My Name is Not “Baby” and Other Reasons Why Catcalling is Not a Form of Flattery

There is a kind of coming-of-age for every young girl in New York City.

No, not when you finally grow out of your Abercrombie studded jeans and your mom starts offering to price-check Tampax for you at every local store – it’s a different kind of growing up; one where you step out of your apartment building and are met with the “damn” and “hey baby” of the adult world.

It started when I was twelve and I grew out of my boyish figure and developed a little extra weight in places that had previously bore the brunt of jokes from boys in my 6th grade class.  As the years passed, I learned that this change had placed me on an entirely different playing field.  I was no longer the little girl who held my mom’s hand as we crossed the street, or the giddy middle schooler who skipped to school with a printed Jansport. I was not, in fact, even a little girl anymore.

The men on the street who had previously passed me off as an innocent neighborhood kid suddenly saw me as an object worthy of desire–as if a bra and bigger pants deemed me fair game.  These men no longer equated me with their daughters or nieces, but with a different kind of relationship – one based on sexual prowess and adult sensuality: two things that I lacked any capacity for as a 12 year old girl.  Nevertheless, their new perceptions also manipulated their standards–particularly of how I should behave and respond when they felt entitled enough to address me in public.

Unfortunately, these standards are not the ones you learn about at school, or even the ones your mom slaps you on the wrist for because you forgot your polite manners at the dinner table.  These standards are silent monsters that sneaks up behind you at puberty and don’t leave until old age declares you undesirable or senile enough to be ignorant.  They tell us that women’s place in society is always as an object of affection for men and that praise for body image and sexual desire should somehow boost our attention-seeking and inflated egos.  It assumes that our whole purpose is to be attractive for the male population, as if physical attributes are our only identifier and that without them, we would slink into the dark corners of society and disappear unnoticed.

Recent videos on the issue have spiraled to internet virality , including one from Jon Stewarts’ The Daily Show and another from the non-profit women’s group Hollaback! in which two women walk around the city, drawing comments from simple “hello beautifuls” to grosser, probably better left unpublished comments.

Another article from Jezebel included criticism about the portrayal of minority men as, in the words of one woman, “the black brute and the macho, leery Latino…which reinforces so many specific stereotypes about [men of color] in general.”

Additional controversy regarding the intent of catcalling has also arisen with critics (I’d like to add – mainly white, upper-class and heterosexual men), and even some women, writing it off as mere flattery.

“When I was younger I didn’t like it and thought it was sexist, but now if it doesn’t happen I’m like ‘excuse me…hello?’” one female Fox News correspondent remarked.

“[The woman in the catcalling video] is finding fault with men on the street saying hello to her, which may in fact be their only way of contacting women…it’s their bar and she’s walking through it,” another added.

The most offensive comment came from Steve Santagati, author of MANual, who recently said on CNN, “There is nothing more a woman loves to hear than how pretty she is,” and added, “Political correctness has gone too far-if you don’t like it…turn around and tell him to shut up, stand up for yourself, act like a strong woman.”

When the host brought the possibility of violence resulting from such a confrontation, Santagati advised, “get a gun!”

Santagati’s words are an example of a bigger social trend: one that both criminalizes women and asks them to take responsibility for the actions of others.

It is not my place to assign blame-whether the fault of women or men or a combination of the two is trivial-rather, I have taken it upon myself to assign intent.  For one, I know the intent of women is not solely to sit as pretty pieces of china in the cabinet of male hierarchy.  I know the intent of women is not to walk down the street solely for the eyes of boorish men, regardless of work or school or errands or dare I say it, for the purpose of being an active member of society.

I know the intent of these men, on the other hand, is not “just to say hello.”  I know the intent of these men is not “just to pay you a compliment.”  It is a paralyzing social more that has been instilled in young men everywhere, from cities like New York to small towns like Ojai, where men take it upon themselves to establish their power, while diminishing the sense of safety and security for women in their neighborhoods.

Finally, lack of reciprocity should be enough of a warning sign to shut down the Cro-Magnon behavior resulting from this underlying social attitude of male ownership and entitlement.  In any other social situation, an invitation is necessary.  Unfortunately, whether a lack of awareness, or an unwavering commitment to their own ego causes these men to grunt and groan and revisit their paleolithic tendencies, the bottom line is that I am not flattered.  In fact, the positive connotation of flattery is misleading-the word itself means “excessive and insincere praise, especially given to further one’s own interests.”

I am not interested in insincerity, and I am sure as hell not open to furthering these men’s interests.  So to the drum-player on 125th Street, the construction worker outside the MET, the Elmo character in Times Square, the man toting a Baby Bjorn and stroller on my block, the rabbi in Bushwick, and all other men who have taken it upon themselves to extend words of “flattery” to me in the past: save your breath.