My relationship with cat-calling dates back further than I’d like to admit. As a middle school student living in an urban area, the whistles and commentary quickly became normalized, and just as quickly, I learned how to say nothing back – partly confused, partly fearful, I’d bow my head down and increase the speed of my steps.
I’m not quite sure when this acquiescence was broken, nor do I remember there being a distinct turning point. The decision to reclaim my right to walk in silence may have been gradual; it may have been sudden. It may have just been that the wear and tear of living in the city got to me and I could no longer bear walking amidst white noise because the sounds were no longer heard as white noise. At the time, my urge to fight back stemmed less from a consciousness around objectification, and more from a developed sense of security. If they could talk to me, so, too, could I talk to them. Which I did, repeatedly. Sometimes I cursed; sometimes I asked them their age; sometimes I simply gave them the finger. This fighting back, as innocuous as it may have been, was oddly thrilling. Here I was, screaming in the streets of New York because I felt it was my right to.
And yet, as easily as this confidence was built up, so too was it deconstructed. The first time in France, where a man proceeded to follow me and my friends, whispering to us the whole way; and the second, in Namibia, where two men followed me for blocks, asking if I’d like to have their baby. Both times, I was made acutely aware of the repercussions I risked for talking back. It was both humiliating and scary, and both times I returned to New York a little more voiceless.
These days, I ebb and flow in my response to cat calls. As my friends and I lament, it’s hard to discern whether our words will carry weight or if they are falling upon deaf ears; maybe we are just providing attention that’s found gratifying. And if truth be told, my will to speak back does not outweigh my fear of being followed for blocks.
I feel frustrated and disappointed that this mental reasoning takes place daily. It is a waste of my energy and a reminder of the stark gender disparity that is omnipotent. It’s funny to think that I have reclaimed my womanhood in so many other spheres of my life, and somehow, it is this area which still leaves me faltering. And yet, it is seemingly appropriate. For just as the cat calls are everywhere – in Namibia, in France, just down the street – so too is the reality that so many of us, women, have still not reclaimed our voices.