shoulder at the boys.
Within two seconds, a fun afternoon turned into one of fear, a feeling of having my security stripped from me, and a sense of being made to stand naked on a stage in front of the world. With a few word, two teenage boys, who probably thought nothing of it, managed to make me feel incredibly insecure.
And guess what? I was wearing a crew neck t-shirt that was loose and a pair of loose-fitting jeans. I did nothing to provoke the cat callers other than daring to be a woman and have a brief moment of eye contact with them.
I can hear the dissenters now: “It was a compliment! You should take it as flattery! Etc., etc.” But that’s the thing: If they really wanted to compliment me, they wouldn’t be yelling “WHOO BABY!” from their car across a parking lot.
Cat calling is not about flattery. It is about asserting that another person’s body is your property to comment on and pass judgment. It is about demanding the attention of someone so you can appraise her based on physicality. It is a way of asserting that a woman’s body is not her own and never was. It did not make me feel flattered. It made me feel like even my friendly Mid-western town was unsafe. I immediately, without thinking about it, wanted to cover myself up more (even though I was already dressed sufficiently modestly by most standards). It made me feel small, like my body and my looks are somehow public property, and if I chose not to accept their “compliment,” that I would be in danger.
Guys, there are proper ways to compliment a woman. Yelling from your car when you see her is not one of them.