Walking back from my daily morning trek to the coffee shop this morning, a man coming the opposite way on the sidewalk felt the need to comment on my physical person in its pajama-clad state. "Beautiful," he whispered to me as we passed one another. "God bless you, sweetheart," he said in a slightly louder voice as I continued on my way. I ignored him. It's easier than trying to explain a gender-based violation of privacy to a complete stranger first thing in the morning. Besides — like most women — I'm used to these small affronts. They crop up almost every single day, and it's only going to get worse in the coming weeks: in New York City, springtime is catcall season. Better to save my energy for the most egregious offenses. But when I came back to my computer to work and saw that Henry Cavill, the 32-year-old English actor who plays Superman in the upcoming film of the same name, told The Sunday Times that he thinks street harassment has a double standard when it comes to men and woman, I decided enough was enough for this particular Tuesday. So let's talk about why it's not a double standard, but a different standard for men and women catcalling each other. Cavill made what I'm guessing was an offhand comment to the The Times about the sorts of things that women say to him on the streets these days. "I mean, if a girl shouts something like 'Oi, love, fancy a shag?' to me as I walk past, I do sometimes wonder how she’d feel if a builder said that to her," he pondered. He acknowledged that a woman might experience a different level of perceived physical threat than he would, while also adding that sometimes he's totally fine with this kind of flirtation — it's all about circumstance. "I don't mind it, unless I'm with my girlfriend and someone is being complimentary to me in order to disrespect her.” So, here's what Cavill got right: Women are more likely to perceive a greater potential physical threat from a man who "compliments" them on the street than the other way around.
Do women do that, too? Yes, absolutely, and it's equally gross and unacceptable.
But it's about more than who could physically overpower whom if a situation went south. For most of history, men were stronger because they had more power. They had more control. And for whatever strides we've made on the gender-equality front, there are still men who feel entitled to evaluate a stranger out loud on the sidewalk, to her face, just because. Do women do that, too? Yes, absolutely, and it's equally gross and unacceptable. Women shouldn't catcall, either — but not because they aren't as threatening: because it's wrong to volunteer an assessment of a stranger's physicality without having been expressly asked for it. That is an intimate move. It disregards a right to privacy, and it doesn't matter where you fall on the gender spectrum: It's not cool to approach someone you don't know with comments about his or her looks. One more thing: Cavill can't have it both ways. You can't "not mind" the comments sometimes and be cool with them other times. If you're against street harrassment, you have to be categorically opposed to street harrassment, no matter where it's coming from. And whether or not it's something you mind shouldn't have anything to do with the presence of a significant other — in this case, Cavill's girlfriend, Tara King. The unsolicited remarks are not disrespectful to her, they're disrespectful to Cavill. On the flip side, women aren't being respectful of Cavill or King by refraining from catcalling the actor just because his girlfriend is by his side, because it's not about the presence of someone who claims you. It's about treating people with autonomy and respect. That's what I wish I would have said to the guy on the sidewalk this morning. But still: It's good to get it off my chest.