It happened again yesterday while I was crossing the road, minding my own business. They were in a car, I think three of them, and they started to honk, opened windows and started to whistle and shout at me. I ignored them, as always, but they were persistent. “Hey beautiful, not even a smile? Turn around pretty girl, look at me!”
Immediately I started to analyse my outfit, I don’t know why I do it every time this happens because outfit has absolutely nothing to do with it. But just in case and to be sure, I started to inspect my wardrobe – black leggings, black dress with zero cleavage showing, long black oversized cardigan and black Nike’s.
How on earth is it possible to attract that kind of attention wearing totally conservative outfit? Is it my hair? Or the fact I wore some bright colored lipstick? Maybe because my nail polish was bright red? Or maybe my cat eye black sunnies sent the wrong message?
I remember the first time when it happened. I was twelwe maybe. Wearing bright yellow T-shirt and short pants. I was wearing sneakers and I looked like a child because, guess what, I was a child. But obviously not to construction workers who started to shout and scream when I passed them.
I remember the feeling. I was mortified. I was shaking. My hands were sweaty and I couldn’t wait to come home. Years later and I was still having trouble passing construction working sites because, you know, workers were shouting every time I passed them. I know it happens to other girls too. And it doesn’t matter what you wear or how long your hair is.
What is catcalling?
According to Merriem-Webster, catcalling is the act of shouting harassing and often sexually suggestive, threatening, or derisive comments at someone publicly.
Catcalling is street herassment and that is also a form of sexual herassmet that consists of unwanted flirtatious comments, provocative gestures, honking, wolf-whistlings, indecent exposures, stalking, persistent sexual advances, and touching by strangers, in public areas such as streets, shopping malls and public transportation.
Women are much more commonly victims of harassment by men. According to Harvard Law Review (1993), street harassment is considered harassment done primarily by male strangers to females in public places. According to the founder of the non-profit organization Stop Street Harassment, it can also consist of physically harmless behavior, such as “kissing noises” and “non-sexually explicit comments,” to “more threatening behavior” like stalking, flashing, sexual assault, and rape.
Worldwide, statistics show that 80% of women endure at least frequent street harassment, 45% feel that they cannot go alone to public spaces, 50% have to cross the street to find alternate routes to their destinations, 26% claim that they are in a relationship in order to avoid harassment, 80% feel the need to be constantly alert when traversing local streets and 19% have had to switch careers to escape the area in which harassment occurred.
The Canadian government sponsored a large survey in 1993 called the Violence Against Women Survey. In the sample of over 12,000 women, 85% said they were victims of harassment by a stranger. A study done in Australia shows that almost 90% of women have experienced verbal or physical harassment in public one or more times in their lives. In Afghanistan, research done in the same year indicates that the prevalence of harassment was 93%. Canadian and Egyptian studies show that the rate of incidence is approximately 85% of women experiencing street harassment in the past year. In U.S.-based research, it was reported that women experienced stranger harassment on a monthly basis (41%), while a large minority reported experiencing harassment once every few days (31%).
As you can see, these numbers are horrible but they are even bigger and they grow every day. I remember one afternoon, I was going to class at my university and a guy in a black Mercedes hit the breaks, left his car in the middle of the busy road and ran towards me.
He explained that he noticed me walking and that he likes me. I politely declined his advances and he became angry and told me that he almost had an accident because of me. I ignored him and kept walking. A few hours later my lecture was over and it was dark outside.
That’s when I saw him standing and waiting for me. I was terrified and didn’t know what to do. I got back inside and told cleaning lady was was going on but she wasn’t very interested in my problems. Luckily, three guys overheard my conversation with a cleaning lady and offered to walk me home.
I accepted, we exited the university building together. He saw me but, probably because of the three young men with me, he turned around and left. I was terrified, but that was not the first nor the last incident of that kind. What’s sad is – you almost get used to it. And you shouldn’t because street herassment is not normal, not ok and shouldn’t be tolerated or ignored.
What causes this behaviour in men?
William Castello, a professor at St. John’s University, said low self-esteem is to blame.
“There is a competition to be boldest, strongest most macho, generally driven by rampant lack of self esteem, disappointment and frustration with life in general,” Castello said. “It is a sign of a rough and rude upbringing, which lends itself to a competition of sorts among the groups … kind of a ‘oneupsmanship’ of who’s worse than the rest.”
