Eyes on the Ground: Fear as a Tool of Oppression

By Kathryn Klingle

I am walking home from class with a friend. It is 10:30 p.m, not too late to be out by Spanish standards. Families are still eating in the buildings we pass. But it is dark, and the walk home is quiet, sending me down narrow streets. We turn a corner and up ahead are two very drunk men. They stand there—loud and chaotic—unconcerned with who they disturb, whose path they block, how much space and air and sound they take up. I dread walking past them because I already know exactly what will happen.

As expected, they yell and whistle and make me grateful for my lack of Spanish proficiency. This way, I do not have to understand exactly what they say about my body or about my friend’s. They carry on for quite a while, but I never look up. I just stare bullets into the ground, not responding, not acknowledging. I let them say whatever they like—as I have been taught to do—for fear of what may happen if I do respond, if I dare to even glare at them instead of at the ground. I feel small. I want to be small, to blend into the graffitied walls or melt into the cracks of the cobblestones. I am reminded, once again, that assholes exist all over the world.

I want to be invisible because I have been told that my presence here, now that the sun has set, is a dangerous kind of visibility. I have been told that unaccompanied women provoke a specific kind of aggression and violence. And I have been told, by myriad workshops, school-sponsored talks, newspaper articles, and after-school specials, to be afraid of this violence. I have been programmed to fear what lurks around every corner. To fear the dark and the night and unknown parts of town and running by the river and parking lots and making eye contact and smiling and empty streets and walking alone and drawing attention to myself and strange men and strange men and strange men. Everything should be scary when you don’t have a big, strong man guiding you around (and sometimes it still is even if you do).

It is this fear that keeps my eyes glued to the ground, which stops me from defending myself, from yelling back. I have been trained to quietly accept this harassment. The media and my middle school and adults that really do care have assured me that an action, acknowledgement, or response of any kind means things could go from uncomfortable to traumatic in 60 seconds or less. Ironically, if things were to escalate and the catcalling were to turn into an assault, I would be expected to completely abandon my passivity training and fight back as hard as possible or risk being the “wrong kind” of victim. Yet in this case, passivity is self-preservation.

But it is also painful. It means I let those men objectify me. And that’s no solution. What does my silence really accomplish? What does my passivity teach my aggressors? That they have control over me. That they are allowed to drunkenly yell at two women without consequences. When I don’t respond, I reinforce the idea that they have the right to yell whatever they want and the power to make me feel small, childlike and vulnerable. They control my gaze, force it to the ground through the power of their own dehumanizing subjectivity. They have this power because I have been trained, as so many other women have been trained, to be afraid for my own safety.

This socially taught, internalized fear is oppressive. It reverts to an outdated public/private sphere divide by characterizing these public spaces as unsafe and unwelcoming to women. It also resurrects the ridiculous idea that women need to be accompanied at all times outside the home because we are simply too vulnerable for independence.

Catcalls are the human equivalent of a dog pissing on a tree. Catcallers mark women as they enter a space that does not want them. They draw attention to a perceived difference and in that way remind us that we are not considered equal here, are not allowed to share this space or pass through it without protest. We are only allowed to occupy it when we are sexualized, objects for the catcallers’ enjoyment. Unfortunately, this non-response I have been trained to give does nothing to set them straight. Instead, it forces me to accept my own objectification.

Well, that’s just not good enough. I am sick of playing dead, sick of folding myself up so tiny and neat in order to take up the least amount of space possible, and I am sick of that twinge of unease I feel in my stomach alone at night.

While I do not want to tell anyone that they must push back against catcallers by taking some action—that seems almost as unproductive as demanding all women keep their eyes glued to the ground—I do want to offer an alternative. You are allowed to “fight” back. You are allowed to take a stand. You are allowed to pass by silently thinking “what a fucking asshole” in your head. You are allowed to react however you want, but you are not obligated to be afraid.

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