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Next time, bite your tongue

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Catcalling seems to be unavoidable these days–even in places like Stanford, where people theoretically know better. Just this week, I was walking home by myself from Late Nite when a group of boisterous (fairly wasted) guys started making loud, vulgar requests in my general direction as I shuffled home. The responses I got from my friends later as I complained fell in one of two camps. Either they understood my outrage or they saw it as a form of flattery, and told me to take the compliment and stop complaining.

It’s definitely not the first time I’ve gotten that response. I’ve found that many of my male and female friends, even the ones who would never catcall, are generally pretty forgiving towards people who do, cavalierly waving it away as a poorly executed compliment.

Google catcalling and you’ll find responses pretty much split down the middle. About a third of the articles/videos talk about how degrading it is; another third talk about catcalling as a source of self-esteem; and the final third seems to mull about between the two, basically asking the question: is catcalling really a problem? The fact that some people enjoy it does seem to put catcalling in more of a grey area. But everyone is different; male or female, some people are okay with being ogled at or groped as a form of flirtation, and might even see it as a form of flattery. But because you can’t tell simply by looking at someone which camp they fall in, it’s never okay to assume. Catcalling at will is unacceptable not because the people who are flattered by it don’t count; it’s unacceptable because, as with anything else, consent is paramount.

The arguments for catcalling definitely have merit. In an article entitled “Hey, ladies – catcalls are flattering! Deal with it,” Astraid Stawiarz says she seeks it out. She says, “When I know I’m looking good, I brazenly walk past a construction site, anticipating that whistle and ‘Hey, mama!’ catcall. Works every time – my ego and I can’t fit through the door.” She argues that feminism is defined by self-empowerment and that women shouldn’t have to apologize for craving sexual attention.

Men and women should be allowed to do as they please with their bodies, and no one has the right to degrade them for those choices. But the opposite is also true. Feminism is certainly about self-empowerment. But that also means we can choose not to enjoy that kind of brazen objectification. Wolf whistles and catcalling may be an ego boost for some, but fundamentally, objectification is a power play. Catcalls reduce women to objects for visual gratification; irrespective of their individuality, intellect or income, they are suddenly powerless to prevent or counteract a depreciation of their own worth. They’re reduced to their physiology.

Women as a collective shouldn’t have to choose either side to be faithful to their gender, but we should recognize that we are individuals with different preferences and the line of what’s acceptable shouldn’t be violated for any of us. The assumption that because one woman says it’s okay means we should all learn to “deal with it” is ridiculous, and completely defies the logic of self-empowerment through feminism Stawiarz preaches about.

Everything is a spectrum, and there are certainly people who would argue that harassment and catcalling are very different things. Where catcalling is harmless and playful, harassment is vicious and offensive. But where’s the line? Stacey Dash argues “as long as you don’t come within arm’s length, it’s good.” But it doesn’t take a linguistic genius to verbally harass someone from a distance, and everyone’s definition is slightly different. Monica Potts describes the ambiguity well, saying “in its less extreme, and probably more common forms, street harassment takes a seemingly innocuous tone – “smile, beautiful,” or “hello, gorgeous,” comments I’m willing to bet nearly every city-dwelling woman has heard. That tone, which in a normal situation could be taken as complimentary, might lead some to misunderstand.”

And that’s the point. Catcalling on the street, it’s impossible to know your audience, and while some men and women might agree with Stacey Dash’s laissez faire attitude (“men will be men,”) we shouldn’t have to. The reality is that no matter how innocuous the intention, and as accustomed as we may have become to brushing it off and moving along, this kind of outright disrespect is never justifiable without consent. We seem to have a theoretical understanding of what it means to be a feminist, or believe in the equality of the sexes. But understanding is only as deep as its ability to change your behavior.

In other words, having a theoretical idea in class of what’s politically correct and what isn’t is useless if you don’t have the respect to follow through in your everyday interactions. The whole purpose of education is self-improvement. If at the end of the day, the only compliment you can think of is “nice legs,” remember the old saying: if you have nothing nice to say, better to say nothing at all.

Contact Anja Young at ayoung3 ‘at’ stanford.edu.