In the summer, for whatever reason, I always notice an increase in catcalls. I hate it, but I’ve come to expect it. As a young woman in her 20s, being catcalled is sadly pretty standard.
Earlier this summer, something unusual happened: I was catcalled—twice—by boys in a school bus. A big, yellow school bus, the kind I used to ride in elementary school. It happened in the nice residential neighborhood I’m living in for the summer, and it happened in the afternoon, when I was outside enjoying the summer warmth. Like I said, I’m used to being catcalled—it happens basically everyday, often more than once a day.
But it was unnerving to hear a child’s voice screaming at me, high-pitched, from the back of a school bus. It was the same kid the next day, with another, smaller boy piping in occasionally. They looked like they were around 13 years old, and I was startled to hear the sexual violence and gendered hatred in their screaming. They shouted things like, “Fuck you, bitch!” and “Suck my big juicy dick, bitch!” They shouted for a long time. The first time they screamed at me, I was waiting for a bus, and the school bus was stopped at a seemingly interminable red light. The second time they catcalled me, I was walking home, and they yelled for the entirety of the block and were still yelling as their bus turned a corner and drove away.
Sometimes when men catcall me, they try to flatter me. They honk or whistle or invite me over. They make obscene suggestions, laughing as they drive away. However, there have been a couple incidences when men catcalled me and it’s been more explicitly violent. One night, as I was crossing the street on my college campus with a few of my female friends, a car full of drunken men from a neighboring university screamed at us, speeding at us in their car as we walked across the street. The called us bitches and told us to fuck off. They told us that next time they would kill us.
All of these incidences have happened in well-to-do, otherwise peaceful residential neighborhoods. Nearly all of these incidences occur when I’m on foot and the men are driving, or when I’m alone and they are in a group. But I’m far more thick-skinned now than I was at 13. Back then, if I was catcalled I self-consciously tugged my shorts lower or put on my jacket, even if it was hot out. Now I don’t look up; I don’t listen. I usually don’t let it get to me.
I’ve asked guys I know about this: Do they get hassled as they walk on the street, going about their daily lives? They always tell me ‘no.’ People never yell at them. People never leeringly compliment them or whistle at them or tell them to perform sexual acts or go fuck themselves.
While none of the male friends have experienced it, every single one of my female friends has experienced street harassment countless times, no matter where they’re from. They all understand. Luckily there are movements out there targeting street harassment, encouraging women to share their stories. People are talking about street harassment, and people are trying to end it.
But there are still times when I feel like it’s a crime for me to walk on the street, regardless of whether it’s day or night, regardless of what I wear. I’ve been yelled at when I’m wearing a long parka in the dead of winter, and I’ve been catcalled in sundresses in the summer. It doesn’t make a difference. Either way, this is what catcallers are telling me: these are our streets. You are vulnerable, and we are in the position of power. You have to listen to us.
Something about having young boys—basically children—screaming at me last week really bothered me. I felt frustrated and vulnerable both times that school bus drove by. I didn’t understand why the bus driver wasn’t saying anything during the long minutes that those boys screamed at me, over and over: Fuck you bitch! You fucking bitch! Suck my big juicy dick, you fucking bitch! How were the other children on the bus feeling? The 12 and 13-year-old girls on the bus—how were they feeling?
These young boys hate women so much already. And they hate women in a very specific, very gendered sense. I, a complete stranger, am already less than a person to these boys. I’m a sexual object. I’m a bitch. My sexuality and my femininity repulse them. Everything is so gendered and so sexualized. These boys already know that they own their bodies and their sexuality—their “big juicy dick,” while my sexuality and my body degrades me, betrays me, exists out in the open for them to ridicule and judge and insult however they want. That’s the difference that they perceive between themselves and myself: that they have a right to their own bodies, while I don’t have a right to mine. They think that they have a right to my body.
These boys are performing, just the way the drunken boys who threatened to kill my friends and me were performing, and the way that the groups of men who catcall from their cars are performing. They are performing for one another, and they are performing for me and for all of us out on the street. They are saying: We are powerful. You are not. We have a right to you; we are entitled to you and your body and your sexuality. Catcalling has nothing to do with complimenting a pretty woman walking down the street, but it has everything to do with establishing and enforcing power dynamics.
I learned this lesson when I was 13. Back then, when I was first growing up and filling out and taking up more space, I learned to do the reverse. I learned that the streets weren’t mine, not even during the day. I learned that I needed to walk in quick little steps, head down, arms close to my side. I learned to squeeze into a seat on the public bus and cross my legs. I learned to take a sweater out with me to cover up if some men took issue with my existence and began degrading me in gendered and sexualized ways.
I learned all this, and I got angry. I got angry that I had to keep my legs clamped together in the scorching summer heat. I got angry that I had to worry about strange men yelling at me when I was just trying to get home in a blizzard. I got angry that these men feel so obviously entitled to my body, my sexuality, and my life, when I was struggling to navigate all three.
And when I got angry, people told me I shouldn’t be. They told me not to be a feminazi. They told me not to have a chip on my shoulder. My mother told me that no one likes a bitter girl with a sharp tongue. My father told me that I can’t help it; I can’t change anything, because men and women are the way they are because of evolution and ancient biological practices.
It’s taken me a long time to come to terms with it, but I’m angry. I’m angry that I can’t walk on the street without being reminded of my bodily presence as a woman. I’m angry that young boys feel like they are entitled to degrade me and humiliate me on the street, even though I am an adult, just because I am a woman. I’m angry that I have to tug at my hemlines and pull up my necklines, that I can’t just feel comfortable in my body and my clothes. I’m angry that I take up so much less space than the leering man who sprawls on the bus seat beside me with his legs spread. And I’m angry that for all these years, no one’s let me be angry. I haven’t let myself be angry. I’m angry now.
Written by Zoya Haroon
Image courtesy of Javier Galeano