By Kerry Frizelle
While I was lecturing, a female student arrived late*. As she made her way to a seat, another student cat-called her (a whistle). The female student was already conspicuous because she was late and the cat-call drew the entire class’s attention to her. It took me a while to process what was happening. When I looked at the female student I noticed she was wearing a revealing top and I quickly put two and two together. At this point I asked everyone, "Did I just hear someone cat-call in my class room?" I stated very firmly that this would never happen in my classroom again. I was angry and reactionary. This led me to feeling an uneasy level of discomfort for the rest of the day. I have learned from practice that when I feel that particular feeling, it is something I need to reflect on and learn. This letter testifies to this process.
After yesterday's incident in class I spent some time reflecting on my reaction and feel that it is necessary for me to share the outcome of this process with you.
Firstly, I think that it is very important for any professional person to be willing to reflect on their behaviour. It is not always an easy task to engage in, but it one way to develop our practice to be more effective in what we do. This is especially true for certain professionals, such as educators, social workers, criminologists and psychologists. If we want to be better at what we do, we need to be able to look back on our practice so that we can improve our future practice. It is a vulnerable process, but a necessary one.
So, recently you would have noticed that when this incident occurred I had a very strong reaction. I was angry! Having spent so much time in our previous lectures raising awareness around the ways in which larger dominant cultural narratives inform the ways in which women are oppressed and represented around their sexuality, I was angry that someone would, after these insights, still behave like that.
On one level I would like you to consider that the anger you saw me display so intensely is the anger that so many women experience who are exposed to this behaviour repeatedly in a variety of contexts, but who do not feel empowered to say anything back. I was able to use the power I have as a lecturer to call this behaviour out, to push back against a practice that is so often experienced as dehumanising. In the moment when a woman is being cat-called, she is not being complimented. It is often behaviour elicited from a stranger, and is anonymous, usually by someone in a group situation who would probably not do that if they were alone. In most instances I am sure that women actually feel threatened and afraid and this it is not, in fact, experienced as a positive compliment.
Some people will argue "But if a woman dresses that way she is responsible for what happens!" Is that really true? I doubt that woman dress up in the morning focusing only on how their breasts look. I am sure that they are, rather, concerned with their overall look and how it all comes together. I doubt that many women who choose to reveal parts of their breasts do it with the intention of soliciting aggressive cat-calls from men they do not know. Women have the right to want to be seen as attractive, to feel sexy, to even solicit admiring glances, and not necessarily only from men, but from her friends, too. Perhaps she would like a comment, from someone she knows well, about how gorgeous she looks. I am sure she does not, however, want to be reduced to her breasts. She does not want her breasts to simply become sexual objects. She does not, in turn, want to be objectified.
So with this thinking behind my actions I do not regret speaking out against this behaviour in class today and I will always insist that the classroom space needs to be safe. This kind of behaviour will not be tolerated in my class room.
However, I do have some regrets about aspects of my response. I recognise that the level of intensity of my response was not necessarily appropriate. I responded primarily from a place of anger. While I am a lecturer, I too am human, and as a result I reacted as a human. However, I am also an educator and my job is to create spaces where students can make mistakes and then learn from them. If anger is the primary emotion driving my response I am not creating a context for learning. In future, when I feel such a strong reaction, I will pause and let some time pass before I address the issue. In this particular case I could have taken a deep breath, carried on with the lecture and when I felt calmer I could have returned to the incident and spoken calmly about what had taken place. Perhaps I could have engaged you in a discussion where everyone could have been left with something to think about.
So, while I do not apologise for addressing the issue, I do apologise for the level of my anger and for the manner in which I addressed it (and the F-word that raged out!).
I cannot force you to take a particular position on the matter but I can ask you to think critically about what happened and consider the ways in which we respond to each other. There are wider macro structures in which we are embedded and the implications of that behaviour. I would like to believe that at the end of the day we all wish to become better and kinder humans.
Kerry Frizelle is a lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), currently working on her PhD that explores my pedagogical practices. She teaches in the area of critical psychology across various levels.