upper middle class cat

The Uncomfortable Privilege Of Being Catcalled

In the short walk between my apartment and my office, there are three construction sites, all for luxury condos (with maybe a ground floor of coffee shops and clothing stores). Every morning, unless I decide to take an extremely long and needlessly complex alternate route, I walk through small clusters and long stretches of men, usually about 20-30 total. Without exception, they catcall me, with varying degrees of vulgarity. Some are relatively polite, wishing me a good day and smiling, and I try to respond in kind. Others are overtly sexual, commenting on my body or my outfit or how I decided to wear lipstick today. Those, I generally ignore. But I still flash them an awkward smile because, as all women know, overtly rejecting them leads to uncertainty and hostility, and since I must pass them every day, I’m not interested in making enemies. 

These men are of varying races and ages, but they are all working class (or below the poverty line). Through a charming, uncomplicated lens, you could let “Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel play in your head and imagine the mechanics fawning (in perfect song-and-dance) over the girl in the nice dress and shiny heels. But the reality is that I am a (relatively) well-off, 25-year-old white woman living in the most ostentatiously gentrified neighborhood in Brooklyn, passing by a group of working men on my way to my clean, spacious, comfortable office to sit in front of my enormous Mac and write articles about privilege. 

Sarah Nicole Prickett tweeted yesterday about a deeply uncomfortable project featured on Cosmopolitan, in which the (white, college-educated) photographer took pictures of her catcallers. From behind her lens, she captured men who are visibly lower class, and most often latino or black (with a heavy sprinkling of some of the more working-class ethnicities in New York: Italian, Polish, etc). The message, despite her intention to show the people behind the catcalling, is clear: These men exist on an entirely different societal plane than this woman, and will likely never experience the access or social power that she does, simply by being able to document these experiences with her expensive camera and have it featured in women’s magazines.

Nick Mullen and I talked a while ago about this article on Buzzfeed, a very similar concept in which another (white, college-educated) woman interviewed her catcallers on the street. Nick pointed out to me that Buzzfeed (and other outlets) decided to feature the story when she finally found a white man in a business suit to interview – and if you watch the video, he truly does make the perfect villain – but that the rest of her YouTube page was mostly her chastising mentally ill, homeless, and poor men. It’s painful to watch, a weird, schoolmarm-y dressing down of these men, much the way you would talk to a troll on Twitter. Except that these men were very real, and clearly experiencing many unrelated problems that would continue long after she put down her camera and got her pageviews.

The uncomfortable truth about catcalling is that it’s almost exclusively a class-related phenomenon. While there will always be the occasional middle-to-upper-middle class, educated man who decides to catcall (usually while drunk), the men who are going to be hissing and calling at you on your walk to work are likely to be working class or below. This is probably due to a variety of factors – their lack of education, the expectations of their peers, their frustration with the complicated role poor men play in society, their general sense of impotence with regards to having any place in the greater societal power structure – but it is undeniably tied to class. (And thus, depending on where you are in the country, heavily skewed racially one way or another.)

There is a certain ineffectiveness to the online crusading against catcalling, in a way that feels almost performative. Because ultimately the men who are yelling at us about our asses in the street are not the men reading impassioned essays on Salon or Buzzfeed or Cosmo about how wrong it is. They are men who are in many ways excluded from the cultural conversations about nuanced gender roles and equality, overwhelmingly by their class and access to education. When I walk by the men in the morning, I feel a flash of discomfort – and occasionally a fear that it could transform into something more dangerous, even at 9:30 AM on a busy sidewalk – but it melts away as I live out my day of comfort, access, and (relative) power. They will spend the rest of their day working on a blisteringly hot and often dangerous construction site, and then likely take a long, tiring commute home to an outer borough to live out a life I will never understand or relate to. 

The hugely complex social conversations that should follow (about why the countries with the best gender equality also have the best socioeconomic equality across the entire population), are ones I am not qualified to participate in. But I know that there is always something deeply strange and almost guilty about deriding catcallers from my position of privilege, on my internet platform almost exclusively populated by college-educated, middle-class-or-above young readers. I know that there is something wrong with the whole conversation, and that framing myself as the concrete and unquestionable victim is unfair. Because these men are victims, too, if not at my own hand. And someone – someone much further up the line, long before they are yelling at strange women in the street – should be advocating for them.