Dealing With Catcallers — The Safe, Realistic Way

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picpicPhoto: Wayne Tippetts/REX USA.
Three things happened this week that made me think a lot (more than usual) about what it means to be a young woman in a big city. First of all, I came across Hannah Price's intriguing photo series "City of Love," which turns the focus on the men who catcall and harass passersby. Second, I was part of a deep discussion amongst our staff over Emily Yoffe's controversial essay on the responsibility of victims in rape prevention. Third, I was walking into the Spring Street stop on the 6 train and saw a man who had made me feel extremely uncomfortable on the same line a few weeks prior.

The first time I saw the creep, I had unwittingly sat directly across from him and for three subsequent stops, became the focus of his intense, leering stare and subtle, but disgusting tongue movements. I wanted to scream at him and deliver a loud, proud rant about him not having the right to objectify me like that — but the best I could muster when I turned around at the platform exit and saw that his gaze had followed me through the grimy car window was flipping him the finger. When I came across him again, I was even angrier, but I was also a little surprised to see him dressed in a nice suit, reading the paper, looking like a normal person with enough common decency not to lick his lips at a girl half his age.

This brief but evocative essay on Jezebel's Groupthink forum sums up the feeling pretty well — discomfort, paranoia, and for me, a wave of righteous anger. Whenever I get into a situation like this, I find myself fantasizing about how I could have "won" the situation for weeks after the fact, how my speech would have roused the entire subway car into applause. But then I wonder, what would have happened if I actually confronted him? What if he turned out to be violent or mentally unstable? I think a lot of young women identify with me in that we don't want to take this kind of behavior laying down, but we also don't want to potentially escalate an uncomfortable situation into something truly dangerous. I decided to do a little research, and ended up talking to Gabrielle Rubin, founder of a self-defense course called Female Awareness.

Rubin teaches a two-hour class in NYC that is about more than just basic self-defense moves and tricks. Women learn not only how to respond to a "bad situation," but how to recognize one in the first place — and how to avoid becoming a target or, as I like to call it, a POUI (person of unwanted interest; also, that acronym sounds funny when you say it out loud). Defining what makes someone a "target" is a slippery slope, and threatens to veer into the same questionable territory that brought such negative reaction to Yoffe's Slate piece. But where Yoffe misses, Rubin succeeds with a more accurate philosophy that acknowledges reality without restricting women's freedoms. Rubin says she "hates it" when self-defense instructors tell women not to wear short skirts and heels, or to tie their hair back instead of letting it down. And she knows that uncomfortable looks, catcalls, and worse can happen to anyone at any time.

Establishing yourself as someone not to be messed with is "all about confidence. Body language can say a lot. If you're sitting on the train or standing on the corner a certain way, [men] are going to look at that girl before the one who is exuding some confidence in her body language and her posture." That means, Rubin says, certain subtle cues like not crossing your arms or staring at your feet but also being aware of your surroundings. "You need to be aware of who's looking at you. Don't have your hands in your pocket, or get too involved in your cell phone. If you're listening to headphones, keep your eyes on your surroundings." And if you are wearing heels, you can use it to your advantage. One stomp of a sharp stiletto on the foot will disable an attacker long enough for you to get away.

When I told Rubin about my enemy on the 6 train, she knowingly said that "bad guys don't always look like bad guys. Some rapists are really good-looking guys in suits." So, how can you tell when someone is starting to behave inappropriately? "You have to trust your instincts. If you get a feeling that something isn't right, get out. Switch cars before anything happens. A lot of women think they're being paranoid...but if you don't live in a paranoid state of mind, and suddenly on this day, on this train, you get a bad vibe? You have to trust that."

And if you do get noticed, or targeted? Rubin says it's about "acknowledgement, but not engagement." Her theory — which she has evidently tested herself —is that when you freeze up, you're only making things worse. "If you don't do anything, their confidence goes higher," she explains. "I'm not saying you should turn around and say, 'Screw you!' Then you're fueling the fire. I've never understood the expression, 'Fight fire with fire' — why not fight it with water? Meaning, if somebody catcalls me, I just look at them and give them a look that says, 'Aw, that's pathetic,' and then suddenly they're beneath me." I told her that would be hard for me because my initial response is aggression and anger and wanting to give the guy a taste of his own medicine. But Rubin confirmed my suspicion that this isn't a safe game to play with strangers because you never know what you're getting into.

Probably my favorite tip from Rubin involves what she calls your "invisible friend," a.k.a. your cell phone. If you get harassed on the street, especially if it begins to escalate or if you're in a less crowded area, she suggests you pull the old fake-phone-call trick. "Pretend you're meeting a friend just up on the next block. Maybe mention that you're going to help walk a dog named Cujo — Mr. Buttons isn't going to scare anyone off."

While my gut instinct was still telling me to buy some brass knuckles, maybe get a dangerous-looking tattoo, and plant myself at Spring Street awaiting the return of my nemesis, I decided to keep Rubin's advice in my pocket and test them out the next time I got a weird look. So Friday night, around 10 p.m. on the C train, I noticed someone consistently staring at me for several minutes and decided to pull the look of disdain. I waited until we came to a stop, made eye contact, rolled my eyes ever so slightly, and gave a little ugh. Then I moved to the next car and breathed a sigh of relief.

If you'd like to know more about Gabrielle Rubin and her self-defense philosophy, you can sign up for classes at Female Awareness here.