Monday, 31 August 2009

Threats and abuse are not my culture

When I live elsewhere, one of the things that I never miss about Barbados is the cat-calling. Of course, there's cat-calling everywhere. But I think a variety of factors combine to influence the amount a Black woman experiences in countries where she exists as part of a minority: the fact that Black bodies are so often othered and invisible (although this sometimes works with opposite effect, because though othered, Black women's bodies are often only visible long enough to be used for sexual consumption; aren't we lucky?); the notion that Black women are angry and crazy so who knows how they'll respond if you piss them off; urban vs. suburban vs. rural location; and the habits of the groups and societies in which we operate.

In the American suburb where I lived, there was hardly any, but it increased as I got closer to the city. In London, there was slightly more. In Santo Domingo, most of the interaction with strange men involved them taking your hand to help you on and off the sidewalk and then continuing on their way, a habit which was at once charming and really bizarre. But once the paranoid Bajan in me was sure they weren't carrying anthrax or hidden razor blades, I deduced that this was times better than cat-calling any day of the week. Leaving the city and getting closer to the coast meant more unsolicited remarks, though. And in Suriname, I had a particularly scary experience where some young men who had been shouting me down for some time got angry that I didn't respond to their questions - apparently it never occurred to them that people might be hearing impaired or, you know, not speak Sranan - and started following me. At that point, I started yelling in English to no one in particular, and they seemed satisfied that I had a legitimate reason for ignoring them - the fact that they were strange men hanging around a street corner in the dark clearly would not suffice - and moved along.

But every time I come back home, it seems like we've taken cat-calling to new levels of misogyny and lewdness. Growing up, men hissed at women; it was some version of 'psst', although not quite that. That soon developed into a sucking noise, the way you might call a dog, although I've always thought my pets too good for generic, non-specific sounds (imagine that) and always used word and noises they would associate with only me. Then by high school we were hearing what sounded like random bird calls, real 'In the Jungle' types of noises, and by this time we're not even trying to pretend that this dynamic is not one of predator versus prey. Men seemed to find it funny because the idea of women as prey, you know, ha ha etc. Then there came all kinds of references to women - and to strange women in particular: 'meat', 'food', I'm sure you get where I'm going with this. There was even a song called "Looka (Look at) The Food", filled with lyrics describing how women's bodies are gratifying to men.

Throughout, there continues to be no limit to what a man will tell a strange woman. Nothing is too intimate or lewd. And I mean nothing. Think of the vilest utterance you can imagine from the lips of a man and I have probably heard it addressed to some woman on the street. And, in accordance with the formula, failure to respond brings a barrage of verbal abuse, and in some scenarios, assault.

It's the kind of thing we learn to live with, although I don't believe we should. We're relieved when all we get is a 'hi, beautiful', and even though we may not feel like responding, we do, because we know it could be much worse and a part of us is grateful that it's not. We go out of our way to say 'thanks' to 'that dress fits you real nice, sweetie', almost as a reward for the fact that no body parts were mentioned, even though we hear the lechery in every word uttered. And we learn to ignore the rest of it, carrying on stepping high, as we say, as we're pelted alternately with 'flattery' and insults, sometimes all at once by several men, so that even if we wanted to, we couldn't respond to this gang assault, organized to intimidate us.

But as accustomed as we get to it, we should remember this: cat-calling has a clear purpose; it is to establish in women's minds that we exist for men's consumption, and there's nothing we can do about it, lest we get too uppity. It is a way for men who feel inadequate and threatened by the collective success and independence of women to keep us in our place, and have us believe that no matter how many degrees or homes we have or how big our salaries are, we are the property of any and all men - even and especially the ones with whom we might not choose to associate - and are subject to their whim.

There is a new weapon in the cat-calling arsenal it seems, and I experienced it the other day. It is not a call, but a silent action. I was standing in the corridor of a shopping center with a friend of mine as we decided on our next stop. Three men came around the corner, all in varying stages of undress and/or general dishevelment. They said nothing, but instead came right up to me so that our faces were almost touching, and looked me up and down, slowly and deliberately, each in turn. I could tell they were waiting for a response, perhaps anger or outrage, so they could have a reason to manifest whatever latent criminal pathology was there lurking. I don't imagine they could expect me to be flattered by such an assault. It was clearly threatening behaviour, meant to convey the fact that they need not even talk to me if they don't want to; they can act in some way that forces me to talk to them, since if I wanted to get away, I would have had to ask them to move. I ignored them, wholly and completely. Any verbal response would have been what they wanted, so with their faces and bodies inches from mine, I carried on talking to my friend, who even in her dismay and confusion followed my lead, and they slithered off.

This is the type of behaviour that exists even as male activists and legislators contend that we do not have a problem with sexual harassment in the workplace or on the streets. This is the type of violation that they would have us believe is a harmless part of our culture, and instead of being so uptight, we should embrace. It is the reason women are physically attacked for having the temerity to refuse to have strangers grind up against them in a party. What's wrong with me, you ask? Do I think I'm too good for you? Why yes, as a matter of fact, I am, at least insofar as I understand boundaries and personal choice, and you appear to be on the verge of criminal behaviour. I am not going to embrace this appropriation of my body, my space and my sanity. The personal action that I take every day will be a rejection of this institutionalized abusiveness, and the professional action that I take as part of a policy-focused, activist network will be towards the enactment of legislation that makes this type of harassment a prosecutable offence. I have no problem being engaged by anyone as a human being and an equal, but I will not be threatened and cower in response. This is not a part of my culture.


  1. What a coincidence you should make this post today because exactly the same thing happened to me on my way home (and I happen to live in London currently) and I could only do pretty much what you described. I ignored them. They hung around for a bit, perhaps not knowing what to make of it, but then drove away to my relief.

    I'm not sure I've ever felt flattered by a catcall, but that experience was most definitely not flattering at all. Onitsha market sounds a lot like Barbados too - I was shocked (and I'm hardly a shrinking violet) by the hand grabbing and lewd names the men use, so much so I didn't even snap back which would have been the very least I'd normally do.

  2. Ok - you cracked me up with the 'latent criminal pathology' bit lol but on a serious level you did good to keep your head, cos someone like me would have pushed and therefore ended up wounded or dead down some alleyway *sigh*.
    It is definitely NOT a part of the culture I choose to subscribe to and no woman should be subjected to that kind of nonsensical dehumanising nonsense. Stupse. What were they thinking? Oh that's right - they weren't.

  3. I only realized how much this behaviour that you so quite rightly asserted is NOT a part of my culture, had been ingrained in me when I started dreading walking through malls and passing groups of men on broad street liming in front of DaCosta mall. Why should I fear walking the streets as a free-independent single female simply because the aggro of idle losers with an un-earned sense of entitlement becomes too much to handle? The problem is our justice system's attitude to this matter. The fact that the men charged with drafting, passing and inevitably enforcing such legislation have likely had their cat-calling days 'pun de block' as well. Worse yet are the women who, far from being indignant and feeling hard done to and objectified by this behaviour, revel in it and feed the sense of entitlement that only the strongest among us can withstand. Sadly despite our best efforts Mongoose, I fear we in the enlightened 'fully-aware-of-our-rights' minority, have a very long way to go before the mentality that feeds this behaviour changes. But we live in hope.

  4. Thank you for this post. I needed to read something like this today.

  5. Excellent post. You had me swelling both with pride at your resolve and indignation at your story.

  6. I found your blog from a friend and I'm so glad I did. Your writing is fantastic and this post made me tear up. I can't wait to read more!


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