Last month a group called Hollaback released a video that quickly became one of the more talked-about clips of the year. It was the catcalling video heard round the world, and it brought to light the near-constant barrage of verbal assault women face as they go about their day-to-day lives. As might have been expected, a lot of men pushed back against the thesis of the video. #notallmen and all that.
There's probably no chance of a guy truly understanding this from a woman's point of view. Going about my business and suddenly feeling sexually threatened just isn't something I can simulate. Still, as a non-catcaller, I thought I might learn something by getting into the shitty mindset of a catcaller, so I decided to try it out. Only instead of yelling at females I'd never met, I would direct my unwanted attention only at other men.
I recruited a friend to accompany me to the high foot traffic area of LA known as Hollywood and Highland, where tourists and locals alike try their best to avoid being accosted by mangy Elmos. My friend would serve as my photographer for this endeavor, but more importantly, as a cute female, she could draw upon her lifetime of catcall experience and coach me on what to say to my targets. We found a ledge upon which to post up and I got to work.
I started out timidly enough.
"Hey. How's it going?" No reaction. I needed to engage more.
"Hey? Where you going?" Now I was getting somewhere, my coach assured me. It still needed some finessing, though.
The next hour was spent refining my technique with all the men who walked by. Most, surprised at actually being pulled out of their bubble by a stranger talking at them, became flustered and returned volley with a "Oh, hi" or "thanks" of their own. Others tucked their heads down and plowed forward with a newfound sense of urgency, lest a crazy person on the sidewalk rope them into a conversation, or worse, ask them for change.
I'm no stranger to this approach. Anyone trying to talk to me as I go about my daily walking business usually gets iced out with silence, and maybe a gesture toward my earbuds, the universal sign for "I can't hear you". That means I would have been a boring subject in my own experiment. It was only when I started using an old chestnut, suggested by my coach, that things got interesting.
"Hey, man. You should smile. It's a beautiful day!"
It's a phrase that might just be the bane of every woman's existence. But it actually got positive reactions from a few guys. A few ignored me, but the overwhelming majority of men who I hit with some iteration of this line did a double take and then gave me a big toothy grin like I was orchestrating some heartstring-tuggy YouTube video. Maybe guys really didn't see that sort of command as inappropriate. Maybe these fellas found the suggestion to be the boost in spirit they needed at that moment. Maybe men really are from Mars. Or maybe they just hadn't been told to smile by 100,000 males over the course of a lifetime.
The tourist element may have been tainting my sample, however. These weren't all people on their way to and from work in a city they call home. There were far too many jet-setters on vacation who jumped at the opportunity to speak with a local.
I'd start with something like "that's a cute jacket, dawg", butching up my voice a bit so the recipient would know I wasn't about any funny business with that compliment. But then the guy would do a quick about-face and trot back to me all excited, saying thank you before asking me a bunch of questions about LA and what they could do for fun around here and would I mind taking a picture of them by this Marilyn Monroe star? I didn't sign up for this. Somehow, the harasser had become the harassee. I ratcheted up my glower and pressed on.
At the beginning of my second hour of catcalling, an Australian fellow was way too eager to stop in his tracks and sidle back over to me when I asked "how's your day going?" He stood uncomfortably close to where I was sitting and offered me a cigarette as I silently nudged my friend to ready her camera. I declined his cigarette and jumped into the conversation that was now happening whether I liked it or not.
"What're you up to?" he asked.
"Just hanging out".
"Cool, yeah, me and the boys are just up from Mexico for the day".
"What were you guys doing down there?" I stupidly pressed.
"Just on a bit of a cruise. Did some partying".
"So…" his voice lowered, as if we were filming a bad after school special, "you think you could, uh, help me out and I'll take care of you?"
This was terrifyingly vague. Did he want drugs? Did he want to buy me as some sort of rentboy? Did he need assistance changing a flat? Whatever the subtext, I decidedly could not help him out and told him as much, which sent him on his way. If my catcalling had written a check I couldn't actually cash, I felt a little guilty about it.
Little did I know this would not be my most uncomfortable exchange of the afternoon.
Shortly after the Aussie departed, a late middle-aged man passing out tour bus fliers came up to talk to me after I hollered "looking good out there" at him. He strode over wearing a safari vest and cowboy hat and was otherwise the spitting image of Larry David.
"Can I ask you a question? Can I? Now, you gotta promise you won't get mad at me".
"Sure" I acquiesced. Was he going to ask if this was a prank? If I was gay? My mind reeled with possibilities.
"What do you think of this president?"
Oh, God. No. I was all too familiar with this sort. This had nothing to do with catcalling. He just needed victims to spit political crazy at. I had ventured too close to his event horizon and now, much like in Interstellar, I would escape only after many years had passed in Earth time, demoralised and having learned nothing in the process.
I'll spare you the full recounting of the next half hour, but some highlights included Larry (yes, the Larry David looking guy was actually named Larry) explaining to me:
- How Christopher Hitchens wrote a book detailing how President Clinton raped four women: "Forget this Bill Cosby nonsense. The real monster is that pervert, Bill Clinton!"
- How we're fucking up our handling of ISIS: "Americans are getting beheaded every day and everyone is just like, 'Where's my fucking Starbucks?!'"
- How Howard Stern and the whackpack get comedy right: "You've got to be willing to cross the fucking line like Sal and Richard".
- How he's so successful with the ladies: "You know why I get so much trim at 65, anyone I want? Cause I pay them no mind". Larry had officially blown up my spot.
Realising I'd be able to accomplish no more work in this primo locale with Larry spitting superior insanity game, I was forced to grab my coach and high-tail it to a new base of operations.
A guy who circled back to hit on my friend
A trend emerged in the last stretch: Men who had been victim to my catcalling only moments before would circle back to wink, smile, or try chatting with my friend. Keep in mind that she had spent this entire afternoon sitting a reasonable distance from me, doing whatever on her phone. So, it's not like I was implicitly roping her into any potential convos through my actions. Nonetheless, the attention I had just given some of these men was quickly brushed off with the Swiffer of cognitive dissonance as they mounted their own attacks on my poor friend. She even texted me later to document the two "hey, girl" remarks she got on the walk back to her car.
I don't know exactly what I learned from this dip into the ocean of catcalling that affects millions of women every day. Nobody got in my face or called me a faggot, which was a nice surprise. It was certainly strange to see how many dudes responded positively to the charade. Perhaps my lack of intent to actually do anything besides talk at them was what set me aside from your everyday catcaller, but then again, maybe not.
While I maintain that catcalling is a shitty thing to do, and if you can't find another possible way to meet and socialise with strangers then maybe you deserve to be alone, this afternoon did give me some possible insight into the minds of these guys. I hadn't thought that most people would engage me. I figured I'd be ignored for 99 percent of my day. But maybe these catcalling pricks have the same (lack of) expectations. They very well may be big, dumb dogs chasing cars who wouldn't know what to do if they caught one.
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