In the window of a gallery in San Francisco’s Mission district, Mirabelle Jones paced the enclosed space in nothing but nude underwear. Razor blades suspended from balloons hung just over her head. In this pink-tinted, claustrophobic exhibition, the San Francisco performance artist stripped down and endured a barrage of real (recorded) catcalls. For eight hours.
The idea behind the exhibition To Skin A Catcaller is to change what we see when we hear the term “catcall.” Street harassment isn’t the clichéd image of a construction worker whistling at a woman in a skirt suit and pumps. It’s walking from one place to the next in fear because a strange man said something rude to you, threatened violence, or started to follow you. Or it could be any other of the disturbing experiences reported by the hundreds of women who responded to Jones’s survey about sexual harassment on the streets of San Francisco.
Jones, who works with non-profit anti-harassment movement Hollaback!, knows the realities of the sense of entitlement some men feel they have to harass women in public. While a story in The Mission Local says some women appreciated the message, the statement-making artistic performance — which took place in the underground film space Artists’ Television Access — triggered mixed reactions from passers-by on Valencia Street.
“There were a number of men who, enticed by my lack of clothing, stood and stared at me. When they realized through the audio loop and visual cues that they were watching a performance about catcalling, many felt uncomfortable and took off,” Jones said in a statement after the performance.
“One man stood licking his lips at me for a full ten minutes. Another group of men stood and pointed and laughed and made comments about my body. There were several groups of men who came and argued with others on the sidewalk about whether or not I as a woman had the right to object to catcalling... And then there is the fact that I was catcalled three times on the way to this performance.”
In its rawness and brutality, Jones’s performance showed the reality of street harassment that women encounter everywhere, especially in supposedly pedestrian-friendly cities like San Francisco or New York. This is why women have a newfound sense of urgency in the ongoing effort to effect change by, say, criminalizing street harassment and finding effective ways to prevent these all-too-common attacks on our personal safety. Misogyny in America is not a neat and tidy issue. It’s the kind of trauma that sticks with you and festers until you’re a little afraid to go anywhere alone.
Jones’s exercise in exposure speaks to the sad fact that most victims of a sexual assault do not file a police report. When people try to excuse catcalling as harmless or downplay it as a compliment, it only increases trepidation about seeking help for fear of being blamed or slut-shamed. The reality is that being sexually harassed makes women feel exposed, vulnerable, defensive. Catcalling is ultimately somewhere between micro-aggression and actual threat, the kind of imperative grey area that sometimes only art alone can translate.