The first time I was "cat-called", I was ten years old. While walking down a street with my father after one of my soccer games, a stranger whistled as I walked by and called out "Hey, baby! I'm loving the way your body looks in that uniform! You can play with my balls any day!"
I remember feeling confused. Had I done something wrong? My father was infuriated; he yelled at the man, spewing insults and obscenities while the stranger just laughed in our faces. "That was extremely inappropriate," I recall my father telling me. "Never let a man treat you that way. Never let anyone demean you like that."
This was my first experience with sexual harassment, and to this day I have not forgotten the uncomfortable, sickening, and somewhat ashamed feeling that overwhelmed my being that day on the street. My physique was not and should not have been sexually arousing for anyone, especially not a middle-aged man. However, as I grew older and my body continued to develop and change, the harassment only worsened -- my basic appearance drew inexplicably disturbing attention. The comments I received grew to be more vulgar, and men old enough to be my father or grandfather attempted and often tried to grab and touch me inappropriately in broad daylight.
I might've blamed myself for this mistreatment, but now I am knowledgeable enough to know that never once did I do anything to deserve this sexual harassment. When men whistle and holler at me as I walk by, I stop in my tracks and confront them. "Do that again," I'll provoke carefully and courageously, standing as tall as I can and never breaking eye contact. "Do you think I like being treated like that? It's not flattering, it's not considerate, and it's not okay. I would like an apology."
With confrontation I find that most harassers are baffled and flabbergasted. They don't seem to believe that their behavior is wrong, that making a woman feel unsafe is entirely justified. In a world where "the future of our organizations depends on having more women in management", we continue to thrive in a society that recognizes objectifying women as a social norm, where "ordinary women are being reduced to their sexual body parts." Needless to say, I am more than my body; I have a voice and a mind that I use to the best of my ability, and nothing is sexier than confident intelligence.
Not every man on Planet Earth has objectified a woman. Not every man on Planet Earth has harassed a woman sexually. Sixty-five percent of women in the United States have experienced street harassment. Sixty-five percept of women have been demoralized, demeaned, and made to feel uncomfortable in a public space. Social normalities and acceptable societal behaviors can only change if the participants in the society enforce it; if every man made a conscious effort to educate themselves on what is and what is not sexual harassment, the chances of a respectful male crossing the line would drop dramatically. Many individuals do not know what is and what is not harassment, which is appalling and disgusting. Every individual, male or female, woman or child, deserves emotional, verbal, and physical respect from even the most obscure stranger.
If every girl took her "compliments" seriously, where would society look like? Would teen pregnancy, eating disorder, depression, and even suicide rates be higher? Would there be female CEOs and Congresswomen? Would we have a female presidential candidate? When the sun rises tomorrow, the cat-callers will still congregate on the corner and sexual harassment -- alongside sexual assault -- will still be very, very real. But by the time I am an adult with a family of my own, I want to feel as if my daughter is safe, not only from perverted men but also from the mentality that she is nothing more than a sexualized body. Our world needs more girls and women standing up to their harassers when appropriate; our world needs more men that recognize that a woman's worth does not lie in her appearance. We have to be willing to fight for a safer environment.
I know I am ready to walk down a street and hear the resounding noise of silence, and there won't be a cat in sight. After all, I'm a dog person. I bite back.
Photograph by Terry Richardson.