Now, can we have a serious conversation about the dangers of cat-calling?
I saw a big debate erupt on Facebook a few months ago when one of my friends posted an article written by a woman who was tired of hearing things like, “Smile, beautiful!” from men on the street. Comments ranged from women sympathizing and saying how irritating and tiring random comments from men are to others said they didn’t mind if it was a compliment, as opposed to a honk, gesture, or some kind of grunting noise. (Really, who grunts? Does that ever work?)
I had a lot to say in response to the thread, but instead I held my tongue. It was too upsetting and personal of an issue to get into at the time. But I just got a text from my wife telling me it happened again, so now I have something to say.
My wife, simply put, is gorgeous. And I’m not saying this out of bias, it’s just a fact. She’s that kind of beautiful that actually stops people in their tracks. But even though she’s a looker, the best thing about her is that so much of her radiance comes from her incredible warmth and goodness as a being. It shines from her like a huge beam of light.
Unfortunately, though, my wife’s attractiveness has actually been a huge hurdle for her in her life. From struggling to be taken seriously and seen for more than her looks to literally being followed down the street by dudes who “just have to talk to her,” she is harassed by men on almost a daily basis.
I wish this were an exaggeration. They try compliment her. They try to flirt with her. They ask her out. Millionaires have asked if they could buy her. Not once, but four or five times. Businessmen have advised her to deemphasize her spirituality and capitalize on her looks to get ahead in the work world.
A lot of people are probably reading this thinking, “Cry me a river.” But knowing my wife has given me a front-row seat to the sad price certain people are made to pay by a society that is so looks-driven. If you’ve never seen this first hand, think about it.
You go to the grocery store and the checkout clerk just has to tell you how pretty your eyes are. The next day, a guy follows you down the street, saying, “Hey, beautiful!” Then at the post office, a guy walks across the lobby and says, “You have a great figure. I just had to tell you that.” (Did you? Would it have hurt you just to think it?)
And each time it’s on you to come up with a response that somehow politely acknowledges them, yet doesn’t encourage their advances. Or you can ignore them completely and once again hear them mutter “bitch,” or something even more colorful as you walk away.
And she’s not a bitch. In fact, she’s the kindest person I’ve ever met. All of this attention actually makes her sad, because she wishes people would pay attention to something more meaningful than her legs, like making the world a better place.
Why do you think some women are so much more likely to talk to men walking a cute dog or holding a baby? It’s because, for them, that is true masculinity. Men and women, alike, have distorted masculinity into something violent, aggressive, and smarmy. In reality, the protection that most women truly long to feel is not fueled by domination, but stability and love.
How men talk to women is powerful. It has the power to heal, to demonstrate respect. And it has the power to do the opposite, to make her feel like an object.
Conservative estimates are that one in four women has been sexually abused. Talk (really talk) to the women in your life and you’ll quickly realize it’s way more common than that.
Most of my wife’s very first memories of being in this world are of sexual abuse at the hands of a young male relative. Later, when she was 14, her first boyfriend raped her and goaded his friends into doing the same. Sadly, that’s not even close to her whole story.
Many women are taught early on that their bodies are toys for boys and men.
You may think it’s polite to compliment a woman on how attractive she is. On her eyes, her smile, her figure. And you’re not wrong, if you know her. But when you do this to a stranger, what you may not realize is that many women will feel as though you are reducing her to her parts. You’re reinforcing—intentionally or not—that she should care what you think of her because you’re a man.
We walked up to a restaurant the other week and the maitre’d said to her, “Wow, I was going to say something about the smile, but now I see the eyes.” I looked over at him. This man didn’t really see my wife. He was speaking to her as if she was a thing. We turned around quietly and walked out.
I don’t think most of the men who approach my wife or other women they don’t know are jerks. Politicians, high-powered lawyers, and foreign royalty aside, most guys are just trying to engage, and I know that can be hard, and scary, especially when tv and magazines give you such awful advice about what women want and like.
If you’re genuinely trying to start a conversation, maybe just smile and say, “Hi. I hope you’re having a nice day.” Then leave it there. If she wants to engage you back, she will. Then, when you actually get to know something about her, you can determine whether she, in turn, warrants your continued attention.
Photo: Steven Depolo/Flickr