Believe me, it’s not a compliment

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When I first moved to Berkeley, I was excited by the energy of its streets. I thought I’d see the ghost of Mario Savio walk past me or hear the protesters in People’s Park from my dorm window. I saw the streets of Telegraph, Bancroft and Durant as the walkways to my education, my college experience and my new home. 

And while I love Berkeley, that’s not exactly what I’ve experienced.

When I walk down the street, I’m aware of what I’m wearing, and even if it’s modest, I shame myself for it as the men I pass by choose to comment no matter if I’m wearing a crop top or a parka. I will always be jealous of my male dormmates when I hear them stumble in at 2 a.m., while I have to text a friend that I’ve gotten home safe at 8:30.

“Hey, it’s a compliment.”

That’s what men say when we keep our heads down and walk faster. That’s their response to no response at all. And there’s a part of me that actually believes that they believe that. That them telling me I have a nice ass should’ve brightened my day. And then when I tell other men about it, they say, “Why didn’t you just say something?” or worse, “Well, what were you wearing?”

I’m struck speechless when men say things like that to me. I freeze and I’m back on the street, only now I’m hurriedly walking away from both the man sitting by the street and the man I confided in.

I’m used to not being believed. Most women are. That set my default reaction to justifying or explaining myself no matter what I’m talking about. 

I can’t just state that my computer science midterm was hard; I have to describe the intricacies of the exam because I know that without them the guy I’m talking to will just assume I don’t know how to code. If I tell a man I had a bad fall, I always show the bruise because I know he won’t believe it was bad from me just telling him that it was.

So it doesn’t surprise me when men don’t believe me when I tell them about the disgust and fear female-presenting people feel when getting catcalled. I don’t have any proof and they can’t exactly experience it themselves, so how could they possibly believe me?

Maybe the school’s overwhelmingly liberal majority or the low acceptance rate would make it so that men would just believe me when I tell them something, I thought. At the very least, I wouldn’t have to explain why I can’t just confront a man after he says something gross and why I’d likely be in danger if I did. 

But it didn’t. No matter their age or GPA, they still wonder why I’m so weak as to not “stand up for myself,” or why I don’t just “dress differently.”

When I get angry about all of this, I remember the root of these reactions: “It’s just a compliment.” It’s that dismissive, cavalier mentality that men tend to have that drives their ignorance. Men perceive women as overly uptight, overreactive and emotional, because why else would we react so strongly to a compliment?

But what men see as a compliment, women see as dehumanization — and it can even come across as a threat. While men may see a difference between “You’re beautiful” and “I’d like to pound it out of you,” when you’re pretending not to hear it on the street, in the dark, when you’re standing at just 5 feet, 4 inches tall, it doesn’t really matter what they say.

The other day I was walking down Shattuck Avenue when a man sitting at a table called out to me, “Damn mama, come on over here.”

I walked faster. 

“Come on over here,” he repeated, more aggressively. 

In that moment, it was just he and I on that street. There were people, sure, but there might as well not have been. They weren’t going to do anything. He could’ve stood up and started walking just a few paces behind me and they still wouldn’t do anything. I could’ve been terrified, frantically searching for a populated store to slip into, and they’d either pretend nothing was happening — look down at their phones and keep walking — or possibly not even notice at all.

That’s what they always do.

I’ve never felt more alone than when getting harassed by men. There’s no one willing to help me in the moment, and there’s no one who will listen after the fact. Not being believed has a funny way of making you feel like a liar, even if you’re not.

I’ve simply stopped complaining to men about getting catcalled because all it does is invalidate my fear. Sometimes they try to relate. They say, “Yeah, I get catcalled too,” and I just nod. I don’t ask if they wondered for just a second if they were about to get raped. If they were about to be in one of those emails UC Berkeley sends out whenever a crime has been committed. If it’ll be them that a tragic Nixle alert will address.

We aren’t looking for men to understand, because they can’t; we’re just looking for men to stop. Stop catcalling. Stop defending those who do. Stop invalidating those who have to deal with it whenever they want to go outside. Stop acting like nothing is happening when something clearly is. Start believing women when they tell you that it’s a threat, not a compliment.

Once, my friend and I were walking down Durant Avenue when a man walked up as close as he could to us, looked down and said, “You’re going to get in trouble walking around like that.” And all I could think was, he’s right.

Helen D’Orazio writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected]