September 15, 2014

Features | January 9, 2014
Living on a runway
An exploration of catcalls and the violence that lies behind them
Written by | Visual by Claire Leslie

Trigger warning: this article contains references to verbal sexual harassment.

It would happen within steps of my front door. First, the eye lock. Then, as I pass by on the street, a hiss in my ear that grows until it hangs still in the air, lingering menacingly: hermosssssa. I am in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and it is every morning of the five months I lived there.

If you ask anyone who identifies as a woman and has lived in Buenos Aires, this happens to her at least once a week, and more often, multiple times a day. People usually divide piropos – the Spanish word for a catcall – into two categories: nice piropos, and aggressive ones. It is commonly agreed that the difference between the two lies in the eye (or ear) of the piropo-ed, and that usually depends on the catcaller’s tone of voice.

Beyond this basic dichotomy, the culture of catcalling becomes a roaring jungle of subjectivity and contradiction. During the dozens of conversations I’ve had about catcalling over the past six months, I’ve heard one woman speak ferociously against the machismo of catcalling, only to sheepishly admit later on that she had catcalled a man once, or maybe twice, but only as a joke. I’ve had men tell me that they catcall frequently, but only when they’re drunk, and it is always a joke. I spoke to a bisexual man from Colombia who told me that he likes getting catcalled by men, but only in gay neighborhoods, and only if they use “sweet words,” a rarity in Buenos Aires, according to him.

I want to be clear: Argentina is not the only place in the world where I have been catcalled, and it is most certainly not the only place in the world where it happens. But it is the place where I became interested in understanding why it happens. Growing up in New York, I was catcalled, but sparsely. I could probably count on two hands the number of piropos I received in 18 years of living there.

In Buenos Aires, on the other hand, walking the streets can be, at times, like walking under an avalanche of piropos (the quantity varying based on weather, time of day or night, neighbourhood, clothing choice, and/or the judged propriety of such clothing choice for all the above conditions or, frustratingly, none of the above, just pure subjectivity). I lived there just long enough to get fed up with the avalanche of piropos, but not long enough to get used to it.

“To men who [say] ‘well how am I supposed meet a woman on the street?’, I’d say ‘well, first of all, know that most women don’t want to meet you.’” Holly Kearl

Even more than getting fed up with the epidemic of catcalling in Buenos Aires, I found myself becoming rabidly curious about why men catcall. I know what goes through my head when somebody catcalls me: confusion, delayed comprehension, fear, anger, and/or exhausted indifference. But I had no idea what was going on in the minds of the men who catcalled me and other women all day, every day in Buenos Aires. So I decided to go for a walk with a friend and a recorder to interview the first person who catcalled us.

A man’s perspective

A friend and I found our subject walking through a plaza across the street from the Universidad de Buenos Aires’ medical school. Ricardo (the subject) is a med student. He was sitting, drinking beers with some friends after class, when he called out something unintelligible to us. We looked doubtfully at each other, turning slowly to look at him. All doubt was blown away as we were hit by a flurry of suggestive air kisses. “Mi amor!” he shouted. I took out my recorder, heart pounding in my chest.

But the conversation turned out to be deeply unsatisfying, because his answers were mostly what I had imagined they would be. Why had he catcalled us? Because we’re cute, he said, because he liked the way we were walking, and we have beautiful eyes. What goes through his head while he catcalls? “Nothing,” he replied dismissively, “I don’t know, I don’t think.” What was he expecting or hoping for when he’d catcalled us? A smile maybe, or that we would come for a chat.

I had been hoping for entirely something else, maybe a glimmer of misogyny, a hint that he purposefully and knowingly degraded women by catcalling them. Zilch. I had been refusing to accept that catcalling is a systemic, societal phenomenon, and could only be explained in those terms, with the frustrating everyone’s-to-blame-so-nobody-is logic that seems to always accompany societal problems.

Even more frustratingly, I had to admit that women were partly to blame, and that some women actively encourage catcalling. When I asked Ricardo, incredulously, if piropos ever actually worked for him, he smiled gently at me as if I were a bit stupid. “Of course,” he said. He had even been on dates with women he reeled in by piropo. “Women are just like men,” he told me, adding, “women are looking for something, too.”

He may be right, in a way. Women are sexual creatures too, and we can also be on the prowl. But women become, overwhelmingly, the passive subjects of piropos, whether we choose to answer or not. Does that mean that we, women, are just naturally sexually passive, waiting to be admired before we move in for the kill?

