It had been a frantic morning, and there was no indication that my mind would be any less frenzied any time soon. After a three-hour class on North Campus, I had a window of roughly 35 minutes to walk from C.C. Little to my apartment across campus, switch my lofty art portfolio for my backpack, maybe grab a snack before heading out the door and walk back to Central to get to my class at 1 p.m. An emptied coffee thermos was firmly gripped in my right hand while my left was busy ensuring my portfolio — which is admittedly almost as long as my body — remained securely in its place as it hung from my shoulder. The abnormally strong wind manipulated the movement of both my portfolio and me as I neared the intersection for my street.
Admittedly, I tend to tune out entirely by listening to my iPod whenever I’m walking somewhere. Yet, at this moment, calls from across the street drowned out my music, and I looked to see two men looking at me, trying to get my attention, laughing and obnoxiously calling out at me to come over to their side of the street.
An all-too-familiar uneasiness set in. I stood there, waiting for the light to change and frustrated by the fact that the path to my apartment was going to lead me across the street and directly in front of them. I tried to ignore the situation until the signal changed. Donning a look of indifference, I tried to pass by quickly and continue on my way. One tried to ask me a question and, when I didn’t promptly respond, his companion expressed disappointment that I apparently “don’t talk.”
I was swallowing every single word.
No, I didn’t talk, because the potential consequences were too ambiguous, and years of experience taught me to remain quiet. I contained my frustration until I entered my apartment. My silence and flustered expression as I walked in immediately signaled to my roommate that something was bothering me. As I turned toward the living room, I shouted for a brief moment, startling my roommate.
I explained my exasperation, and she understood and empathized. It wasn’t the first time either one of us had been cat-called, and that was the problem. This was far from the first time. My experience encountering street harassment began right before I started college, and since then, these moments of anxiety and insecurity have grown to be a common occurrence. Each instance of cat-calling or street harassment that I encounter leaves me feeling self-conscious, confused and frustrated, and I imagine a similar scenario exists for a variety of women.
I complained about the incident to a friend via text, and he suggested I had enough emotion and material to write an article about it. As much as I wanted to, I dismissed the idea, arguing that I’d written about this topic too much before. Like I said, this wasn’t the first time, and I was worried I’d start to sound redundant and unoriginal.
A few weeks after I had brushed the suggestion aside, I traveled with another friend for Spring Break. As we were walking along the street toward the downtown area one night to grab dinner, a car honked multiple times as it passed by us. Then another car full of guys yelled out at us as it drove by. I jumped slightly as the second car passed, but my friend remained calm and collected. The cars were then, of course, a subject of conversation for us while we walked back, but it was a short discussion.
She and I were both annoyed by the situation and the guys’ demeaning behavior. But the matter-of-fact tone we both used caught my attention. We mentioned the incident briefly and moved on. It wasn’t novel or shocking to us. My friend had warned me that tended to happen to her each year she visited this particular town for Spring Break.
Our complacent reactions began to bother me shortly afterward. Street harassment shouldn’t be so ingrained into a woman’s life that, to a certain degree, she just expects it, shrugging it off nonchalantly whenever it does occur. Why was I so worried about discussing the topic when it obviously wasn’t going to dissipate from society any time soon? According to a 2014 survey conducted by Stop Street Harassment, 65 percent of women report experiencing street harassment of some form. Additionally, 90 percent of the 811 respondents in an online 2008 study encountered street harassment by the age of 19.
While cat-calling may often be associated with female victims, it’s certainly not an issue exclusive to women. Roughly 25 percent of men reported experiencing street harassment in the 2014 survey, and of these men, a larger percentage were members of the LGBTQ community. Those with marginalized identities are disproportionately harassed and scrutinized in public, whether for their gender, their race, their sexual orientation, their religion or their gender identity.
For individuals who experience harassment on a regular basis, it’s not a joke. It’s certainly not a compliment. It’s a form of an intimidation and a not-so-subtle way of communicating that someone doesn’t deserve to feel comfortable and safe in the public sphere. There’s absolutely no reason why anyone should be subjected to objectification and intimidation when they’re merely trying to go about their day. I don’t care what a woman or a man may be wearing. (Though, taking my experience into account, I particularly can’t comprehend how anyone could claim my oversized sweater and messy ponytail were attempts to attract attention to myself.)
I write this acknowledging that street harassment, or cat-calling, is a societal problem with no easy, immediate solution. My encounters with this issue began around the age of 18 and will most likely continue for many more years to come. For others from different races, religions and communities, their experiences may differ vastly in severity and frequency. Regardless, these experiences need to be recounted and retold as frequently as they occur.
Over break, I read essays by Rebecca Solnit, and one section of her essay, “Pandora’s Box and the Volunteer Police Force,” stood out to me. She writes, “Saying that everything is fine or that it will never get any better are ways of going nowhere or of making it impossible to go anywhere.”
When my friend first suggested I write about street harassment, I thought it was redundant and wouldn’t make anything better. However, it’s the insistent act of continually writing and making voices heard that leads to significant change.
Melissa Scholke can be reached at email@example.com.