Sara Wong is tired of being told that she should be flattered by the unwelcome catcalls she receives from random men on the street.
Before I went to study in the States, my parents and grandparents wanted to cut all my hair off. They wanted me in an old-fashioned bob. Their reason? So I would not attract unwanted attention from men.
And it wasn’t just my hair. Everything I wore—from my shoes to my tops—was constantly scrutinized. I was not even allowed to buy clothes by myself; everything had to be first approved by my mother. During our shopping expeditions, these were her most-used lines: “No skirts above your knees! Don’t show so much skin! Why are you trying to attract so much attention?”
As much as I did not appreciate my family controlling my outer appearances, I understood their motivations. My city is a dangerous one; they wanted to shield me from the common problem of street harassment, but they were more worried about the many cases of kidnapping and rape that happened frequently as I grew up.
But the truth is, no matter what I wore (or didn’t wear) I could never feel safe on the streets. I am advised to look down, ignore them and walk on. It’s hard to ignore the constant catcalls and stalkers who follow you around. People tell me not to look at them, and I don’t. I don’t need to look up to see the undisguised, unmistakable gleam of lust in their eyes; I have seen it too many times before.
Sometimes I imagine what it would be like if our roles were reversed. If men were the ones in our position; silenced, forced to look away and just for that moment, wanting nothing more than to be invisible. They laugh, they say it’s just “for fun,” they are “kidding”; but it doesn’t feel like “fun” to me, it feels like terror.
I think what pains me the most is that women are constantly told to ignore street harassment. After all, there are more important issues to worry about, such as rape and you know, “real” sexual harassment that happens in the office.
But guess what? Sexual harassment happens all the time; when a man shouts out to a woman crossing the street, saying “You’re hot, want to give me the time of the day?” or “Jump in the car, baby, we should get to know each other.” Sometimes I am scared to simply cross the street, because there’s a group of lingering men on the other side, whistling and hooting at women passing by. Does this not count as a “real” problem?
If it is not obvious to most men, let me make it clear. If you catcall, leer, whistle, and make sexually charged comments at women walking past you, you are a bully. Yes, you read correctly—a bully. You make me feel scared, you feed on my terror as your comments and presence force me into submission and I look down, avoiding your eyes. You, however, have the privilege of the male gaze; for that brief moment, your eyes roam freely over me and you own me through your gaze. I’m just an object—or rather, your object—that you can touch, comment on, and leer at.
Unfortunately, the effects of street harassment do not end when the catcalls die down. Often, my peers tell me that I should “feel flattered” as it is a “compliment.” Well, if this is a compliment, it’s a sick one. This type of thinking is so ingrained in society that I have heard young girls lamenting their lack of attention from men in the streets. Yes, we live in a world that socializes women to believe that their self-worth is directly proportional to the amount of attention they get from men. We don’t have to look far to see the effects of this kind of thinking; just take a walk on the streets. Women who are being harassed feel unsafe; women who are not harassed feel a sense of unworthiness, as if they have somehow failed as a woman. It’s a losing situation on every end.
Half the time, after I walk away from the catcalls and vulgar comments, I breathe a sigh of relief. And yet, the other half of the time, I am disgusted with myself. I am usually able to stand up for myself and my rights; with street harassment, I am at a loss. I have tried telling these men that it is wrong, but I am met with delirious hoots of laughter and even more lewd comments.
I am not asking the police to arrest every single man who makes vulgar comments at women walking by. But I am asking parents, educators, and politicians to recognize that there is a problem, as real as any other. Street harassment is part of rape culture as it teaches men that women are sex objects that men have power over. Street harassment also teaches a woman that her voice is irrelevant and that she is subservient to men. If we want to end rape culture, we need to work on ending street harassment as well.
Men of all ages need know that no matter what a woman is wearing, or how turned on they are, they do not have the right to harass women on the streets. It’s not women that need to change—their clothes, attitudes, or their mindsets. Rather, society needs to stop telling men that this type of behavior is OK. It’s not.
Until I can walk down the street without forcing myself to look down when I see a man approaching, I will not subscribe to the belief that men and women today are equal. I am tired of being silent; I am tired of looking down in submission.
We need to educate young boys and men on the inappropriateness of street harassment. I admit that I do not know what women experiencing street harassment should do; I am only a young woman who has been in this position far too many times. But I do know this: We should stop looking down. For every pair of eyes that are turned down in submission, men learn that they have power over women. It is time to hold our heads high.
Sara Wong grew up in Malaysia but is now studying at Pomona College, California. She plans to major in English and spends most of her time dancing, reading and writing.