The first time I was catcalled at Yale was by a man I had met at church. It was one of those mornings when fall had lovingly embraced New Haven — the leaves were burnt ochre, the wind was whistling its own tune, and I was wearing a striped T-shirt dress. Knee-length, no less — the one I had met my boyfriend’s parents in. Striding up Prospect Street, as briskly as one can in gladiator sandals, I was lost in my own thoughts, until .…
I whipped my head to the right. Surely it couldn’t have been directed at me, could it? It didn’t take me long for my eyes to fall on a parked car in which a smirking old man sat, his face framed by wisps of wild white hair. A cheap version of Einstein. I recognized his face instantly, the way you recognize the face of someone who you were introduced to but whose name you have since lost in the crevices of your mind. I kept my head down and trudged forward, tugging furiously at my dress.
By the time I reached the crosswalk, I remembered why his face was so familiar. Two weeks ago, in the basement of a local New Haven church, he had told our student group about his family over bibimbap. He sang the same hymns as we did, listened to the week’s sermon with us and told us that his daughter was a first year at Yale — just like me.
Every time I’m catcalled, I tell myself that, next time, I’ll respond and make the perpetrator feel the shame that his words have tangled me in. I tell myself that, if he attacks me because of my rebuke, I’ll have pepper spray at the ready and 911 on speed dial. I tell myself that it’ll be different next time, but it never is.
When a woman is catcalled, she won’t talk about it. She’ll put her head down, keep walking and brush it off as best she can. What else can she do? In a world where rape and sexual assault exist, these smaller violations of a woman’s dignity are deemed inconsequential. Before I go any further, let me first emphasize that nothing should diminish the conversations about the rape and sexual assault in our society that deeply impact the lives of both women and men and leave scars that are much deeper than those of catcalling and sexual harassment. That being said, it’s still crucial for women to speak up about these “small” violations, because, really, they’re anything but small. The first time a man catcalls an unsuspecting woman and gets away with it, he internalizes that it’s okay. A world in which men can get away with catcalling and sexual harassment is a world in which they believe that they can take it a step further toward sexual assault and rape.
The other day, I was calling one of my best friends, whom we’ll call “Richard.” One of Richard’s male friends barged in, saw me on the screen and asked if I was his “f—buddy.” About a week later, another one of his friends came into his dorm room, saw me on the screen and said to him, “I hear you’ve got a lot of hoes.”
There are men who are unaware that catcalling and sexual harassment are bright red threads that run through the fabric of women’s everyday lives. These uninvited insults are our morning greetings on our way to class, the background noise to our afternoons and the evening commentary on our way home. I’ve made it a point to sit down with the men in my life, unraveling the fabric of my every day, tracing the red threads with a delicate finger for them to see. I explain to them that it’s important to me that they choose to speak up, rather than sitting tight-lipped. It shows a societal rejection of the idea of male entitlement towards a woman’s body and begins to quell a culture that brushes off actions from catcalling all the way to rape. A simple “Hey man, that’s not cool” is a step toward preventing a red thread from interrupting the fabric of another woman’s daily life.
To those who have experienced catcalling and sexual harassment, you don’t have to accept it as normal. Your experiences are valid and worth speaking up about. They’re not “too small to talk about” because these “small” experiences are the foundation of a society in which sexual assault and rape can exist.
I still wear that striped T-shirt dress.
Katherine Hu is a first year in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .