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Orchard Street, Copyright Xiomara A. Maldonado 2011
Two blocks later, they are still following me. "You fucking conceited bitch, answer me!" screams a man at the back of my head. I press my lips together, working hard to keep my head up and eyes forward.

"You're a whore!" one voice calls as we pass the elementary school my cousins went to.

"You're a prude!" yells the other when I make it to the front of the local pizzeria.

I can see my building from here, but it's still two blocks away. The thoughts speed through my mind: "Will I make it home? I didn't even look at them. If they try to hurt me, could I identify them?" My heart pounds as I start to walk so fast I almost fall into a run.

"You can't escape us," come their voices from behind me, and tears fill my eyes as I rush into the Yemeni-owned bodega. The store is crowded with customers grabbing snacks and pulling cash from their pockets, oblivious to me. I press myself against shelves of cookies and soda and peek through the transparent door. I thank God when they look at the store, look at each other and decide to walk away.

I was just 15 years old in this incident of sexual harassment. On my walk home from the train station after a long day at school, two males approached me and asked if I had a map. I replied, "No," and continued to go on my way. When I refused to respond to their subsequent suggestive remarks of hanging out and hooking up, they followed me for blocks, loudly insulting me.

It wasn't the first time I had experienced street harassment. The first time, I was 12 years old and the catcaller, who was about 50 years old, received a good tongue-lashing from my mother. However, this instance is the one that haunts me. I went home that day feeling more confused, frightened and worthless than I had ever felt before. How an initially innocent conversation rapidly morphed into a terrifying encounter astounded me.

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Even now, as I relive the moment through my writing, my chest is tight and my forehead creases into those lines a friend calls my "steps." Their words and actions continue to upset and confound me a decade later - it is clear these men damaged my young psyche. 

They taught me how to look at myself through their eyes and to determine (all throughout high school) my level of "hotness" through the number of unwanted groans, whistles, turned-heads and comments I received that day from catcallers. 

Although I tried to use male perception of me to validate my self-worth, I knew that their catcalls did not actually make feel any better about my body. Instead, countless threatening encounters with men (including an instance in which a man grabbed my arm and pulled me towards him) made me feel increasingly unsafe in my home neighborhood.

Over the course of my adolescence and young adult life, I've been made to feel less than multiple times a day by men of all ages. I have been sexually harassed in the street, in restaurants, in movie theaters, in class, in clubs, in the library, in grocery stores and even in Babies 'R' Us. Out of the hundreds of examples I can pull from, some of my (least) favorite catcalls include the following:
  1. Comparisons to Food (because I just LOVE being talked about as an object you can consume)
    --"Hey, Baby, can I get a bite of that muffin?"
    --"Oh, Girl, you've got a sexy apple bottom. I want a slice."
  2. Religious References (because God made me and my child solely for your pleasure)
    --"Mmmmm, Goooood bleesss you, Beautiful! ...And your son."
    --"Ay, Mami, you must be an angel sent from above to bless me."
  3. Commands (because strangers telling me what to do ALWAYS turns me on)
    --"Smile, Gorgeous!"
    --"Sweetie, let me get your number... But why not? I just want to be your friend."

Catcallers may view these remarks as compliments, however sexualized. However, such comments actually degrade the women they target. 

As Naima Coster, a Brooklyn-born feminist, so eloquently writes in her post named "Beautiful" for the blog Catcalling Chronicles, "Being called 'beautiful' in the context of a catcall does nothing to make me actually feel beautiful --- in fact, the effect is quite often the opposite. I feel unsafe, objectified, nameless, consumed, racialized." 

I feel similarly: being called "Mami" or "Baby" or "Sexy" by a certain male friend of mine does not hurt me because I know he cares for me and means it as a term of endearment; however, being called any of these words by a stranger frightens and demeans me. 

"Smile, gorgeous," is a particularly frustrating remark because I don't always feel like smiling, especially when I'm worrying about my infant son being in 100-degree weather and rushing to get him out of the sun. (Check out Stop Street Harassment's story about a woman who confronts a man after he commands her to smile.)

Men who make such comments force me to fear for my body, which they obviously view as public property to be commented upon, leered at, touched and judged. 

Fear causes me to be careful about the way in which I interact with street harassers: instead of ignoring them, I mostly respond with a quick smile or nod even though I'd rather yell at them to respect me. 
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I often say, "Thank you," in response to a man's remark on my face or body or, "Sarah," if asked my name; if a man demands my number by pressing a pen into my hand, I write in one wrong digit on his business card; and I push my stroller to the supermarket that is four blocks away instead of the one across the street because the white-haired manager there refuses to take "No" for an answer to his requests for a dancing date.

Lauren Raffo states, "Sometimes the biggest act of courage is a small one," and there are moments in which I impulsively feel brave enough to confront street harassers about their behavior. 

At times, I'll respond with statements like "Don't talk to me that way!" or "You saying that just makes me feel bad." I usually receive mixed reactions. Some men apologize, but many simply increase their level of harassment, calling me a "bitch" for reacting negatively to their being "nice" to me. 

Then, I feel stupid for doing so. I end up berating myself, "Why did I stand up to him all alone at 11:00 PM on a darkly lit street corner? Is this guy going to follow me all the way home now? Ugh, I knew he wouldn't care." Although a woman should be able to defend her right to walk freely in a public space, doing so is often frightening.

Besides worrying for my life and body, the most difficult part of confronting a catcaller is feeling as if stopping street harassment is an uphill battle (just as fighting sexual assault and rape is). It is obvious that such men believe it is their RIGHT to objectify women and do so without shame or a thought about how their mothers, daughters, sisters, female cousins and wives must feel when placed in similar situations. Worse yet, it seems that for every individual I confront with information about how their unsolicited sexual advances makes me feel, there are a dozen more people who will remain either ignorant or immune to the damage they are causing to women of all ages.

