Spring is in the air and, along with all my red-blooded Canadian brothers, I find myself enjoying the collective disrobing that the season inspires. As moods rise with the temperature, there's an en masse flirtation that occurs - smiles, glances and the odd mutual ogling. It's a reaffirmation of life in this cold land.
But then, on occasion, as I'm admiring a woman strolling down the sidewalk, I'll hear a man call out from his car or stoop, gutturally expressing his admiration while using less-than-polite adjectives, or licking his lips and noting at which meal of the day he would most like to consume her. What a pig, I think, at the same time realizing my own thoughts were somewhat along the same lines. Thus, I've wondered whether I should join in, whether these lewd catcalls are ever taken by women as a flattering compliment. Where, exactly, is the line between street flirting and street harassment?
I put out an online request for catcall stories from female friends, and more than a few said it's not always a horrible experience. "The way I see it, there will come a day when a teenager, or a bum, or some random guy, won't think I'm hot," one friend wrote. "I might as well enjoy it now. And if you take it that way, it doesn't ruin your day and actually makes you feel better."
Another woman wrote of a man who dropped to his knees in front of her and her two girlfriends during a vacation in Italy, proclaiming, "I love you - tutte tre!" She called it "slightly charming."
But the positive experiences - and really, perhaps they are better described as an attitude of acceptance and weary tolerance - were only half the story. One woman who lives in Toronto told of a night time catcaller who, when ignored, followed her several blocks to a pizza joint where she finally felt safe enough to confront him. She added that she's noticed a trend where a neglected commenter follows up his unwanted words with angry, bitter insults too foul to be printed here.
Holly Kearl, Washington, D.C.-based author of the forthcoming Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Spaces Safe and Welcoming for Women, surveyed 800 women from 23 countries about public encounters with men. "The majority of women were fine with smiles and hellos and gender-neutral comments about the weather," she said, adding that most even found these interactions enjoyable.
Not surprisingly, none said they got a kick out of sexually graphic language, stalking or groping.
"There were a few actions where it was a little more mixed about how women felt," she says. "This is where a lot of controversy comes up - the comments on how women look. Very few women said they liked the sexually explicit comments or being honked at or whistled at, but there were about 25 per cent who said that they felt happy or grateful or flattered when someone commented on their appearance."
The difference, she says, often comes down to past experience. "The women who felt flattered were more likely to have rarely experienced that interaction and they were also less likely to have been assaulted or stalked or groped," she says. Unfortunately, according to Ms. Kearl, the odds are high that any particular woman you pass on the sidewalk has had a negative experience.
She pointed me to a decade-old survey of 12,300 Canadian women, which found that 80 per cent "had experienced male stranger harassment in public and that those experiences had a large and detrimental impact on their perceived safety in public." In Toronto, one woman's bad experiences motivated her to set up a blog - hollabackto.blogspot.com - where women can vent and shame their offenders.
It seems that it is this background of harassment, these bad guys out there, that threaten to ruin the more benign expressions of the springtime buzz. Why exactly are they doing it? One thing everyone I talked to agreed on was that these rude dudes are definitely not looking to start up a relationship.
Michael Kimmel, a sociologist in New York who studies masculinity, says catcallers are ruled by two main motivations. "One is passive-aggressive," he says. "It is basically saying, you are in public, this is my world. So I'm going to remind you that although you may be in the public arena, you are invading my space."
The other motivation, says Dr. Kimmel, is an unconscious need to express anger. "For example," he says, "if you're a woman walking by and I go, 'Oh, great tits' and you look at me like 'Drop dead,' I can easily and rather quickly get very angry and say, 'What's wrong with you - are you a dyke or something? You don't like that? Are you some feminist?' The rejection - although the come-on is not in any way personal towards that particular woman - is seen by these men as existential wounding."
Dr. Kimmel concludes with a very good point: "It always strikes me as odd that we get angry that we feel desire for someone."
The thing I was thinking after these conversations, is that a smile - even if underneath it lies a more carnivorous urge - can at least be interpreted by its receiver any way she wants. Or ignored. So in the same way that women have attempted to take back the street, I'd suggest that the good men out there take back the street flirt, by starting again from square one.
When it comes to expressing springtime desires, less is definitely more.
Micah Toub's memoir, Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks, will be published in the fall.