Fighting Words

"Hey baby, wanna give me some pussy?" The matter-of-fact question oozes from the mouth of a tall, prematurely balding man in his late twenties, spoken with the same easy nonchalance he would use to ask for the time or the Bulls score. In fact, he and his buddy are talking basketball while walking along a downtown sidewalk, before comments on Alonzo Mourning's post-up game evidently trigger this breezy inquiry on whether or not I'll open up the lane to my cervical hoop.His friend smiles and the guy lopes past me, but my umbrella's curved wooden handle interrupts pussy boy's stride after it crashes against his receding hairline, cutting through all the way to his stubborn skull. He collapses in a heap while I scream like a banshee, telling him that no one talks to me that way. Kicking his groin in a violently spasmodic action-picture -- a distaff Jackie Chan with issues -- I yell about respect and tact and kindness until the man's friend tries to pull me away. My leg responds with a flying "Mortal Kombat"-style kick that sends the tip of my shoe through his jaw. After a few more blows I turn and walk on; the men are left splayed on the ground, bleeding. They wouldn't even notice Traci Lords granting them vaginal access.I'm still walking a couple of seconds later when the B-movie reel fades, my mental lights go up and I continue trudging toward the corner, my psycho-bitch routine only an imaginary exercise for venting the rage provoked by the comment. Instead of annihilating those bastards, I actually froze my face and pretended to ignore them, although I was shaking inside from anger and embarrassment. Earlier that afternoon, another man came closer than he'd ever like to know to being tossed off a subway platform because of his leering comments; later in the day, two other louts will whistle at me from across the street. Yet as infuriating as the episodes are, a small part of me expects that kind of attention--it's the first warm day this spring, and I'm wearing shorts. Although a grungy sweatshirt covers my torso and disheveled hair streams across my unmade-up face, I'm once again a target for male aggression, ego and dominance. When it comes to the power trip of catcalling, summer is always open season.When it gets hot and you show more skin, guys go crazy. They're hassling you all the time. In other words, the bright sun reveals the rotted parts of the masculine psyche, and women have to deal with less-than-enticing suggestions like "Hey sugar doll, show me your ta-tas.." But being harassed with degrading comments, whistles and other sounds is as much a part of the female package as double X chromosomes and osteoporosis.Just about every woman I talk to readily offers examples of similar verbal harassment; while most men are aware of (or participants in) the phenomenon, they commonly are genuinely surprised that it is so rampant, vulgar and disturbing. And while I'd like to think my liberated feminist mind usually dismisses the heckles, I know their aggregate effect has dictated what I wear, where I walk, what I look at when I'm walking and, sometimes, how I generally feel about men.While strolling in certain neighborhoods, I automatically brace myself for potential comments whenever I see men walking down my side of the street, regardless of the season. If I'm wearing a nice outfit and heels, or a tank top and shorts, the leers can come anywhere. I own a slim summer dress that I'll only wear when I'm with male friends; otherwise, I'm afraid it will draw too much unwanted attention. This has nothing to do with vanity or egoism--it's all about what I've learned from experience."The power of the act, it's primary social meaning, basically says, 'I have superior power over you and that gives me the right to engage in behaviors to keep you in your inferior place,'" says Lloyd G. Sinclair, a therapist at the Midwest Center for Psychotherapy and Sex Therapy in Madison. "It's typically about social correction. Men think they can give women feedback on how the dress and act; generally the person doesn't really mean anything bad by it, but these actions are harmful. It's on the low end of the continuum of sexual power abuse, the same continuum that's topped by rape." Obviously, comparing catcalling to physical sexual assault trivializes the intense horror and shattering emotional impact of the latter event. Yet in its far milder way, catcalling can be a tiny rape of the mind, cruelly reminding women of their sexual vulnerability in an era where admitting disadvantage in sexual politics is rare. "I went through a period when I was super-aware and intensely angry with it," says "Artbabe" comics creator Jessica Abel. "Men are basically saying, 'I can fuck with you and do whatever I want.' And they're right, they can. A lot of that homicidal rage I've felt is a result of that power play and not as much the comment itself." Abel's addressed the issue in past comics, where she's drawn split panels of a women being harassed. One side shows the woman marching away, while the other shows her attacking the guy.Those types of subliminal signals start early. I first was hooted at one sweltering afternoon while walking home from school in the seventh grade. Although my thick glasses, glistening braces, bad posture, pimply skin and chubby legs were all shrieking in pre-teen cacophony, my tank top was apparently tight enough to present the suggestion of a chest fighting to