Holly Kearl, founder of stopstreetharassment.org, says no. And the fact that some women respond to piropos in a positive way, she claims, has more to do with plain old sexism than anything else. “We’re taught that the highest praise we can get is male attention, whether it’s positive or negative, but especially if it’s positive,” she said. “So I think it’s common – especially for young women – to feel complimented on some level [by street harassment].”

A woman’s perspective

Many of the women I spoke to, catcalled regularly or not, felt conflicted, stuck in the gap between liking and resenting being catcalled. “I think I’ll miss it when I go home,” my roommate, Iris, told me. She’s Dutch, 26 years old, and had been living and traveling in Latin America for over a year. “[When I go home,] it’s like, why isn’t anyone telling me anything anymore. What happened to me? It’s really contradictory because it’s nice and not nice at the same time. It’s really weird.”

One of my Argentine roommates, Kim, chimed in. “You would definitely miss it. You get comforted by it. It may sound stupid, but it’s like, if you put makeup on and then somebody [tells you] something, [you think] ‘I look pretty today.’ It’s like, I don’t like to hear it, but if I don’t receive it, I’ll get mad.”

But there are also women who don’t feel conflicted about piropos. Mariam, an exchange student in Buenos Aires who grew up in Abu Dhabi, hates being catcalled. In Abu Dhabi, she said, the streets are even more inundated with piropos than in Buenos Aires. She was about eight years old when it first happened to her there. And she realized a long time ago that men catcalling her has nothing to do with the way she looks. She told the story of how one time, as a teenager there, she made a conscious effort to dress in a way that wouldn’t attract male attention, and got catcalled anyway.

“I was having a really bad day, and I walked out of my house in an outfit that I specifically hoped would hide me, so I wouldn’t be seen. So I kind of dressed like a guy would, with sweatpants and big tennis shoes, a huge sweatshirt, and I put my hair in a beanie. No makeup, no nothing.”

“And ironically enough,” she continued, “just as I walked out of my house, I got catcalled by [someone] driving by in their car and slowing down. That was very surprising because I walked out with the preconceived thought that I did not want to be solicited in any way possible, not even in a friendly social way.”

Mariam’s story validates a perspective that I’ve come to take on after months of daily piropos: nothing I do matters. My appearance has nothing to do with the piropos I receive. But the idea that piropos are inspired by women’s beauty – rather than by men’s desire – is as tenacious as it is false. And no matter how baggy your sweatpants or neutral your appearance, it’s almost impossible to stop automatically checking your appearance after every piropo, searching for a cause.

Was that a catcall?

Miguel, a good-looking guy in his twenties from Buenos Aires, says that it’s the beauty of the women he passes on the street that inspires his piropos. “It could be 30 [times], if 30 women pass by [who inspire me],” he said. “I think that women enjoy it, because I know how to do it well.”

“I’m looking for a smile, and the women know that. Usually, I get a smile, because my piropos aren’t an offensive thing,” he added with a wry smile. He refused to give an example, explaining that he thinks up piropos on the spot. But as I was getting the mic set up before the interview, he asked me what a woman so colourfully dressed and with such beautiful hair could possibly want to talk to him about. This was, of course, before he knew that I’d be interviewing him about piropos. There are many people – men and women alike – who would say that what Miguel does is a perfect example of piropos done right. But what it’s really a perfect example of is why they’re a problem.

Miguel gives the name piropo to the things he says to women in the street (and the women themselves would probably also call them piropos) because that’s the format men know for talking to women in the street. And catcalling has become so dominant as the de facto form of street communication that if someone just says hello in passing, women will ask themselves: was that a catcall?

“People will ask me ‘what’s the difference between a compliment and harassment?’” said Kearl. “I think the difference is consent. It’s respect. And yeah, it’s really hard to give consent in a public space, because you don’t know each other. To men who [say] ‘well how am I supposed meet a woman on the street?’, I’d say ‘well, first of all, know that most women don’t want to meet you.’”

Emma, an exchange student from Dallas studying in Buenos Aires, had never been catcalled before going to study there. Since everyone drives everywhere in Dallas, she told me, there isn’t much opportunity for it. And the first time she was catcalled, she said, “I felt objectified and bad. It was definitely a negative feeling.”

“I was walking by some construction workers, and they just did the standard ‘hey’ and the kissy noises. But I just walked by and ignored it. It wasn’t like they were really saying anything. They were just making random noises at me, like I was a cat, a fucking animal. And I don’t understand how that’s supposed to be a compliment or how it’s supposed to feel good in any way, in that form.”

