Public Woman: On Cat-calling and Street Harassment

When I moved to New Orleans in July 2011, the place was welcome if not new to me. I had traveled to the city before, not only as a tourist but also as a partisan of its beauty and recovery.  While living in Western New York and on the Gulf Coast of Florida, my partner and I found ourselves arranging more and more time in New Orleans; it no longer seemed like vacation, but like coming home. The time spent in the places we lived seemed like exile; I say this in solidarity with people who are still far from their own homes, displaced by Hurricane Katrina. I do not mean to co-opt their longing, only to note that it will always have a defender in my hearing.  I moved to New Orleans prepared to love it and to aid in its repair, with hopes that other partisans would soon return.

What I was less prepared for was the frank, sexualized hostility of the streets in which I am an avid cyclist. From the bustling streets of the French Quarter to the city’s emptiest neighborhoods (smelling like mold, and looking like the water receded moments before my arrival), from the former plantation grounds Uptown to the gas stations in my neighborhood, I have been the target of street harassment from men of every imaginable position in life. The shouts have ranged – with perfect symmetry – from “I wish I was that bike” on Elysian Fields Avenue to “I feel sorry for that bike” on Burgundy Street.  In the aching heat of a New Orleans August, I have been cat-called while wearing shorts and tank tops. In its winters – which can have a nigh-Scottish damp intensity – I have been cat-called dressed in a sweatsuit, raincoat, two scarves, and a top hat. On my way to and from the city’s famous restaurants, I have been cat-called in fancy dress, one arm linked in my partner’s. Walking along congested  Freret Street to lecture across campus, I have been cat-called while wearing a suit. Once, I was nearly home when I realized that my shirt had come unbuttoned to the waist during strenuous, rush-hour cycling. It was the only time that week I wasn’t cat-called on either leg of my trip. If there was a uniform that guaranteed the absence of street harassment, I would wash-and-wear mine every day of the week. If these shouts were designed in a laboratory to give me some snapshot of the range of heterosexual male desire and the perniciousness of an entitlement that enables even the most unspectacular man to evaluate any and every woman in his eyeline, they could scarcely have been more effective.

The Black feminist principle of intersectionality – with its thorough adumbration of the axes of identity  as mutually constitutive, rather than discrete– unfolds in my head on my long bicycle commute.  I don’t mean to be facile in bringing this theoretical conception to bear on two identities – woman and cyclist – of asymmetric interest to liberation politics. But intersectionality’s greatest usefulness emerges, for me, in its attention to the concrete reality of how identity is lived  within locations, a sense that is underscored by the spatial metaphor in its name.

Most days, I bike a fourteen-mile round trip from my home in the East of the city – across Canal Street, in the old Creole Quarters – to its extreme West. In between the first and second legs of the ride, I teach and learn from remarkable students at my dream job, fully cognizant of the fact that the widespread defunding of the humanities is designed to eradicate both dreams and jobs for people like me. In a city as friendly as New Orleans, I have become accustomed to – even welcoming of – a certain amount of street conversation. If you are sharing the sidewalk, you might be expected to talk. If you are passing through a neighborhood, the older residents  – guardians of their streets – will anticipate a respectful “good afternoon.” These are not catcalls, not even the  “morning, darling” and “pedaling fast this morning, baby” that I hear in response to my more neutral greetings.  Cat-calling is, frankly, domestic terrorism – presumptions of desire, implicit and explicit threats of rape, visceral comments on one’s body (whether putatively complimentary or evidently diminishing) – for which these greetings could not be mistaken, even if one avoids “baby” and “darling” in her own life. It is not always perpetrated by men against women; recently, I was called a “fat bitch” by a woman on the sidewalk who had probably been called both terms in her life, leading me to wonder how often pain leads to an untargeted, pivoting shower of punches for which our bodies are our own likeliest targets. My partner has received verbal abuse while cycling – “buy a car, hippie!”, punctuated with a full can of beer thrown at his head – that made it clear that white male privilege could be abridged by the economic failure that a bicycle putatively communicates. (In the typically fragmented mode of American theorizations of class, anti-cyclists cannot decide if we are “losers [or] elitist, sneering yuppies.”)  But these incidents of harassment were exceptional in my partner’s years of cycling; it is a lucky and rare day on which I do not receive outrageous verbal and sometimes physical intrusions against my person.

I write this essay at the end of my fifth month in New Orleans, well beyond my hundredth incident of cat-calling. I have already been told, by well-meaning people who love me and are loved in return, that I should put away my cycle and start using the car. “Life’s not fair,” I’ve been told by people disinclined to use a cliché, especially a cliché calibrated to provoke our cheerful surrender to inequality. But I purchased my bike and began a rigorous course of riding, for a variety of reasons – to improve my health, to lose weight, to learn the city with the thoroughness of the flâneur (rather than the shorthand of a driver), to save money, to reduce congestion and noxious emissions. Sadly, it has provoked noxious emissions from foolish mouths while avoiding those one more car would have added.

I continue cycling for different reasons than I began. As a teacher of Gender and Sexuality Studies, as well as English courses with specific foci on the built environment, I receive an object lesson in the robustness of patriarchy and kyriarchy, as well as the rigorous delineations of who can use space and how. I am not grateful for these lessons, but they remind me that what I teach is not an abstraction. There are days that I would happily trade these moving classrooms for the comforts of theory, but I am reminded that my subjects are more than “disciplines”: at best, they offer the material from which we craft our demands for freedom.

Even when theory and history do nothing so ambitious, they might provide the shiver of recognition I felt when reading Judith Kelleher Schafer’s Brothels, Depravity, and Abandoned Women, in which she notes that the term “public woman” became a euphemism first for prostitutes, and then for female criminals more broadly. In refusing to abandon the public in favor of the false security of private spheres – which are deeply permeable to gendered violences – I become one of their criminal number, and revel in the power that has made my presence dangerous enough to be policed by a different man every day. As I wrote this essay, a friend reminded me that you can’t “choose your publics”; ironically, I resist this choicelessness by protesting its constraints in a digital public where women are routinely threatened with rape for nothing so much as blogging about technology. But if we cannot choose our publics, we also ought not abandon them.

While living in Western New York, I brought coffee and moral support to more than one striking union. Some lost their battles; others won. For seven years, a single clarion shout – EVERY DAY, sounding like the clanging of a bell – has remained with me. One striker, a working-class African-American woman who had been assembling windows for three decades, never insulted the scabs who crossed the picket line. She simply shouted EVERY DAY, asserting that surrender is impossible, that the indignities perpetrated that morning and the one after were recursive, if ultimately less powerful than the commitment she wielded.  I take her lesson and affix her word like armor to my skin.

Suggested Resources on Intersectionality and Publics

Berlant, Lauren. The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997.

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. On Intersectionality: The Essential Writings of Kimberle Crenshaw. New York: The New Press. Forthcoming 2012.

Delany, Samuel R. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

Finneman, Martha Albertson. The Public Nature of Private Violence: Women and the Discovery of Abuse. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Schweik, Susan. The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public. New York: New York University Press, 2009.

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