“Qué rico, Pimpollo.”1 I was somewhere between thirteen and fourteen, fifteen tops. I was walking to buy something or another my mom needed from the nearest tienda2 in a nice Bogotá neighborhood where nice girls can usually walk safely. For some reason, I vividly remember that it was midday, and that I was wearing a standard jeans-and-T-shirt combo, probably sweating a little. I vaguely remember that the guy was wearing a leather jacket and had black slick-backed hair. He also might have also worn some stubble, I’m not quite sure. Maybe he was in his late thirties or early forties, but I’ve never been good at determining an older guy’s age. Honestly, he looked a lot like the stock image of a Bogotano,3 and I probably couldn’t pick him out of a lineup.
He didn’t even come near me, he was just some stranger passing in the street, but his random comment shrunk me and put me in his mouth. He chewed and swallowed, and suddenly, I realized that I was edible. Shaken, I ignored him and kept on walking. On my way back from the store, I thought of all the scathing lines I could have replied had I the presence of mind to do so. But, perhaps, a response would have given him the satisfaction of getting a reaction, a satisfaction which I was not about to give him. I wondered if he would have let someone else deliver such a line to his daughter, his sister, or to a cousin. Probably not.
Many years later, reflecting on this random incident, I find myself oddly grateful to this total stranger, not because he deserves my gratitude by any means, but because he taught me a valuable life lesson in navigating city streets as a young woman. Namely, that men have the power to threaten women and girls with catcalls and wolf-whistles without any retribution. This is not treated like a public safety issue but as a personal issue, one that women are compelled navigate without official acknowledgement or any kind of proper training. Throughout the course of my travels, I’ve also realized that this machismo that is reflected in catcalls is not just a Bogotá, Colombia, or Latinx issue, but that this is a truly global behavior.
I’m not quite sure why men do it. The easy explanation is that men think with two heads, but based on my many interactions with men, I’m sure that this is categorically not true, or even a fair claim to make. Growing up, the explanation I was never directly given but absorbed from the observation of my chauvinist culture was that if a girl “gives papaya” and makes herself an easy target by being provocative, she asks for this kind of attention and deserves anything she gets. I don’t think that this explanation is true or fair, either: My girlfriends have gotten catcalled even if they are virtually indistinguishable from walking hooded coats. A third narrative is that catcalling is a compliment men pay to women. While this hypothesis could explain a lot, especially in any given man’s rationalization of a catcall, there is no way one can both make someone feel inferior and expose them to the threat of violence while simultaneously complimenting them; it defies logic. Indeed, to be catcalled, it seems enough to just be a woman.
I believe that catcalling serves the double function of allowing the collective chauvinist culture to flex its muscles in the streets in order to keep women in a state of submission, and of allowing individual men to boost their egos by engaging in an activity that gives them a feeling of power.
While it is true that catcallers are publicly denounced as misogynist goats, these same catcallers can also go incognito off the streets, blending in with the general male populace. This gives the male catcallers the double advantage of being able to distance themselves from “those men” while also boosting their egos, based on whether or not they are in public or private. In public, catcalling men have the advantage of anonymity and cannot be reported for sexual harassment since the catcalled woman generally does not know the identity of the catcaller Thus, men, boosted by the impunity of anonymity, catcall at will and create an unsafe environment for women by layering gendered sexual awkwardness over the subtle but ever-present fear of violence in general and rape in particular.
Catcalling occupies a very tiny part of the public sphere; I have not heard of the first political or social leader who addresses it as central to their campaign, even though it happens on the very streets that comprise public space Nevertheless, I believe that catcalling serves as the choice microaggression of the chauvinist culture and so becomes a large aspect of private life. However, it is oddly not in the same gossipy category of who is sleeping with whom, and is treated as a shameful subject, even if it affects most, if not all women. In my experience, it has never been discussed outside the circle of girlfriends with whom I discuss other “taboo” topics, like what feminine products we prefer, or what we choose to shave or not.
To this day, I carry with me the cackles, the “uissshhhh,” and cries of “dead-ass” as we commiserate with each other about the stupid things men have said to us on the streets. One of my girlfriends was randomly asked if she liked cheese, promptly sending us all into chortling fits. Barely able to contain my smile, I recount how one particular stranger generously saluted me with not one, but two, middle fingers accompanied by the eloquent words “Fuck you, Bitch,” unable to intelligently insult me and articulate who, exactly, was supposed to do it. Tearing up with deep belly-laughs, another reenacts with particular energy the story of a sunny day when she was walking with her mom. After explaining that they had passed a man, she performs an exaggerated double take, and with her deepest voice exclaims “¡Qué Culo!”4 Switching characters, her high-pitched impression of her mom resounds with a very telenovelistic “¿No le da pena?, ¡Sinverguenza!”5 Through tears of laughter, I recount how one particular idiot asked me if I was going to Hogwarts, when I was sitting, of all places, in the center of New York City’s subway system when just for the record, I was heading to Illvermory. And so, all of my girlfriends carry stories like these, some hilarious, some terrifying, most just vaguely annoying.