fill out its baggy B-cup confines. That's all the guys needed to see, I guess, and a honking pickup truck full of greasy men let me hear about it.I remember being disturbed about the sort of perverts who would wolf-whistle at girls, and imagined myself tossed next to the freeway in a body bag, my tender little figure ravaged and discarded by Ted Bundy or the Hillside Strangler. An exaggeration to be sure, but to an extent, the thin threads of that ominous feeling linger.Then again, that dark side is often completely obfuscated by knowing that in most cases, the guys aren't serial killers--they're just boorish morons who don't really care about propriety. It often doesn't matter what a woman looks like or what she's wearing; men act like asses anyway just to get the power rush. "The funniest thing was, when I was pregnant I got a lot of comments from men, which I thought was weird," says Laurie Henzel, an editor at the award-winning New York-based grrl zine Bust. "One guy said something like, 'Ooh you're really sexy like that.' Ha! Sociologically, I don't know. I think it's just men at their lowest worm-like form." Or perhaps their ancient simian state. According to Dr. Howard Ruppel, executive director of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists, the behavior may have some roots in the evolutionary process. "These sorts of activities aren't necessarily unique to humans," he says. "Some pygmy chimps use sex as a way of settling disputes, and sex is used in other monkey social structures. This suggests that the human animal can look at this within an evolutionary perspective." If it's true that behavioral patterns run so deep, it's no wonder this type of crotch-grabbing, flea-ridden locker-room talk continues to spill over in our times. "This is a process that's systemic in the culture," says Women Who Love Sex author Dr. Gina Ogden. "Little boys are trained to be men who do this. There is this underlying theme that men own women and their bodies; it's a type of dominator ethic that if you keep them scared, you can have them. It's symptomatic of a male-female dynamic that creates sexual and cultural dysfunction. Men who don't do this are extraordinary; they really are counterculture beings." Unfortunately, such flawed gender relations exist around the world. If American women think the men here are bad enough, they just need to collect some stamps in their passport book to realize the situation here is fairly tame compared with catcalling abroad. In Egypt, Muslim men will leer at unveiled women because they believe males faced with provocatively dressed females (i.e. those showing hair, collarbones or elbows in public) aren't expected to rein their lust. In Spain, the friendly, open ways of American women are usually interpreted as moral looseness, which incites a barrage of comments from se�ors drenched in machismo culture. And then there's the case of Italy, where bottom-pinching is as common as mostaccioli. Actually, Italians generally don't whistle at women, as the sound normally equates with booing on the peninsula. Instead, they'll hiss or chant "Bella! Bella!" under their breath.There are women who find this sort of thing appealing. While being verbally harassed in junior high made me extremely uncomfortable, I recall a close friend thinking that it was flattering--just a quick way for the boys to let us know they liked how things were developing and that we were becoming ripe for the picking. Others become worried when they aren't whistled at or when the remarks stop coming; they fear it signals some sort of rejection. "That kind of response is expected," says Dr. Auden. "Some women definitely give off some pleasure energy about it, a flirtation element they miss when it's not there. Within the same framework, they've been taught that to get attention they need to put on four-inch heels, short leather skirts and red lipstick." Yet despite the socialization, most women I know get severely annoyed with such attention; for that matter, I don't know any men who go around sticking their tongues out and whooping whenever they see a pair of breasts (well I know they don't in public, at least). And this sort of peer behavior and female response does get them confused about how to act, especially when they see such societal cues as the new line of Diet Coke commercials featuring Alaskan men whistling at women and an office full of females crossing and un-crossing their legs when a hunky delivery boy appears. "Men have always been placed in a difficult situation where sex is concerned," says Ruppel. "As a society, we do a terrible job talking about sexuality and give mixed signals all the time. They need to be aware of those and develop some internal boundaries for themselves." While much of the catcalling subtext is based on power issues, natural physical attraction cannot be overlooked, either, says Dr. Dennis Daily, who hosts a sex talk show on the University of Kansas radio station. "Most of the men will tell you they do it because they think the women are pretty. The bottom line here is that sexuality is an end in itself, something common and harmless. Human beings are attracted to and admire each other. The only difference is that men are given more permission in our culture to objectify women and act on their objectives. Most guys doing it aren't bad people; they're just operating within their scripts." Women also objectify men, but aren't allowed to