What We Hear

When I left my apartment to go to class that afternoon, as I recall, I was wearing a suit with either a high-necked shell or a collared shirt. I can’t remember why; I must have been giving a presentation. In any case, the outfit was modest and professional, not form-fitting–I don’t do form-fitting–or revealing in any way. My pace, as usual, was quick and purposeful. And with my backpack over my shoulder, I was very clearly on my way to campus, the edge of which was just around the corner and up one block from where I lived.
I hadn’t even reached the corner when a truck slowed down beside me, and a male voice said, “Hey, baby.”
I pretended I was deaf.
“All right, geez,” the guy said, sounding offended. I think he called me a name. In any case, the truck moved on, and I hurried on to class and tried to put the incident out of my mind.

You can see how well that worked, considering that happened… six or seven years ago.

There’s a difference between catcalling and giving someone a friendly greeting as you pass. I hear and return the latter all the time; that’s the way Texas is. We’ll say, “Hi! How are you?” to total strangers just as a matter of course. It’s common courtesy.
Note, too, that I’m not the kind of woman to scream, “Help, help, I’m bein’ repressed!” every time a man looks at me. I’m the oldest girl in the family and am blessed with an abundance of outstanding male relatives. I have a boatload of amazing guy friends who have never shown me an iota of disrespect. (Seriously, if they all brought their wives and kids, we could probably fill a small cruise liner.) I’ve been the only girl–in the group, on the team, at the table, in the room–more times than I can count and not felt the slightest unease. In 23 years of school, I can count the number of blatantly, belligerently sexist classmates I had on one hand.

I think that’s why the bad encounters stand out to me, why they rankle more. I know so many good guys that the Nice Guys are easier to spot as just plain jerks. But the Nice Guys are still out there, as are the bad guys, and every woman, at some point in her life, will hear a “Hey, baby!” from at least one of them.

I’m writing this partly in response to an article about an actress who used a hidden camera to document how often she got catcalled in ten hours of walking through the streets of NYC. I haven’t watched the video, so I don’t know whether the comments claiming that most of the calls were simple friendly greetings are correct. I do know that it gave my friend Danielle flashbacks to being sexually harrassed on a regular basis while she and her husband were serving in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia–by men who knew she was married. And that tells me a lot, because she’s no radical feminist, either.

Here’s the thing. There are indeed women who put themselves at risk with what they wear and where they go–but even if every woman wore a burka and never went anywhere but the post office and the grocery store, there would still be the calls of, “Hey, baby!” Some of that may be due to guys genuinely not knowing how women hear that phrase: not as a friendly greeting, but as a Come hither, an unwanted advance, a proposition. But as my friend Alan wisely noted a few months back, a large part of the problem is that many people haven’t learned to appreciate beauty without wanting to possess it, own it, control it. (And let’s face it: given the popularity of movies like Magic Mike and books like Fifty Shades of Grey, women aren’t necessarily blameless on this score, either.)

I don’t know what the answer is, since the creeps will always be with us until Jesus returns to set the world right. But we do at least need to acknowledge that the problem exists and learn to place the blame where it belongs–or at any rate to recognize where it doesn’t belong.

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