Content warning: Disgusting misogyny in the form of catcalling.
When I was a kid my family and I lived in a small suburb surrounded by a sea of farmland. We lived on the edge of the country, although these days it’s all housing developments, fake lakes and shopping centres. Our street backed onto a nature reserve with a dark path running through it towards the primary school. The path passed a small group of derelict shops: a deli, an op shop, a dive pizza bar. Most days during the school holidays I would walk along the path with our dogs to the deli for a bag of mixed lollies. I was about 12 years old when one day a car pulled up to the side of the road next to me. It was one of those roofless mini four wheel drives and it seemed so cool to me after years of riding around in the sensible and practical car my family owned. A man called out to me and I came a bit closer to hear him. I don’t really remember what he looked like. He called out to me, in a voice dripping with smarm, “those are some nice pups you’ve got there”. I mumbled something about the dogs being cute in reply. I felt shy and uncomfortable, but oddly exhilarated that someone had noticed me. “Yeah they’re pretty gorgeous alright. How old are they?” he said. I responded with the dogs ages, but I could tell he wasn’t talking about the dogs, which didn’t make any sense to me. “No I mean how old are you sweetie?” I looked down at my sandals and kicked at a pebble. “Twelve”. Something shifted in his face. He muttered an apology and drove away. My face flushed. I was confused. I recounted the story later to my mother who chastised me for talking to a strange man. I could tell she was flustered. She gave me some ice cream. It wasn’t until years later that I realised he was hitting on me. There was no way he could have mistaken me for being older than I was. I was a child with straggly blonde hair, thick glasses and tiny “buds” that were not even breasts yet. I’m not sure why he apologised. Maybe there was someone else nearby and he got spooked. Maybe I wasn’t young enough. This was the first time I had been treated this way by a man, but it certainly wasn’t the last nor the most serious and damaging.
I recently asked on Facebook for women to share their first experiences of catcalling, and the response was overwhelming. I wasn’t shocked by the volume of posts or even the content, but it was quite jarring to see them all in one place. Most of the catcalls happened when the women were between ages 11 and 14. The theme was common: men asserting their ownership over women’s bodies in a violent and sexual way. This collection of stories is a stark reminder that we live in a world that tells men again and again that they have a right to dominate, humiliate and denigrate women whenever they wish, and also tells women that they deserve such treatment and that their bodies are merely objects to be bought and sold. Here are some examples I pulled from the Facebook thread:
“Have you got your period yet? If you’re old enough to bleed you’re old enough to breed”.
“I’ll teach you what a hard cock feels like”
“You might not be a stunner but I’d fuck you from behind”
“She’s a developed little thing”
“I’d rather fuck a pig then you”
“Stand tall love, show those off to the boys”
and the good old, “smile sweetheart”.
This is a drop in the ocean, and is stuff being said to 11-14 year old girls. What the fuck. Sometimes the thought of fighting back against all of this bullshit is too daunting and overwhelming. But I am trying to take baby steps, such as telling my story (and those that were generously shared with me) here in the hopes that it will encourage other women to share their stories too. The more we share these stories, the more we realise we have shared experiences and a shared cause in fighting against the systems that objectify and oppress women. Another small step is responding to catcalls when I receive them. Normally I would shrink away and overt my eyes. Instead, I am going to try and look the guy right in the eyes and loudly state “Fuuuccccck you”. Sometimes it doesn’t always feel safe enough to do this, and that’s ok. Small steps. There’s also one much larger step that is going to be a project over many, many years. I’ll never forget the day I found out I was having a baby who also happened to have a penis. I felt a mix of emotions: relief that I was not bringing a child into the world who has a high chance of experiencing some form of sexual assault or violence in their lifetime, and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Of course, he may not identify with the body he was born with, or with the societal norm of what makes a man, but if he does I know each day will be a battle between the way I teach him to be and the thousands of messages sent to him by the world telling him women are to be objectified, used, owned by men. I hope I’m up to the task.
If you need help regarding sexual assault or domestic or family violence you can call 1800 RESPECT or go to their website here [https://www.1800respect.org.au]