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Power play

/ 05:10 AM December 01, 2017

Why does catcalling affect you so much?” a friend once asked me. “It’s not a threat, it involves no physical contact whatsoever, and it’s even a compliment!”

I couldn’t answer this question straight at the time. Why does catcalling make us feel scared, humiliated, and helpless? After some thought, I’ve come to see that it’s not about the words uttered, but their subtext—the vague but strongly felt theme from which those words arise. And that theme is power play: “I can get away with doing this to you.”

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Without this connotation, my friend would be right. By themselves, words like “Miss, smile ka naman” or “Hi, cute, pasabay” would not be threatening and could even be taken as compliments. But the thing about catcalls is that it’s virtually impossible to remove them from that subtext of power, especially because these words are almost always thrown, repeated, and asserted despite clear signs of them being unwelcome.

The connotations run like this: You don’t look happy when I call out “Hi, sexy”? I don’t care; I can say it and will keep saying it just because. You walk faster past me when I say it? I don’t care; I’ll just say it again, and louder. You obviously don’t enjoy this kind of attention that I’m giving you? I don’t care; I can get away with doing this to you.

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And catcallers have indeed been getting away with it for ages, mostly because there is little avenue for their objects to call them out on it. Admirable are the brave ones who have the fearlessness to speak up. I know of a college girl who, on the one occasion she was verbally harassed by some neighborhood boys, talked back to them and shut them up. The next day, she found out that those boys came whining to her own mother about their embarrassing encounter.

It’s a funny story with some sort of moral to it, but in the reality we live in, it’s almost like an incredible fairy tale. Not all of us have her kind of boldness or this kind of fortune to encounter only “mild” harassers. There are those who have also tried to put catcallers in place with simple actions like looking them in the eye—only to be met with the fanned audacity of those harassers. That’s when it gets more worrisome, especially for those who are physically more vulnerable.

Assertion of power also seems to be a huge factor in other forms of harassment, particularly in the slew of cases reported recently involving persons of influence: filmmakers, movie stars, musicians. It’s important to recognize factors like this because it helps us
focus the culpability on the harasser’s behavior—in other words, it helps us veer away from victim-blaming and victim-shaming, and pinpoint what truly needs to be addressed.

And in addressing the debasing power play behind instances of harassment, it’s high time to even the scale by empowering the targets. Sen. Risa Hontiveros’ “Safe Streets and Public Spaces” bill may just be a step toward this, because the protection of the law can encourage the objects of street harassment to speak up.

Of course, such a bill treads a fine line; it should come with caveats on gender bias and false reporting. I mention these two issues specifically because they can deeply hurt any effort against harassment. One, protection from harassment should apply equally to those it concerns, regardless of gender: If it is skewed for or against one, it ceases to be the evening of scales that it is supposed to be. Two, false reports of harassment cases deeply devalue authentic ones, and, thus, there need to be solid measures to screen against false reporting.

Beyond laws and rules, however, fighting street harassment—and indeed any form of harassment—is a tall, arduous mountain to climb. It’s a dream of a paradigm shift, of a change in mindsets long tolerated—and at some point even encouraged—by society. How do you make catcallers understand, at a fundamental level, that even if they are getting away with it, their unwanted “Hi, sexy” is harassment?

For now, we walk on. Step by step, as bravely as we can, we walk on.

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