Letter to the Editor: A response to last week’s “Catcalls and harassment” column

By Alyssa Long

This particular Opinion piece bothered me. This, before you think it, does not make me less of a feminist. Ms. Youse boldly declares that, “If you believe that sexual harassment isn’t serious, that it’s funny, that it’s flattering — you are dead wrong.” While no reasonable person would disagree with her charge, it is the underlying implication that all women perceive certain situations in the same way, as harassment, which is disagreeable.

The editor describes an unfortunate morning. She took thoughtful steps in her new boots on the ice that coated the throat of our campus, it’s walkways. A man whistled at her, and she fell, spilling her lipstick, vitamins, credit cards, phone, makeup bag, and iPad out of her “brown leather fringe bag.” Her white shirt wetted, two boys “catcalled” her from outside Smith Hall, and she was late to class.

My first issue lies with the blame shifted onto the whistler. Whether or not the whistler’s actions are harassment, I’ll discuss later. However, the editor clearly insinuates that the man’s whistling caused her to fall. She shifts him the blame for her injury, wet clothes, her scuffed “Zara Italian leather boot,” and the slick film over all the precious things that fell out of her purse. This assumption is unfair and unthoughtful, because it implies that it was either his intention, or control over an invisible cosmic force, that caused her to fall. I think it is fair to assume that it was a combination of her more-ornamental-than-purposeful shoes, the ice, being in a hurry, and a sudden distraction that caused her to fall. If anything, the man’s whistle is correlated with her fall; it is not a causation.

Secondly, if the man who whistled didn’t cause the editor to fall down, can he be further shamed for not halfing out his cigarette to help her up? The editor goes on that, “Instead of coming over to help me, he and his friend laughed and catcalled me.” Have you never fallen, and helped yourself up? Have you never seen someone fall, and didn’t help them up? It is my opinion and experience that women do not need men’s help to stand. It is interesting that the editor is holding the man who is a “sexist” for whistling, accountable for her safety, comfort, and closure. Did she really want his help? Interpretively, having read though not experienced, their follow-up quip: “Get yourself wet there, sweetie?” reads more condescending than sexually threatening. Embarrassing, to a certain self-esteem, yes. Threatening, no. This is not to say that the anecdotes provided were by proxy neither gruesome or incorrigible. Sexual violence is an evil fruiting gravity, and at a gross contrast to getting wet and losing a few minutes, to a class in which you run a, “usual ten minutes late.”

Finally, it’s interesting that at the heart of her frustration are all these things, spilled out on the ground. She curses the universe, not only for making dampening the contents of her purse, made them a bit salty, but that it even “threw in a couple of sexist assholes.” The structure of her sentence invalidates her attribution of blame. She carefully names, and by naming gifts importance to, all the things these men caused her to ruin.

As someone who grew up under-class poor and pays OWU tuition, it was easy to identify class-specific and discriminating language, the privilege to be a materialist. The editor has “109” pairs of shoes, operates under the “look-good-do-good principle,” stressing how intimately aware she is of her external identity, what other people see, and how she wants her adornments to actualize it in the minds of others.

Further, the piece is rich with nouns indicating privilege: “Zara,” a name-brand; “Italian leather,” notoriously expensive; “brown leather fringe bag,” its elaborate description indicating importance, or specialness; “all my credit cards,” obvious; and the “iPad,” $399.00-$929.00 new. There are also adjectives, descriptive phrases and nouns that derogate stereotypically poor or underclass behavior. The devastation the editor felt, beholding her scuffed boot, makes all those living the daily reality of scuffs seem inhuman, or savage.

She derides — not the catcall, or whistle, or men who executed however-you-load-it-behavior which she perceived as inappropriate — them for what their cars must look and smell like, if the kind of man that whistles at a woman is also always one who lives in the, “back of (a) beatup Honda that smells like meth.” The statement is a gesture that, like a catcall, could be taken as a charming joke, or worse, a cruel reminder of the structural power the rich have over the poor.

My critique of this piece is that it should have been more thoughtful, and empathetic to women with dissimilar experiences. Many women will admit that, sometimes, someone hollering across the street about how beautiful they are — though they may not respond, or express disinterest — feels good.  When I have to choose between my only meal for the day and a tank of gas, and some guy at the pump tells me he’d like to give me a pump, I’m not going to blame him for my hunger. I’m not going to be made less by a man, because I refuse to. I take the honesty, the courage, and the juvenescence from his compliment because I have more important things to worry about; and, if someone’s that hungry for my reaction, I think I have power over them.

My criticism is not meant to validate the actions of men who will always be boys, but to qualify the experiences and reactions of women who are not middle to upper class whites, and whose issues are much more grave. As a woman, too, and one whose life has not been so safe, I am not so naive as to think I’ll always have power. I, like all women, have known vulnerability, lied helpless at the mercy of an angry creature. Like all women, whom are systemically and physically vulnerable to men, I sense when someone is not someone to ignore. That’s why I carry a blade.

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One Comment

  1. Thank you so much for articulating my feelings on this article in such an eloquent way. I appreciate that there are OWU students out there who decide to focus on things that might be considered more important to the middle class and the poor. Not everything is about you–Alyssa, you phrased this simple sentiment so much better than I ever would have.

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