For now, I will continue to confront or ignore a catcaller as I deem appropriate in regards to my safety and peace of mind; but I am reminded that I am raising my son in a patriarchal society every time a man calls out to me as I walk down the street with the stroller. I wonder about what catcallers' parents taught them about the way the world works. Did their fathers do as one man did next to his 4-year-old son in the movie theater? Moan "Ay, Mami, que sexy!" when Jessica Alba popped up on the screen? Did they notice their uncles craning their necks to watch a woman walk by in Yankee Stadium? 

I do not want my son to learn that it is okay to act towards and speak to women in the way men treat me on the street. I intend to teach my son that sexual harassment and assault, whether done in public or private, is WRONG. Ultimately, I think my biggest act of courage will be to raise a son who refuses to catcall women and discourages his friends from doing so as well. If I can teach my son to recognize that catcalling disempowers women but respecting them truly shows that he cares for them, I think I will have done a good job fighting back.

To share your stories of Street Harassment, follow @iHollaback on Twitter or click here to visit their site.

This post was edited on 10/20/12 to include the female silhouette images and minor revisions to wording. 
First female silhouette image is credited to Ambrozjo and the second female silhouette image is credited to Moi Kody. I added the text to these images.

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Comments

Naima
07/29/2011 9:12pm

What a fantastic piece! You speak so honestly about catcalling and the problems of addressing it. To me, there is no definitive right or wrong way to respond to catcalling. I admire your confidence to do what feels right to you -- challenging others while also thinking about your safety & honoring yourself.

You capture the way catcalling disempowers. I could relate to all that you said. But the post is so hopeful, and I think a great way to fight back is through education -- teaching others how to join in creating a culture of equality and respect.

Brava!

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Melissa
07/30/2011 9:36am

I spent most of my young life dealing with rude men who said all kinds of nasty things as I walked down the street. You wonder why they take the time to get so creative about the nasty things that they say. They chase you down the block telling you how they are attracted to you, then call you a slut, a bitch, or ugly, when you don't answer or give them the time of day. If he really thought I were ugly, he wouldn't take the time out of his day, or the effort, to harass me.

It is our job as new mothers to teach our children that women are not to be treated that way under any circumstances. I am glad you set such a good example for Equis. If everyone thought like you, the world would be on it's way to becoming a safer place. Besides, the girls that succumb to that kind of attention are not the kind we would want our sons to associate with or our daughters to be. A girl who answers to that kind of catcall and writes down the right phone number obviously lacks some self worth. Bravo, for another captivating Mom Blog.

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07/30/2011 12:32pm

This is such a great post. The men who catcall really don't "get" that we are more repulsed than anything by this unsolicited attention. I often wonder if some of these men have daughters of their own and, if so, how would they feel if their young girls were subjected to the same?

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Siouxxsie
07/30/2011 12:33pm

I'm definitely going to have my oldest son read this blog! Amen & power to you girl! The way you describe catcalling puts my confusions & uncomfortableness into such perspective when I've encountered similar situations. I didn't quite know how to put it, just that I felt icky & less than when a guy would holler something at me. I would actually feel embarrassed, I think more so for him than myself. I'll never understand the human race in its entirety unfortunately, but at least I'm not alone. Thank you!

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07/31/2011 8:54am

So glad you stopped by my blog & introduced yourself. I loved reading this post! It is sad that we have to hear such comments on a regular basis. My heart sunk reading about your experience at 15. I t is bad enough that as adults we have to deal with such comments, but a child - just a child! - should not!! Kudos to you for making sure your son understands the power of words and respect... Karen

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What a great story, it reminds me of a time when 2 girls taunted my sister and I. We were terrified.

I do believe that people who act like that will one day get their due. I hope so anyway.

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Shihan Andre maldonado (Father)
07/31/2011 10:38pm

As i read your blog i had to try and stay calm because i felt as your dad that i wish i could be there when these so called men treated you with disrespect! But i know i can't be there all the time to protect you, but i hope and pray that Gods angels will watch over you and my grand son! And that you will continue to practice your jujitsu in case of danger! Love Dad

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Mo
10/07/2011 8:50am

Again, a fabulous post! The wonders of catcalling never cease. My addition to this would definitely be men who dare say that s#!+ when I'm with my kid(s). I've had people say "Damn I wish I was that baby" when my son was in a carrier sleeping on my chest, or when 8 months pregnant walking with my 2 year old a guy saying "Hey baby, you still with the baby's father? I could step in" Like I really want some dude off the street to help me raise my kids.

I look forward to reading some more of your posts! <3

p.s. Extra shout out to your dad for his words of love, you're lucky!

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03/16/2013 7:24pm

You described that feeling so perfectly. I've been there, and tried every method: smile and move on, ignore completely, answer briefly. I've come to decide that these men have a goal of unsettling us and no matter what our reaction, they will keep pushing us until they reach thier goal.
I've never been persued like that, where they followed me, but I think I would have ducked into a shop, just as you did.

I'm sure you will raise your children to be respectful to women, to everyone for that matter.

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04/17/2013 5:28pm

I confront when I deem it safe to do so. It's not ok for them to treat us like that... It needs to change but it takes time to change an entire culture. Thanks for hooking up at the Hump Day Hook Up

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04/17/2013 6:11pm

Sad, disgusted, sad....I'm sorry that so many women have to deal with this as part of their daily lives.

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05/30/2013 8:06pm

Thanks for hooking up again to the Hump Day Hook Up.

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