Leah, a single woman living in Chicago, is celebrating her 25th birthday with a trip to her favorite clothing store. As a fashion designer, there is no better way to treat herself than with a new article of clothing, and she’s had her eye on a red rabbit fur bomber jacket for weeks.
Flanked by her mother, best friend, her brother, and me, she struts down North Avenue toward her destination. Leah is, by all accounts, a beautiful woman. Clad in ripped olive jeans, a plain top that shows a sliver of stomach, and a light jean jacket, she is not dressed revealingly, but she is still hard not to notice. And although she is not actively trying to attract attention from anyone (her mind is preoccupied solely on the rabbit fur coat, although there was a silk blue dress that she had also been looking at online too…) she does.
She passes an open air bar and the reaction of the men inside is almost nauseating — a chorus of drunken “Dude, look at that!”’s float after her (note: that). One man actually stumbles over the low wall separating the bar from the sidewalk, attempting to follow Leah before succumbing to his drunkenness and leaning against a No Parking sign. Men seated outdoors at the restaurants she passes keep their eyes on her until she is out of view, even those with girlfriends, moms, and sisters. Those in their cars stuck in traffic give a whistle or a shout, ask for her number, her Snapchat, and more.
As most girls are taught at a surprisingly young age, Leah ignores the catcalls. She makes it to the store and successfully buys the rabbit fur jacket she has been coveting for weeks. The objectifying looks and comments have become background noise to her because it is so common for her as it is for women all over the U.S. But she is hyper-aware that in an instant, they can escalate — looks can turn into aggressive advances, comments can evolve into the actions promised.
Women are taught to be wary at all times of the dangers that are manifested as construction workers, drunken men, the businessman walking too closely on the street, a boy in a hoodie, the touchy supervisor, a car full of men, the taxi driver, a customer who lingers at the counter, the man catching a glimpse down your shirt as you pour more coffee. The danger, women are told, is everywhere. And when it reveals itself, they’re told, you must walk away, ignore it, clutch the keys between your knuckles firmly, and have your finger over the call button.
Of course in the city, especially Chicago, these insulting actions are common, people will say. It’s the city, crime and lewd behavior is much more prevalent but in a smaller, safer town, there’s no way this sort of thing happens. A look at the nightlife of Naperville, Illinois directly contrasts this idea.
On a Friday night in Naperville, four friends go out to a downtown Mexican restaurant for nachos and margaritas. We are celebrating the conclusion of a hard week of class and work. All dressed modestly to combat the cold, we are only in search of the company of each other. “I make sure I feel good and confident about myself in what I’m wearing. Honestly, I try not to dress revealingly because I know men are creeps,” Angie says, sipping her drink. All of us concur. Despite our intent of dressing for personal satisfaction, many men take a woman’s attire as a silent invitation for “flattery” in the form of comments on a girl’s butt or breasts and some even as an invitation to grope these areas.
After polishing off a plate of nachos and a margarita each, we all decide to walk down to a bar on the other side of town for another drink before heading home for the night. We gather ourselves, pay the bill, and walk toward the door.
“‘Sup,” a male voice calls, slurred.
Morgan’s eyes glance at the man who spoke, then away. Angie and Taylre stare straight ahead, toward the door, escape.
“Sup!” he says again as we pass the high-top table he is seated at with another guy. My own eyes trail to him for a moment, hoping it conveys the anger I feel. It doesn’t, because as we reach the door his chair scrapes the floor, he stands, and calls again.
“I said, SUP!” The statement drips in entitlement for an answer, a reaction, from the women he is trying to speak to. And although I shouldn’t give him the reaction he craves, I do, turning, my right middle finger stuck where even his alcohol-riddled vision will be able to see it.
“I’m saying, f*** off,” I say calmly before pushing through the door.
There is a moment in every woman’s mind that occurs after reacting like this to a man. You may be familiar with it. A man catcalls you and (if you’re like me and aren’t the type who is able to be unresponsive because the anger that comes with being treated like an object is a hot and boiling rage) you give him the middle finger or tell him to screw off. And for a fleeting moment, you feel strong knowing you have stood up for yourself, that you are a woman who don’t-take-no-shit and that you will not put up with obnoxious, drunk assholes.
But just seconds after you’ve given your tough-ass response, there is a fear that automatically and instinctively arrives in your stomach and heart, the one that tells you the reality of the situation – he could kill me.
Because that is often the reality. Women, biologically, are not as strong as most men and in nearly every situation of conflict, the man will overcome the woman in physical strength. And so despite our proclamations of power and independence, we know and men know that they would win a physical fight.
This is why women are taught to stay unresponsive to our harassers, to ignore the catcalls and unwanted advances by men in public places. Because if we fought back and they decided to as well, we would almost certainly lose. For our own safety, we pretend we are not being treated like objects that exist for the visual pleasure of men. We convince ourselves, as we walk into a room, that the men present are not undressing us with every step. We try, but we know better.
My friends know this too. We scurry down the sidewalk, some of them glancing behind us to ensure we aren’t being followed by our intoxicated assailant.
“Always causing a scene,” Taylre jokes to me. She is especially fidgety in situations of conflict with men who catcall. Sexual assault, even if it was years ago, does that to a person. “You can’t just ignore it.”
I can’t. Many more women today are finding that it has become increasingly more difficult to let these things happen without a reaction, despite knowing it could end in physical harm. Particularly in a time where women’s accusations of sexual assault were ignored on one of the largest scales in U.S., when they were disregarded by more than half of the nation, the need for women to stop accommodating the misogynistic rhetoric is tenfold.
Some people, even the next leader of the free world, may pass catcalls off as “harmless” or “locker room talk,” but these comments are the first step toward action and the casual sexism of everyday life is not something that can continue to be a social norm for women.