by Caleb Pershan
Matter editor Leah Beckmann assembled a group of ten women in eight countries to tally and record instances of street harassment commonly referred to as cat calling (which, here, we’ll cease to use). San Francisco was among the test cities.
The study is anecdotal, and therefore also more personal and profound, but SF did not fare well. It scored second place, after Mexico City, with 17 catcalls for writer Tess Russell who lives and works in the city. She spoke with SFist about her work, which can be found here.
Street harassment can (really problematically) be treated as a normal occurrence. What’s made it stick out to you, and why did you decide to document it?
I think that I’ve had a few particular events that brought this all to my attention recently. First, street harassment has (finally) entered a more national conversation. But it’s a funny thing: my commute changed a few months ago. Before, my walk was just a 15 minute straight shot through a residential area. Now I walk on Market Street, where of course it’s super crazy and cluttered and there’s a lot of activity, and you just have a higher volume of interactions.
How long is your commute now?
I walk alone 2 to 3 hours per day, partly because I love walking. I think that my experience in particular in the city, just because of the amount of time I spend alone, is probably exaggerated compared to someone else’s.
Is there a difference for women who are walking alone? And when you talk about street harassment with male friends, what’s their reaction?
Men seem to have heard about all this, but they haven’t really seen it. There is this very clear pathology of a "cat caller" that when a woman is with another man, to harass her is provoking that man. So men don't always see the problems firsthand. I’ve had this conversation with people whom I consider pretty progressive, and they’ve asked “what’s the big deal here?” I would say, that it does seem harmless, but I think anyone who says that doesn’t feel the real fear that women feel in these situations. It can actually be terrifying, not annoying. The diaries are great because they put a very human experience on this, making this apparent to people who should, and would and maybe will, be allies: the people who are progressive.
Responding to street harassment shouldn’t be the work of any one individual. That said, how do you typically respond?
Do you actively respond, do you make them uncomfortable? In the past, I've put my headphones in really loud and pretended not to hear. But for this study, I took my headphones out, and the numbers really surprised me. To intentionally hear this was really enlightening to me. The sheer number in a given commute did kind of shock me.
Some of the harassment you documented was nonverbal. How do you recognize that?
It’s like a lot of things, on paper people can talk about how there are “grey areas,” and “how do you know if its unwanted,” but I read this great piece by Mallory Ortberg, and part of what she asserts with regard to consent is that when the attention is unwanted, it feels wrong, and you know it's wrong. It got me thinking that with all forms of harassment, there really isn't a grey area.
There’s a way to smile at someone that’s nice, and friendly, and neighborly, that’s completely different. When someone looks at you in a certain way you have a feeling about it,and you’re right. I just think there’s something about it, maybe its how you react when you’re noticed for staring, but there’s this weird human radar for things that are off, and a leer is something different, it’s shameless. That’s how you know it’s a leer: when they make eye contact it’s like they’re proud of it.
Will you put your headphones back in, now that your diary is done?
I don't think I'll ever be able to go back to ignoring this stuff. I’m still counting them. I would challenge people to start counting and to take note for themselves.