While most catcalling men would argue that their comments are purely complementary and should not be considered a big deal, this type of harassment can easily instill fear and even leave long-lasting psychological effects, experts say.
The Women and Equalities Committee report notes, “The damage is far-reaching. Experienced at a young age, sexual harassment becomes ‘normalized’ as girls move through life.” What are often discounted as “jokes” or “compliments” can have consequences for years, sometimes even a lifetime. Growing up with our bodies as constant fodder for public comment affects the way we carry ourselves, the way we dress, and the way we navigate our place in the world. It affects our rights to dignity, privacy and autonomy as human beings.
It never occurred to me to tell anyone that a sense of shame and disgust was eating me from the inside out. I was too embarrassed — as though my body had betrayed me and brought this on itself. And who would I have told? What could they have done? Girls saw women everywhere ignoring catcalls and moving on. We thought that was our lot in life, too.
Street harassment cannot necessarily be legislated out of existence considering the challenges in monitoring, policing, and prosecuting it, and the risk of laws being used inordinately against particular groups.
Too many times women have been told to “let it go”, a phrase used to encourage women to be docile and polite instead of enraged when someone defiles their space. When it comes to body politics, none of us should simply let it go. Heatwaves like we experience in summer tend to mean a spike in harassment, but shedding layers should not mean shedding respect for women’s bodies.
To some people, catcalling is a trivial thing – but this interpretation in effect reinforces the “rape myths” deeply entrenched in our society, that blame the victim and exonerate the perpetrator. To ask, for example, what someone was wearing at the time of the incident is as common in cases of rape as in street harassment. It is a response that immediately looks for ways a woman was deserving of her assault. It should not matter what someone is wearing; it’s her body, she can wear whatever she wants. It really is as simple as that.
Others believe somehow that catcalling is complimentary. It never is, because compliments do not incite fear. Catcalls give women pangs of anxiety. I’ve never complimented someone by shouting across a street at them, or driving slowly alongside them.
Catcalling is part of the daily life of every woman. Ask your friend, your partner, your sister; the stories they have will break your heart and surprise you. Individually, we can do more to call out such behavior, to intervene and not let it happen to others, especially girls. But governments need also take action so that girls don’t grow up thinking street harassment is “normal,” and hiding themselves as they live silently with the consequences.
Catcalling is a controversial topic. The arguments are divided into two camps, with some thinking such behavior is a compliment and others thinking it’s sexual harassment. Many men will claim that they are just being nice, while women can’t help but feel attacked. And we are attacked. Catcalling is not nice. Catcalling is not a compliment. Catcalling is sexual herassment. Nothing less.
Interestingly, most men doing the catcalling expect the women to react a certain way. They want to capture their attention and get a reaction out of them. Yet women, for the most part, feel intimidated and harassed. What to do? To respond? To ignore? To shout back? To argue?
Stop Street Herassment suggests several ways to deal with the issue.
- Respond: If you feel safe enough to do so, assertively respond to the harassers calmly, firmly and without insults or personal attacks to let them know that their actions are unwelcome, unacceptable and wrong.
- Step In: Intervene when someone else is being harassed to help them out of the situation and let the harasser know that their actions are not condoned by others. Ask them if they want help and what they’d like you to do or simply check in to see if they’re OK. Men engaging in this tactic can be particularly powerful, since men (the majority of street harassers) look to other men for approval.
- Report to Employer: If the harassers work for an identifiable company, call or write the company to let them know that their employees are harassing people on the job and why that is unacceptable.
Street herassment may happen a lot, but this kind of behaviour isn’t “normal”. We are not born treating women’s bodies like objects; this is a learned behaviour. To excuse it as “normal” is upholding rape culture, because it tells us that it’s OK for men to feel entitled to women’s bodies.
Catcalling is not innocent. It’s not fun and it certainly is not a compliment. Street harassment, like all forms of sexual and gender violence, are fundamentally about power and reinforcing inequality. Sexualizing a woman or girl in public through street harassment reduces her to an object for others’ consumption. Meaning, she is stripped of her full humanity and instead reduced to simply a physical or sexual thing whose purpose is men’s pleasure.
And that is not ok!
* Disclaimer: I am very aware that the majority of men are not included in this group of catcallers. In fact, most men are allies and try to stand up for others. But for this story, I use the term “men” to refer to the ones who do not see a problem with objectifying women.