Close Encounters

Catcalling isn’t so bad — until it crosses the line

Counterpoints Gender Language Modern Life
Better off alone? The New York City subway (photo: absolutwade, CC BY 2.0)

I’ve had a tortured relationship with catcalling. When I first moved to New York two years ago, I was astonished — and, frankly, delighted — by the number of flirty and often completely inappropriate comments I would get from men as I walked through the city streets. (Let me point out straightaway that I’m not bombarded with catcalls because I’m a complete stunner, but because borderline harassment of women in public is the norm in New York.) But I bloody loved it. It wasn’t just the sheer frequency of compliments I was receiving, which always left me feeling extremely pleased with myself, it was also the admirable creativity behind the comments, most of which were so ridiculously over the top that I couldn’t help but laugh. One guy sang to me that he wanted to fly me to Miami; another, approaching me with a mock-baffled look on his face, asked: “Weren’t you on the cover of Vogue last month?” Ludicrous.

Obviously I didn’t take any of these Casanovas seriously. But I did appreciate a culture where people were more forward and expressive in their everyday interactions. When I walked to the subway from my apartment in Brooklyn, I’d often get a few “hellos” and “good mornings” from my neighbours. It was so unlike London, where people do as much as they can to avoid interacting with strangers. So when the women in my office discussed a catcalling video that went viral, expressing their disgust at all the fat slobs who hurled sexually explicit comments at them on the streets, I weighed in with my own “refreshing” opinion — patiently explaining to my sceptical-looking colleagues that, actually, it was quite nice to interact with your fellow New Yorkers.

But I’ve had a change of heart. On a recent Sunday, I got onto a subway car heading to lower Manhattan. A youngish guy sitting diagonally opposite from me said “Hey baby,” or something just as cheesy. I wasn’t in the mood to chat, so I ignored him and carried on reading my book. A minute later, he tried it on again. Again, I ignored him. But then he started yelling. “You f–king bitch!” he shouted. “I was just trying to be nice, you f–king whore!” My fellow passengers were all suddenly hiding behind magazines and books, steadfastly ignoring what was going on around them. How very British of them, I thought. It got even worse. My “admirer” started spitting — first, about a yard away from I was sitting, and then getting closer and closer. When the subway car rolled into a station, I leapt off, traumatised. Since then, I’ve been groped in Times Square and received an unsolicited massage from a male passenger on another subway car. When I said it was fun to interact with New Yorkers, I’m not sure this is what I had in mind.