act on it, Daily goes on to suggest; if they were, we might see women on the street screaming out inch counts on male privates. "This feeling is going to be expressed in any way possible," he says. "I think women might do it differently, maybe be more subtle, but they would definitely do it, too." In fact, some women do it now, but it still doesn't have the same meaning. "In high school my friends and I used to drive around and yell at guys we thought were cute," says Jessica Abel. "I actually did this recently, too, just for fun. But reversal doesn't answer the problem. I think most guys wouldn't mind it.There's no equivalent implicit threat--the only equivalent might be if they were afraid you were going to cut off their balls." But catcalling still is almost exclusively directed at women and definitely can be harmful, Daily hastens to add. Although men may think they are paying a woman a compliment, the force of the comments must be seen within the fabric of other experiences. While a well-adjusted woman might easily brush it off, someone who was once raped will glean an entirely different set of meanings. "I counseled a young woman in a downtown area who had to walk past a construction site to work," Daily says. "Day to day it became unusually sexually overt and aggressive. She was sexually abused in her youth, and so became utterly terrified and immobilized because of the comments, to the point where she began missing some days of work." While it's fairly simple to explain why men harass women, figuring out how women should respond is a lot harder. My old standby--ignoring the remarks--often frustrates me but keeps me from being locked up for aggravated assault. Yet sometimes, that hasn't even worked: I once ignored a guy who said "Hey there, beautiful" and he erupted in a charming tirade of, "Why don't you look at me when I tell you you're pretty, you cunt!" Other women prefer confronting the men. Chicagoan Chris Schleich, 22, says that whenever she talks back to catcalling men, they usually become mortified. "If you look him in the eye at all, he thinks, 'Oh damn, that didn't work at all,'" she says. "Responding does make a difference to do it and if you think it's dangerous you'd realize anyone who's a serial killer is way more low-key than they are." Some women choose more creative approaches. "I used to get really angry and yell at guys, but as I've grown older and wiser I've kind of chilled out a bit because it could be dangerous," says Bust's Henzel. "However, I will occasionally spit in their general direction-it seems to be the least sexy response. I mean I really send a lob their way, but I do consider myself a lady, so it has to be a pretty bad call for me to respond that way." Whatever a woman's response, the most important thing is to not reward the man for the comment says therapist Sinclair. "Don't laugh, giggle or smile," he says. "If you're in close enough contact and feel safe, you might want to say something to them because that way it becomes personal and you can no longer be objectified. But you don't want to say something incendiary that might provoke him." But sadly, even confronting the man sometimes feels useless. "I was waiting at a bus stop one day and this skeezy, disgusting old guy was mowing a lawn nearby," says Abel. "He totally leered at me and although I don't remember what he said, I gave him the most evil, withering look. He just laughed. Getting a response from me only fed into his power." Dr. Daily is more blunt. "If I were a woman I wouldn't confront them," he says. "It doesn't get anything accomplished; it doesn't stop it and it could be dangerous. I guess you just have to be empowered by having an understanding of it and knowing it there are larger issues there besides you as an individual." At least a few catcalling foes are fighting back, however. Last November, for instance, an engineering student in India accused of harassing a girl was beaten severely and forced to ingest insecticide by vengeful classmates. In 1995, a London travel agent got an entire building site full of bricklayers fired for wolf-whistling at her. Most construction companies, a group commonly singled out as offenders, now maintain that any reports of catcalls will result in firings. Two years ago, Minneapolis instituted a "no-ogling" policy for city workers after a woman complained about the head-to-toe inspections and comments she endured every morning when entering her municipal office.As for me, the chilly spring weather has brought some respite from the leech-like looks. But that didn't stop the words "Hey baby" from dripping off the lips of a guy getting into his car as I walked by recently. I was annoyed, but it was far from the worst thing I've ever heard. I almost ignored him, but then decided to take a deep breath and turn around. "Why did you say that to me?" I asked evenly. The man's brow furrowed; he seemed confused and pissed off that I knew how to talk. He mumbled something that sounded like "I was just saying hi," stepped into his car and quickly drove away. It wasn't a transcendent moment; I didn't really feel better, and I know there will be times when I choose not to respond at all, perhaps out of concern for my safety. But at least I did something-although I still think it's a shame that "something" didn't involve me holding a machete and channeling the spirit of Lorena Bobbitt.

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