Last fall, I was in Baltimore with my husband. He was there for business, so I had a lot of time to wander the city by myself. It was still relatively warm, so one day I wore a flowy, low-cut sundress, without a bra.
While out at the mall, I was catcalled at least three times in the span of five minutes.
A range of thoughts rushed through my head. My first thought was “Guess I’ve still got it!” I was gratified that my appearance was validated by the male gaze. But almost immediately after the gratification registered, I began to feel shame. I’d asked for this by wearing a low-cut dress without a bra.
I felt kind of like a slut.
Then the feminist in me kicked in.
I began getting angry at the men for assuming they had the right to comment on my body, and for assuming their assessment of me was valid and necessary. Then I started to get angry at myself for enjoying their catcalls. I was a feminist. Didn’t I know that catcalling was a form of harassment? Didn’t I know that objectifying women was a product of a patriarchal society that oppressed women? I was deeply conflicted.
I often use humor to cope with overwhelming emotions, so I posted the following status update on my Facebook:
I had meant it to be a sarcastic joke, but as we all find out at some point in our online existences, sarcasm doesn’t always come across in text on the screen.
A bunch of my intelligent, insightful, feminist friends started commenting. Some of them took the joke as a reproach for enjoying catcalls. They strongly expressed their opinions that there was nothing wrong with being a feminist who enjoys being catcalled.
Some of my other friends sympathized with me, saying they also felt guilty when they enjoyed being catcalled; that it made them feel like a bad feminist.
Still, others launched into arguments against catcalling, asserting that women need to confront cat-callers to stop the harassment from occurring.
Others shared that they thought their sexuality was empowering and that they felt they gained control over men who ogled their bodies.
We live in a patriarchal society, which means that men control the power structures and they control the messages that society uses to manipulate women.
One of those messages is that women are only valuable if they are beautiful. And since men control the power structures, they’re the ones who get to decide what’s beautiful.
Women are taught that their value can only be given to them by a man who thinks they are beautiful. This is one of the reasons why women like being catcalled so much.
We see it as confirming our worth.
If women ever want to break free from the oppression of the patriarchy, we have to deconstruct and confront manifestations of the patriarchy, which means confronting things like catcalling. This can happen in a variety of different ways.
Maybe it’s just an internal confrontation: why did I enjoy being catcalled? Did I really enjoy it or am I fooling myself because it actually made me uncomfortable? What societal messages make me enjoy validation from the male gaze?
Most simply put, all female experiences have value and women are allowed to feel and do whatever fulfills them and makes them happy. So, if being catcalled makes you happy because you love your body and you love that other people love your body, good for you!
You’re not any less of a feminist.
However, if you like being catcalled because you hate your body and you’re seeking validation from others in order to find self-worth, and you believe your self-worth is based on your appearance, I suggest you read some feminist literature and do some hard thinking.
If you think about these questions and still come up with the answer that you love yourself and your body and you love other people enjoying your body, then you are an amazing woman.
If, on the other hand, you come up with some troubling thoughts and feelings about yourself and how you value yourself, then take some time to educate yourself on how patriarchal systems of oppression function.
Devote some time to learning to love yourself and your body. If you’ve done this and you’ve decided that catcalling actually makes you really uncomfortable, consider how you might react the next time you get catcalled.
You don’t have to stop every cat-caller you see and give them a college-level lecture on patriarchal systems and feminism, but you could say, “That makes me really uncomfortable, please don’t do that.”
Or you could say, “My body is not for your consumption,” and just walk away.
Or if you’re not comfortable confronting cat-callers directly, maybe the next time you see another woman being catcalled you could help the woman. Ask her to walk with you and leave the situation. Let her process her feelings about being catcalled.
These are all effective and productive ways to fight the patriarchy.
So, back to the original question: does it make you a bad feminist if you enjoy being catcalled? Hell to the no.
You are an individual woman with individual thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and it’s not feminism’s job to tell you how to think, feel, or process your experiences. What feminism can do is give you a new framework to process your experiences in order to see them through a different lens.
Use the framework as you will.