In a piece for the always classy New York Post, Doree Lewak wants all of us to know that “Hey Ladies – Catcalls are Flattering! Deal With It”. But as Natalie DiBlasio of USA Today points out, catcalls can actually be pretty frightening.
I’m with DiBlasio on this one. If you’re familiar with my writing you’ll know I talk quite a bit about street harassment, whether in the form of men interrupting me while I read, people assuming I’m pregnant, or boys catcalling me from a school bus. Hollaback! Boston has even published two of my personal accounts of street harassment, and I agree that whenever I’m catcalled, my primary emotion is anxiety.
For this reason it might surprise you to know that my issue with Lewak’s article is not that she claims catcalls are flattering. On the contrary. If Lewak finds validation in being “that objectified sex thing” for construction workers, it’s not really any of my business. No, my issue is her claim that we, “ladies,” should “deal with it.” One wonders, if Lewak really finds street harassment to be so validating and empowering, why should it matter to her if other women don’t like it? What does Lewak stand to lose? These are the things I ponder in the dark abyss of my soul before I fall asleep at night.
Before I go any further I would like to point out that I have never been rude to a catcaller. It’s not because I enjoy being harassed or I’m concerned about their feelings. It’s because I’m afraid of confrontation and physical violence. Ever since I read a news story about a man punching a woman in the face for refusing his advances on a train in my city, I’ve been especially wary of male hostility. So when I talk about the kinds of responses I get, it’s never from a jilted “admirer.” It’s from my community. It’s from all of you.
Repeatedly women are told, on this and many other subjects, to shut up and take a compliment.
Any time I share an anecdote about street harassment, about feeling gross or anxious or enraged, people rush in to tell me, as if this had never occurred to me, that perhaps I should take this as a compliment. Like Ms. Lewak, you, my community, are very invested in the idea that I should be flattered by things men say to me on the street. You rush to defend men you have never met, men who are long gone by the time I open up about my experience, men who will never hear how upset their actions made me feel.
The root of this problem seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of how compliments work. I can take a compliment. (I can also take a joke, another thing feminists are often told to “shut up and take,” but that’s another article). Compliments are extremely subjective. Once the intended compliment leaves your mouth, you have no idea how the recipient is going to react. Your intentions, however kind or playful, are irrelevant.
If I don’t just shut up and take your compliment, it’s because I don’t find it to be a compliment. Thus you, the complementor, have failed. If I am not complemented by what you say, it is, by definition, not a compliment.
Example: I have zero time for anything men have to say about my clothing or appearance, especially strangers, especially on the street (with the exception of my Wonder Woman sneakers, which are objectively awesome). So even the most sincere, un-creepy, well-intentioned compliment is going to annoy me. It causes me anxiety, because I have no idea if or when it’s going to turn skeezy or threatening, and it makes me hyper aware that I am being observed, which adds to my anxiety. Who’s fault is it if something meant to be nice is actually a huge inconvenience? Nobody is to blame. But I’m still anxious and annoyed.
Let’s try another hypothetical example with a different subject. Suppose someone approached me on the train and handed me a jar of cashews, saying: “Here is a delicious snack.” This person doesn’t know me very well, because otherwise he would know that two times in college, I became violently ill after eating cashews, and have since developed a strong aversion. To me, this is not a delicious snack or a kind gesture. With something as simple as food, I could explain how I feel, and the other party would probably be very understanding. He probably wouldn’t, for example, tell me to shut up and take the snack or call me an ungrateful bitch, which tends to happen when women speak up about street harassment.
The difference of course is that “compliments” from strangers aren’t really about the person being complemented. They’re about male entitlement and power. Otherwise, these men and Ms. Lewak and you, my community, would not be so upset when women don’t blush and smile and shut up and take these compliments.
Why are so many people invested in whether or not women feel flattered by street harassment? Why are Ms. Lewak and so many of my acquaintances so deeply bothered when I voice an objection? Why do people rush in to defend men they have never met despite the fact that I confess to feeling anxious and humiliated after incidents of street harassment?
The answer to this is, unfortunately, very simple. We live in a society that places men’s ego, men’s feelings, men’s opinions, in a position of greater importance than women’s desire to feel respected or safe.
Ms. Lewak, various aunts, annoying older woman at the laundromat: you are of course free to feel complimented by anything you like. Empowerment, confidence, blah, blah, blah. But the next time you find yourself about to tell a woman (or anyone, for that matter) to shut up and take a compliment, ask yourself why it matters to you. I hope the answer to that question sincerely disturbs you, because I’ve been losing sleep over it for quite a while.