Telling and retelling these stories becomes our own power mechanism over the catcallers, almost as if in some way, telling these stories in a lighthearted way eliminates the shame associated with catcall culture. We weren’t being provocative; we were just walking. It wasn’t our fault. And while it was scary at the time, we can laugh about it today. We carry this laughter inside us, and it gives us strength to carry on whenever it happens again, and again, as we walk through a man’s world. In this way, communal discussion and laughter is a way of regaining our shattered sense of security. We recognize an unsafe a world and, recognizing the full irony, return to it our own double middle-finger salute.
However, outside of these communities of empathetic women, we seem to be on our own, and instead of mounting a revolution against the choice micro-aggression of chauvinist culture, we’ve adapted to catcall culture, accepting it as an unfortunate part of life, and developing coping mechanisms to deal practically with the issue. Some avoid construction sites and bars as if they were ridden with cooties. Other women have just stopped trying to look good on the streets, hiding their selves behind a pair of giant sunglasses and loose-fitting clothes, as if their beauty was a flaw that needed concealmentSome simply refuse to go anywhere alone, effectively giving up their independence. Others pretend like they are stagecoaches and listen to music really loudly and will not stop for anybody for any reason. Others pretend to ignore it and say it doesn’t bother them anymore. Others have embraced it and crave the attention from random strangers, flaunting their assets.
I myself am not exempt from adaptation culture. I have developed a technique of walking on the streets that I call my street-face. I have a sort of spidey-sense of when a man is going to catcall me. So, instead of ignoring the catcalling pendejos6 like my well-brought-up girlfriends, my angry-feminist-warrior kicks in as I imagine a string in the back of my head and torso pulling my street face over my real face, turning my mouth into a stern line, my eyes into walls. I square my shoulders, raise my chin, walk as if I had books balancing on my head, make aggressive eye contact, and silently dare the man to say something, anything. After they make eye contact with me, they never do. Perhaps some men are intimidated by my stance and realize they can’t have power over me. Perhaps they may think I’m crazy and decide that I’m not worth boosting their egos. Perhaps they’re just innocent bystanders and as much a victim of the chauvinist culture as I am. They probably think I’m a wee bit crazy. Oh well, it does take a certain kind of madness to constantly remind yourself that you do belong in public, even if you’re often told that you are not and are better off staying at home cooking dinner.
I’m not. While I like cooking dinner, I, too, belong in public, and see how this machismo is imposed from the outside and becomes an external enemy I must fight, quite apart from what it means for me to be a woman. Furthermore, I have the privilege of living in a community where being a strong and independent woman of color who fights against inequality is inspirational and not impossible. In this regard, a sad irony is that the people best equipped for the task, feminists, are often rejected by these same chauvinist men. The mainstream believes our name is Valerie Solanas, half-mad, frizzy-haired, radical, distanced from reality, and wishing to keep men alive only for reproduction. While I’m sure that there are militant feminists who fit this description, I don’t think it’s quite fair either to define all of feminism by the ideas of these few.
What these machistas don’t realize is that women’s rights are not a zero-sum game, since a society where women are truly considered equal to men is a society that is closer to true equity. On the flip side, I realize that men are also the victims of catcall culture, primarily because they are not as openly oppressed by it since they are only the secondary victimsand do not easily realize how toxic it is. Their masculinity and egos seem closely tied to how they treat women, as from a young age, like me, they absorb that men are superior because they treat women as inferior.
What makes this issue so incredible is that among chauvinist men there is a strange codependency with the same women who are supposed to be subordinate; complete he-men need to keep their women in private, to cook, clean, and bear their children. Not that any of these activities are inherently wrong: Cooking, cleaning, and child-bearing are all essential to humanity’s survival, but they should not be used as tools of oppression. Complicating the issue, I’ve known chauvinist men that are not bad people; they’re good people that have absorbed awful information. But when an entire culture screams machismo at you as a central part of your identity, it’s incredibly difficult to fight back against yourself, and so, they don’t resist and perpetuate a system where there is less equality and so lose the many advantages of having an active public force of a women.
However, the picture isn’t all bleak. I am witnessing a cultural shift from the latent misogyny I see present in my parents’ generation to an increase of male feminists. For example, one of my guy friends refuses to listen to music that objectifies women. Another guy friend has entertained my endless questions and sustained conversation on the topic, helping me see the issues from another perspective and shaping my thoughts on what it means to be a feminist and a Latina.. Another friend often asks me to dance and respectfully walks away when I decline the invitation or holds me respectfully when I accept.
This is the kind of cultural change we need; men and women who both are given to rejecting the cultural chauvinism in public and private. I think the first thing is to talk about it and eliminate the myth of provoked and deserved “papaya” and replacing that idea with the idea of a bigger culture speaking through individuals. This would eliminate the culture of shame surrounding the issue, and perhaps, if enough of us do it, we can change the culture, and perhaps our future thirteen-year-old daughters can go to the store without having to wonder if they, too are edible.