That’s not to say that all piropos are equally bad, or that there aren’t even some that can make you feel good. If someone calls out to me that my smile is a ray of sunshine that brightened up their day, I clearly take it differently than someone whispering in my ear that they’d like to fuck me blind. But if I’ve been told my smile is a ray of sunshine, I’ve also been commanded to smile – in passing, on the street – because I am beautiful. Nice or aggressive, a piropo is a piropo is a piropo.

A beauty sick society

Piropos both reveal and perpetuate our attitude toward women and their bodies as public objects to be soliloquized about and/or abused at will. When someone catcalls me, it unconsciously, and against my will, refocuses my attention to what society tells women and girls is our most valuable attribute, that is our looks, our bodies. In addition to the piropos themselves, it is their inherent nature of objectifying women that has very real and devastating consequences for women.

Renee Engeln, a psychology researcher at Northwestern University, calls these consequences “beauty sickness.” It’s a ‘sickness’ that, according to Engeln, has become epidemic among young women, although it does affect older women and even men to a lesser extent. She defines beauty sickness as an excessive preoccupation with one’s appearance, to the point where the amount of time, energy, and resources spent on trying to maintain and improve one’s attractiveness as judged by the public leaves little room for other pursuits.

She explained the paradigm at the TEDxUConn conference, going on to talk about the way that from early childhood, little girls are taught that they are, above all else, beautiful (or, if not, that they should aspire to be). She invites us to think about how the go-to compliment for a young girl is not that she is intelligent or courageous or creative, but rather that she is beautiful. These compliments could be considered a pint-sized version of piropos, eyedropper doses of objectification, administered – with the best of intentions and without a hint of malice – from birth.

Compliments that come at a cost

If this still seems hard to accept, talk to any woman about the way she feels when she gets catcalled walking alone at night. Iris, my roommate who said that she will miss catcalling when she goes home to Holland, also admitted that if someone catcalls her when she’s walking alone at night, she feels uncomfortable.

“[When I feel uncomfortable,] I’ll just smile or say thank you or goodnight. I’m just like, ‘okay, I’ll be nice and then quickly walk away,’” she said. “Maybe because I think if I’m arrogant or un-nice [sic] it’ll get worse.”

If women feel uncomfortable or intimidated or scared, if they feel obligated to smile or graciously accept a piropo, it’s because they are well aware of the violence that lurks behind them that could emerge at any moment. Catcalls are a daily re-assertion of the position of power that men hold over women, the power to tell us that we are beautiful and to punish us if we don’t take it well when they say so. They are a mechanism that ‘put women in their (our) place’ by reminding us what that place is, sexual objects subject to the whim of men.

“They were just making random noises at me, like I was a cat, a fucking animal. And I don’t understand how that’s supposed to be a compliment or how it’s supposed to feel good in any way, in that form.”
Emma

And piropos also have a concrete effect on many of the tiny decisions we make every day, from what route to take to work, to what time to come home, to what to wear out of the house. Mariam, who told the story of getting catcalled when she was dressed ‘as a boy’, said that when she was living in Buenos Aires, she would always consider the possibility of piropos when getting dressed to leave her apartment.

“If I’m wearing something with a little cleavage, I always [take] care to bring a scarf with me, in case I’m going to have to be walking at some point alone or taking a bus at night. Not because I’m afraid to get cold, necessarily, but [because of piropos].”

Piropos para todos?

Almost all the men I interviewed for this piece – lifelong catcallers or catcalling virgins, Argentine or not – shared one point of view: if the world changed tomorrow and women catcalled the way men do, they (the men) would probably be pretty happy about it. And several people, women and men alike, proposed it as a ‘solution’ to catcalling. Why doesn’t everyone just catcall everyone?

It turns out that the internet offers a wealth of material (here and here, to start) for people who dream of such a world. The videos are usually funny, but most are designed to shoot down the beloved proposal of piropos para todos (piropos for all) with the message being, you wouldn’t really like it if this happened to you.

The videos also get at a deeper truth, which is that the equal-opportunity catcalling world that they portray does not exist. There are men who get catcalled, of course, some of them even by the small minority of catcalling women. But they make up an exceptional slice of the overwhelming rule that piropos are designed to objectify women. The videos are funny because they are so untrue to life. We don’t live in a world where women objectify men in that way, and in any case, we’re probably better off for it.

So rather than trying to convert women into catcallers, we should make an effort to convert everyone to something else entirely. Humans are incredibly creative animals, and we can find a different, better way to talk to each other. I challenge everyone, catcallers and catcall-ees alike, to stop feeding the monster of street harassment and find another way to communicate. This one is broken.

Listen to the Unfit to Print podcast broadcast on CKUT 90.3fm on Friday, January 17th.

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