“Hey honey.” “Hey baby.” “Hey, where ya going?”
Those are just a few of the things Cat Bowen, a 37-year-old writer living in South Brooklyn, has heard while walking past the corner near her home. Like many New Yorkers, she has been sheltering in place for over four months, sequestered inside with her husband, two kids, two cats and a dog. When she does leave the safety of her home, she practices social distancing and wears a mask. But covering half of her face to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 — a virus that has killed close to 140,000 Americans to date — has not shielded Bowen from street harassment.
Catcalling a woman with almost her entire face covered by cloth proves exactly how stupid this myth really is.
Because catcalling is, at its core and always, about exerting control. For decades, women (and men) have worked hard to debunk persistent myths about rape culture and harassment. One of the most common is that women were “asking for it,” either by how they act or look or dress. Catcalling a woman with almost her entire face covered by cloth or surgical material proves exactly how stupid this myth really is.
“There is a bar there where men congregate outside, smoking and drinking, and unfortunately, it's hard to avoid,” Bowen told me. “The men have said things like ‘look at all that leg’ when I was wearing my running shorts and gaiter, so half my face was covered. It's gross.”
Like Bowen, I’ve also experienced catcalling and other forms of street harassment while wearing a mask. It’s happened during infrequent trips to the nearby supermarket, or on walks with my 5-year-old son — the only chance for us both to enjoy some fresh air. Naively, and admittedly at my most desperate moments, I had hoped that wearing a mask would have done more than just protect myself, my family and others from COVID-19. Perhaps, I thought, a sliver of a silver lining would be the ability to take up space in public without a male stranger urging me to smile or whistling as I walked by.
But I was wrong, and so were many other women and/or feminine-presenting people. A quick Twitter search using the words “mask” and “catcalling” reveals that street harassment during coronavirus is alive and well. “It is frustrating to know that even if you are wearing a mask, men will still stare at you and make unnecessary remarks,” reads one tweet.
“One thing this pandemic taught me is that catcalling was never about looks," another shared. "My mask covers 60 percent of my face, and men still find ways of making me feel uncomfortable for existing."
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Just like the instances when I was catcalled while pregnant, or when my young sons have been present, reminded me that the desexualization of mothers is no match for misogyny, the prevalence of street harassment during a global pandemic should remind us all that wearing a mask and covering our faces is no match for misogyny, either.
A 2017 online survey conducted by Stop Street Harassment, a nonprofit organization focused on making public spaces safer, found that 81 percent of women experience some form of sexual harassment during their lifetime. And in a 2008 survey, 99 percent of the 811 women respondents said they’d experienced some form of street harassment. Only three said they had not.
Dr. Louise Fitzgerald, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who has spent her entire professional life studying sexual harassment, says catcalls are just as likely to be insults as they are to be compliments. “Wearing a mask is irrelevant to whether one will be catcalled or in some other way street harassed,” she explains. “To think that it is relevant is to believe that the harassment has something to do with how the woman looks, whether her face is traditionally beautiful. It doesn't.”
The notion that women being catcalled are asking for it has prevailed. And in many ways, the Trump presidency has allowed that belief to flourish.
Yet, the notion that women being catcalled are asking for it has prevailed. And in many ways, the Trump presidency has allowed that belief to flourish. Whenever the current president has been credibly accused of sexual assault — something that has occurred over 20 times — his go-to defense is to attack his accuser’s looks. After columnist E. Jean Carroll accused Trump of raping her in a Bergdorf Goodman fitting room, the president responded by saying “she’s not my type.” And in 2016, after multiple women came forward and accused Trump of sexually harassing and assaulting them, then-presidential candidate Trump implored his followers to simply “take a look” at his accusers. “These events never, ever happened, and the people that said them, meekly, fully understand,” Trump said. “You take a look at these people, you study these people, and you’ll understand also.”
But how we look has never mattered. It didn’t matter when Meredith Ulmer, a 28-year-old marketing manager living in Columbus, Ohio, went for a run while wearing a mask. “It was about 90 degrees. The first man I passed asked me if I was ‘working off my pizza,’” Ulmer said.
“Street harassment can reflect a number of motives, one of the prime ones being men showing off for other men in order to appear macho, powerful or ‘cool,’” Fitzgerald says. “Men in groups, be it street corner groups or outdoor laborers, are much more likely to catcall than individual men, which should tell us something about who the real audience is.”
Fitzgerald says this is sometimes referred to as “male hut” behavior, “harkening back to some primitive cultures that erected or enclosed male spaces from which women were excluded.”
“It is about men interacting with and for men,” she explains. “The woman herself is largely irrelevant.”
“Street harassment, like all forms of sexual and gender violence, are fundamentally about power and reinforcing inequality,” Dr. Jennifer M. Gómez, a trauma psychologist and assistant professor in psychology at Wayne State University, said. “Sexualizing a woman or girl in public through street harassment reduces her to an object for others' consumption. Meaning, she is stripped of her full humanity and instead reduced to simply a physical or sexual thing whose purpose is men's pleasure.”
Far too often, for women and especially Black women, brown women and Black trans women, a walk outside — with or without a mask — can be dangerous.
And since catcalling is a form of exacting power or the illusion of power over another, the outdated adage that this form of harassment is just a “compliment” is not only false, it further places the blame on those who are expected to endure catcalling whenever they navigate public spaces. And far too often, for women and especially Black women, brown women and Black trans women, a walk outside — with or without a mask — can be dangerous.
Which is, of course, the real point of catcalling: to remind those on the receiving end that their space is not theirs. It doesn't matter what is going on around them — be it a pandemic, their impatient children tugging at the seams of their shirts, the sweltering heat or the blistering cold — they are only granted the ability to travel safely outside their homes by those in perceived positions of power. In this case, men who have long fancied themselves the arbiters of strength and potential, ownership and freedom.
“While most [catcallers] just make me mad, the ‘where you going?’ or ‘wait a minute!’ scare me,” Bowen says. “It takes it to the next level. It is intrusive and makes me feel vulnerable.”
Women make up the majority of essential workers, have long since shouldered the majority of child-rearing responsibilities while working outside the home, and are now facing a looming mental health crisis as the demands on our time have only increased. We are in need of and deserve moments of reprieve — consistent chances to simply exist without being treated as a sexual object or fodder for men’s shallow displays of toxic masculinity.
But just as instances of domestic violence have not decreased, but instead in places increased, during COVID-19, not even a global pandemic can keep cisgender men from attempting to assert their perceived dominance over women in public.