It all begins with Words

by Anna Blanch on December 7, 2011

Today’s 16 Days of Action guest post is from Dianna Anderson. Dianna and I met while we both living in Texas. Like me, she loves literature and values the carefully written word. Unlike me, Dianna is a fabulous polemicist. I am glad she agreed to part of this series. This post is about exploring the power of words, about how they make women feel and how violence often begins with words. This post comes with a trigger warning. Just a reminder, a trigger warning is a warning a blogger uses to forewarn readers that a post discusses subjects of a sensitive nature, such as rape, sexism, and violent crime. I apologize in advance if this material is disturbing to some readers. I encourage you to seek out someone to talk to if there are issues this post raises for you.  A number of posts in this series have provided links to resources, including Mandy’s and Tamara’s.
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I could hear my mother’s hesitation on the other end of the phone. “It happened in a different part of the city, Mom. It’s a good three miles from me, and my area is much safer.” She reluctantly accepted my reassurances, but I could tell she was still worried about her only daughter living alone in the third largest city in the US. And, of course, what had happened within a month of moving there didn’t help.

In the southern part of Chicago – which is already a pretty sketchy area – some women were walking down the street after hanging out at a club. They were approached by several men, who cat-called and made lewd propositions and suggestions. When the women refused them, the men pulled out guns and opened fire.

When we discuss violence against women, the usual things that are covered at the “big” issues: domestic violence, female genital mutilation, rape, terrorism, trafficking, etc. But there is an insidious precursor to violence that so many women experience and so many rarely discuss. The violence of words and the entitlement present in the practice of cat-calling is, as we saw in Chicago, often merely a beginning to violence done to women simply because they are women.

For women all over the world, cat-calling and inappropriate approaches from the opposite sex are a part of daily life. It is rare that men experience cat-calling, and certainly it does not happen at the same level. Cat-calling, for those of you unfamiliar, refers to when a man – who is a complete stranger – yells at a woman on the street. This can be as simple as a “hey baby!” all the way up to obscene and rude comments. The reaction of the women being cat-called is almost always negative – it is an unwelcome intrusion into a woman’s life.

My friend, who goes by the pseudonym Miss O, started a blog at the beginning of 2011 dedicated to collecting stories of women being cat-called. The situations varied as much as the women who submitted them, but one common feature was that of safety. The women almost always noted an immediate and visceral feeling of their personal safety being stripped away. And they were scared.

Men who cat-call may, in all honesty, believe they are complimenting the woman, that they are simply attempting to flatter. Unfortunately, when the comments are not taken as flattery, there tends to be a sense of entitlement that takes over. By cat-calling, men turn women’s bodies into public property: “I have a right to comment on you because you dared venture into public.” And making our bodies public property strips us of human dignity, which is an act of violence.

Cat calling, additionally, puts women in a double bind. Because, as the Chicago incident demonstrates, cat calling can so quickly devolve from verbal to physical violence, women have a number of unappealing options available when the inevitable happens.

We can ignore it and hope feigning deafness does not bring further comments about being a “snobby bitch.”

They can try to return tit for tat and “flirt” back, which has the issue of affirming the action of cat-calling.

They can react negatively – yelling back and running off – which could irritate the cat-caller into pursuit.

They can call the guy out on his crap. This is by far the most dangerous method of reaction, but it also functions as public-shaming – it turns the tables. However, it is also the most effective way to get a cat-caller to rethink their actions.

An example of this last is the website iHollaback.org, which is a New York City based blog dedicated to warning other women about cat-callers in certain areas, and giving them resources to fight back. It encourages women – if they feel they are safe enough – to document their attacker and post it to the website. It is a form of public shaming, a recognition of the dehumanization of cat-calling, and a call for solidarity across the country.

Women have an entirely different experience from men, especially when it comes to actions of violence. Physical violence against women does not come out of nowhere, but develops from thoughts and words. I appreciate the efforts that men in my life have made to understand the principle that even if a woman hasn’t experienced physical violence, no woman lives without its threat on her life. Words are violence and should be chosen carefully.
Dianna Anderson is from Sioux Falls, SD, and currently work as a radio producer in Chicago, IL. She spends her free time blogging about women’s issues and theology over at http://diannaeanderson.net.

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This post is part of the 16 Days of Action toward eliminating violence against women. The 16 Days of Action is a global campaign founded by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University, I’m hosting posts across the 16 days, from 25 November to 10 December. You can help by sharing these posts on social media, by taking care of the women around you, & by standing against violence against women. You see the full list of posts here.

Connect with Anna on Academia.edu, Linked In, facebook page, & Twitter.

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