Catcalls


I watched a news programme recently in which men and women were arguing back and forth as to whether catcalls, and their like, could be considered as misogynous? While I thought it was environmentally/contextually dependent (amongst other considerations), I was generally in favour of not considering it a hate crime.

‘Situations’, obviously struck me as making significant differences: a couple of workmen calling out in appreciation of a pair of legs in the middle of the day seemed very different from a group of youths making lewd comments in a dark street in the small hours of the morning, and while the intention might be no different, the feeling of imminent threat seemed far more important.

At first glance the problem seemed to be more related to a polite upbringing and good education – one where respect for people, regardless of gender, was paramount, but when I later discussed the matter with some of my students I began to think of the problem in different terms, terms with which perhaps even a relatively insensitive man might be able to empathise.

A long time ago I used to work in the locked units of a mental health institution (this is a polite way of saying I worked in a prison for ‘mad’ criminals). This was the place where murderers, rapists, child abusers, and violent aggressors were sent when they were deemed too mentally unstable for a normal prison (also the last place anyone wanted to go whatever their state of mind as there was technically no sentence duration – you were stuck there until deemed safe to return to society).

I have many interesting stories originating in the ‘hospital’, but this isn’t the place for such ghoulish tales. What I want to bring up is while I was there I had to go to many classes including some on de-escalation and anger management. In one of these classes we were taught one of the reasons people become uncomfortable is because someone we are not on intimate terms with (and I mean this in the Platonic sense), has entered our ‘personal space’. To define that space in most people is to hold both hands in front with straight arms and then rotate them horizontally to the back to show a kind of arm’s length egg shape. We were taught to be careful as many of the ‘patients’ may well unconsciously define their personal space as up to three times this size, so while I think I’m maintaining a safe and respectful distance from the patient I’m actually hovering over him as if someone had just stepped in almost close enough to rub noses – thus explaining many of the hostile events taking place both in hospitalised people and in more than a few who perhaps should be hospitalised.

I think everyone knows how they feel when someone we are not comfortable with, and even people we would normally allow close who approach us at the wrong time… We are on edge, uncomfortable, jittery, we want to draw away, become defensive or, depending on who has entered that space we might well feel the urge to react violently (as in the case of many of the patients referred to from the afore-mentioned institution).

I found myself wondering what it would be like to imagine a ‘mental space’, much like the personal one referring to physicality; what would this look like in a [mentally] ‘healthy’ person, what would it look like in an unstable one? What would it take for someone to enter this metal space without our permission? On enquiring to my female students, it turned out whether they were from Italy, Spain, Saudi, France or England (all the locations available), they had all had to suffer this intrusion into mental space at one time or another (I still believe the cause is one that can only be addressed by parenting and the kind of examples good teaching role-models can provide, but education is a subject for a much larger and more comprehensive article).

It occurred to me I should perhaps begin to take this ‘catcalling’ issue more seriously. I know how awful I feel when someone upsets my mental equilibrium, and to have this done regularly, wherever I go, for no particular reason but I exist and am not a man, simply because I’m walking down the street, and then to listen to ‘liberals’ laugh it off saying I’m being too sensitive, seems to lack exemplify the same incomprehension in which I so recently luxuriated.

Should we make rudeness a crime? Should we address the damage done to the mental health of HALF our population on a daily basis? Are people ignoring the problem for reasons caused by their own unconscious needs (insecurity, for example)?

Regardless of the requirements demanded by this fresh perspective it will certainly give me a new understanding with regards the difficulties of being a woman living even an everyday life…


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