The Myth of Moral Decline: Catcalling Edition

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[Florence, 1951]

Driving around on Friday, running my last-minute Halloween errands, I caught the tail end ofDrew Mariani’s program on Relevant Radio. Mariani was discussing the now-famous video clip produced by Hollaback New York, in which actress Shoshanna Roberts walks around New York City with a microphone and a GoPro (attached inconspicuously to the backpack of a partner walking in front of her) and simply records the comments, catcalls, and, well, creepy behavior she receives from men—just for walking on the sidewalk.

Here’s how Mariani described it:

“It’s a project to show catcalling and the objectification of women and how men treat women. You know? And you and I both know there’s lot of this that goes on. You know, maybe it doesn’t just happen on the streets of New York. It might happen it your offices. It might happen in your gym or your Y. It may happen where you work out. It might happen in the supermarket.”

First, let me give props to Mariani for his attention to the subject, and to both him and his guest, Catholic chastity speaker Jason Evert, for their (mostly) great handling of the topic. When a caller tried to suggest that Roberts was dressed immodestly, because her shirt was a little a tight and she looks, in the caller’s words, “kind of busty,” Evert said that doesn’t matter, that we’re called to treat every one with dignity because everyone is a child of God.

That was great, even if Evert did throw in his own little comment about women who wear tights.

And it was great to hear the Catholic Right calling out the objectification of women. And Evert and Mariani were right to denounce men who can’t hold a conversation with a woman without fixating on her chest. And Evert was right to point out that the Catholic Church (and Christianity more generally) insists on the inherent dignity of both men and women and thus gives its adherents language (and impetus) to fight back against that type of sexism.

That’s the big story: what follows may be nit-picky on my part.

But… geez.

Guys, do you have to try to fit every damned thing into your narrative of perpetual moral decline?

Immediately after introducing the video, Mariani was asking, “Is this now on a rise? Is it symptomatic of where we are as a culture right now?” And before long, he was connecting the video to the “pornification of the culture, this culture, where porn is affecting more men than you can count and as a result of it, it’s no longer just a man gazing at a woman lustfully, but instead it’s now become vocalized, it’s become animated, it’s become maybe even a little more aggressive.”

Evert got in on that, too, saying that men who stare at a women’s chests while talking to them do it “because they’re so used to spending an hour or two a day sometimes looking at pornography, where eye-contact is the last thing on your mind.”

Unbelievably (but way too predictably), this has been part of the Religious Right’s reaction the Hollaback video: Blame it on porn. Blame it on the Sexual Revolution. Blame it on feminism.

The idea idea is that, rather than reflecting millenia-old traditions that view women as property, or rigid gender divisions that mark the public realm as a man’s space, this phenomenon is a new thing, a breakdown of cultural traditions, a result of our modern, hedonistic, anything-goes, consent-based sexual ethics.

To which I want to say:

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[Mexico City, 1953]

Listen.

Guys.

The objectification of women wasn’t invented with the internet. Want proof? Visit Havana, where almost no one has an internet connection, and watch what happens when a woman walks past a pack of men hanging out on a street corner.

Or, you know what? Read Ana Lydia Vega’s “Letra para salsa y tres soneos por encargo,” which is now thirty-five years old. In the story’s second paragraph, Vega writes:

“Entre el culipandeo, más intenso que un arrebato co­lombiano, más perseverante que Somoza, el Tipo rastrea a la Tipa. Fiel como una procesión de Semana Santa con su rosario de qué buena estás, mamichulin, qué bien te ves, qué ricos te quedan esos pantaloncitos, qué chula está esa hembrota, men, qué canto e silán, tanta carne y yo comiendo hueso…”

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[Sevilla, 1959]

It wasn’t even invented with the birth control pill. Believe it or not, catcalling  has nothing to to do with the Sexual Revolution.  Instead, it comes from a cultural belief that the public realm is men’s space, and that an unaccompanied woman in that realm is, to an extent, making herself public property. That her body is not her own.

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[Barcelona, 1963]

So it’s supremely ironic to watch commentators trying to tie the Hollaback video to modern sexual ethics, which they also characterize as “consent-only.” The point of the catcall or thepiropo (as it’s called in Spanish) is that it starts from the assumption that consent doesn’t matter. The woman is getting it whether she likes it or not. That’s why it’s dehumanizing; that’s why it’s objectifying: not because it has to do with sex, but because it disregards the woman’s choice in the matter.

[Vega underscores this perfectly in her story when the female protagonist, the Tipa, actually agrees to the Tipo’s sexual advances, leaving him dumbfounded and impotent, in both senses of the word.]

In fact, if I were looking for the cultural roots of the catcalling that Roberts experienced walking around the streets of New York, I wouldn’t start with Pornhub or Spankwire, or even Playboy or Penthouse. No, I’d look much further back than that:

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[Rome, 750 B.C.]

The point is, Mariani and Evert are right to see Christianity as a rebuff to men who think they can treat women the way Roberts was treated in that video. But, in this, Christianity has always been counter-cultural. That means that it does no good here to denounce modernity or to look to hazy notions of the past for society-wide moral examples.

And it also means that, in this case, feminists are their allies, not their enemies. And, in at least this one little thing, they’re on the side of the Sexual Revolution.

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One thought on “The Myth of Moral Decline: Catcalling Edition

  1. Supporters of an institution which has assisted countless acts of pedophilia, by its employees, providing them more victims and evasion of consequences as a routine matter, that sees the whole thing clearly as a publicity and legal liability issue and otherwise permissible, to speak of moral decline? Wow.

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