Hat tip to Roy Edroso for exposing me to the unfortunate “debate” over cat-calling that went down at the National Review. It really encapsulates the two basic conservative urges when it comes to responding to the “Republican war on women” meme: The smart, well-disciplined response vs. giving into the urge to wallow in base misogyny.
The smart response is to say, “Hey, look, we respect women and don’t think it’s cool to sexually objectify, harass, or abuse women. Therefore our objection to things like equal pay and abortion rights must be about something besides misogyny.” This is the smart response because it is the only way to successfully derail the “war on women” meme. However, it’s not only deeply insincere but clearly not very fun for conservatives. Many just want to be free, man, to scream “slut!” and just let their deep fear and loathing of women hang out for all to see. This all played out beautifully at National Review.
Christine Sisto took the bullet for the smart people who realize that blatantly wallowing in misogyny is not how you fight the idea that you are misogynists. “I’m sorry, fellas, but the feminists have it right this time: Catcalling needs to end and the conservatives need to stop defending it,” she writes. It’s a smart strategy, if a tad disingenuous. By conceding the point, Sisto can reinforce the idea that her opposition to feminism is not based in misogyny. After all, she is opposed to this blatant example of it, right? For obvious reasons, I find this line of argumentation to be irritating and made in bad faith, but there’s no doubt that it’s effective. Low information folks and the easily confused will be swayed by the claim that someone’s opposition to one form of sexism means they cannot be a misogynist.
To be fair, I do think that Sisto is also genuinely horrified by cat-calling, because, you know, it’s horrifying:
I have had every obscenity you can imagine yelled at me. I have had men grab themselves in front of me, make lewd gestures, simulate spanking me, lick their lips at me, describe their genitalia to me, follow me home, ask me if they can autograph my chest, grab my backside, encircle me while I sit in an empty subway car, and threaten to “smack the s*** out of me.” None of this is “flattering,” as Lewakwrites about catcalls in her article. It is embarrassing and I have walked home in tears on more than one occasion.
The conservative defenses of cat-calling, which are inspired by both a knee-jerk hostility to feminism and a subconscious belief that women probably shouldn’t be out and about without a male chaperone, have created this situation that’s equal parts amusing and horrifying, where female conservative pundits feel duty-bound to play along with the claim that it’s harmless or flattering, even though they know it’s not true. (See here for a gross example.) It’s interesting that Sisto isn’t interested in denying the obvious. Most conservative women know that if the men want to believe up is down, you need to start walking on your hands. But once in awhile, you come across one who doesn’t know that’s the score here.
But the follow-up responses fell right into the conservative line: Women are public property, it’s your fault for being female if you get cat-called, and men are simultaneously both too stupid to control themselves and yet entitled to be the more powerful sex. They are full of lies.
Nicholas Frankovich kicks off his response with, “At some level, a man who catcalls wants the woman to reciprocate.” Does he actually believe that men want women to follow them around, using sex as a weapon to express hatred and resentment at them? Of course not, it’s just more of the usual claims that harassment is intended as flattery. This, of course, is easy to disprove, from a friend of mine who started sucking her teeth back at men who did it to her (which pissed them off) to this video that shows that when women street harass men, men hate it. Of course they hate it. Having someone ridicule you for your sexuality and imply you are public property simply isn’t fun.
With Frankovich handling the “stupid men can’t help themselves, but still are somehow entitled to control public spaces” argument, we have Molly Powell doing the work of suggesting women only have themselves to blame if men are cruel to them.
No one is catcalling Rosie O’Donnell, Barbara Bush, or Janet Napolitano. No one is catcalling my plump elderly mother as I wheel her down the sidewalk in her wheelchair. Marilyn Monroe once observed that she could walk down the sidewalk without drawing attention — without anyone recognizing her, let alone ogling or whistling. She could turn her sex appeal on and off at will. Clearly the question of whether or not a woman is treated as a sex object by strangers on the street does indeed turn upon her physical appearance. To state otherwise is to ignore reality — which is not a conservative position.
Most women who are young or halfway attractive will at some point experience rude and occasionally frightening behavior from men. So what?
That’s not a question that would be asked if one believed women are fully human. (Or even fully sentient, since frightening animals for no reason is also considered bad behavior.) That being rude or frightening people is wrong is so obvious to be a tautology, so the only way this works if you exclude women from beings who count at all. That is made clear by the next passage.
Once, at the age of 18, while on a train in France, a derelict man — the only other passenger in the car — pleasured himself to the point of satisfaction while leering and grunting at me. Gross and scary. But you know what? I’m fine. I felt sorry for him. What a sad, lonely wreck of a man. He didn’t hurt me, though, except by giving me an unpleasant window into human nature.
Men count as human beings, so even though this man is a terrible person who deliberately scares and humiliates women for fun, he is more deserving of consideration—“I felt sorry for him”—than the women he targets. His hypothetical suffering that drives him to violate basic social norms is considered more important than the actual suffering he inflicts, because the target of his abuse—women—are clearly beneath consideration. At least if they’re attractive, that is. Then they totally have it coming.
Does Powell believe her own bullshit or is she deliberately feeding her audience lies to justify their own misogyny? I would argue that her lies are deliberate, because of this:
When I wear a tight skirt and heels down the street, and some guy catcalls, I think, Okay, I guess this does look rather good on me. And when I wear baggy jeans and a loose-fitting T-shirt and no lipstick, no one gives me a second look. As women we can choose how we present ourselves. And if we are treated as mere pieces of meat, we bear at least some of the responsibility.
While there’s a slim chance that she has managed to evade cat-calling by wearing baggy clothes, the likelier truth is that she is simply lying. Anyone who is female and walks around in public knows that covering your body in baggy clothes only works if you can trick men into thinking you’re also male. I’ve been cat-called in baggy pants and hoodies plenty. I suspect Powell knows this and is simply lying because her argument doesn’t work otherwise. If you’re going to say that women are to blame for being cat-called, you have to pretend that they made a choice that made the cat-calling happen. If merely being female is enough to bring it on your head, then even the most wretched misogynist is going to struggle to find an excuse for why this is somehow women’s fault.
Needless to say, the notion that you can stop cat-calling by flouting American beauty norms is utter bullshit. Fat women get harassed all the time, both by men who are sexualizing their bodies and by men who are policing their bodies. Here’s a good piece on how that works. Being conventionally unattractive doesn’t make street harassment go away, so much as it means that people call you “ugly” instead of leering at you, which is hardly a trade-off anyone would want. But the basic premise, that women are public property and men should be constantly reminding us of this lest we start thinking we’re people, remains the same.