Calling Out the Catcallers

Street harassment affects a substantial percentage of women and is only increasing, yet not enough action is being taken to address the problem.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Julia Shen

Sitting on the “Alice in Wonderland” mural outside of Stuyvesant, my friend and I were eating lunch during our free period when a group of three adult men walked up to us and shouted, “Let me take you out! You look good!” We immediately fell into a shocked silence before laughing nervously and resuming our previous conversation. Yet we could not believe that in broad daylight, a group of men had approached the two of us, clearly students, to verbally harass us.

During one of my daily chats with my mother, when we catch each other up on our days, I explained the term “catcall” to her after the experience at the mural. I offered examples of catcalling that my friends and I had encountered. Demands for dates, requests for phone numbers, and seemingly kind compliments of my appearance were just a few of the examples I gave her. Normally, I recounted these experiences amusingly, laughing at the unawareness of others to keep their opinions to themselves. However, as I received more aggressive comments, I began to question the overwhelmingly common female experience of being catcalled.

The word “catcall,” meaning to make a whistle, shout, or comment of a sexual nature to a woman passing by, has been used since the 17th century. Within the last few decades, the use of the term has skyrocketed. Catcalling is a form of verbal sexual harassment. Based on Stop Street Harrassment’s survey, 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men have experienced sexual harassment, and 77 percent of women have experienced specifically verbal sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is not limited to one sex and can happen to any individual, so education and awareness regarding it need to be improved.

Sociology professors explain that catcalling is often a play for power. Women experience harassment almost twice as often as men. Furthermore, the perpetrators tend to be male. This power play allows men to demonstrate their dominance and leads them to believe that they can express their opinions whenever they want and to whomever they choose.

Awareness concerning street harassment is quite prevalent, especially in the form of videos. In a famous YouTube video from 2014 titled “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman” that garnered over 51 million views, a woman walks for 10 hours in New York City and films her journey. Throughout the video, men catcall her with comments such as “Somebody’s acknowledging you for being beautiful. You should say ‘thank you’ more,” as well as repeatedly shout at her to smile. Though some may use the excuse of an individual’s clothing and self-expression as justification for sexual harassment, the woman in the video wears a simple black T-shirt with jeans. This video went viral on YouTube, resulting in numerous other videos with the same concept of walking in a populated city and filming the experience. In some videos, the women walking responded to the catcalls, causing the men to fall silent and retreat. The women walking in these videos varied in race and appearance, but whistles and uncomfortable shouts were repeatedly heard in every video.

A modern example of awareness concerning street harassment is the Instagram account @catcallsofnyc. Its feed shows quotes in large, colorful chalked letters written on sidewalks. All of these quotes were taken from messages sent to the account concerning real-life catcalls that people experienced around the city. These catcalls are then chalked in at the exact location they occurred, often resulting in passerby civilians stopping to read the comment. One of the chalked quotes says, “Take that mask off so that I can see how that mouth works.” Videos on the account’s page showcase the shocked reactions of pedestrians, especially parents who want to shield their children’s eyes from seeing the writing. Catcallers react defensively to the writing, claiming their right to compliment a woman based on her clothes. However, the fact that children are seeing the crude comments and that catcallers are becoming defensive demonstrates growth, as future generations can discover the negative implications of catcalling and catcallers can begin to recognize the extent of their actions.

Though catcalls appear to be agreed on by the masses as inappropriate, there are still some who defend it. To them, catcalling is dismissed as just a friendly compliment, with the perpetrators often complaining, “What, I can’t even compliment a woman now?” Catcalling will never be a form of flattery, as women should not have to be objectified on the street and questioned about their appearance every time they leave the house. The catcallers view the individuals walking along the street in a predator-prey dynamic, hence why they feel empowered to shout their comments toward the individuals and sometimes even follow them. Women have expressed their disdain for these comments for years, circulating the #NoWomanEver hashtag on Twitter to raise awareness for the catcalls many women have encountered throughout their lives. Yet, street harassment is still an extensive issue.

The hashtag sparked controversy and resulted in the #NoManEver hashtag, which argued against the notion that street harassment was wrong. Samson Boyle, one of the men who tweeted using this hashtag, stated that “to take away the ability for men to say to a woman, ‘Nice smile,’ ‘You’re beautiful,’ ‘I like your eyes,’ or even as little as saying ‘hi,’ is like trying to take away a man’s sexuality […] and identity.” The male perception of catcalling centers around their right to compliment a woman, whereas the female perception of catcalling involves a heightened sense of fear and anxiety. These clear differences in standpoint demonstrate the contrast in priorities between the catcallers and the catcalled, and why education needs to be administered from a young age to teach future generations about sexual harassment and its impact.

Anti-bullying campaigns in schools become more prominent as children get older, with the school administration constantly encouraging students to confide in a trusted adult if a situation arises. However, sexual harassment is not explicitly taught about until around eighth grade and the start of high school. This timing is far too late for a topic this serious to be taught, especially when surveys show that almost 70 percent of women had their first encounter with sexual harassment before the age of 14. Sexual harassment should be defined and taught as seriously as bullying, as both are common experiences that can be reduced if enough individuals are properly educated. Initiating a basic understanding of what sexual harassment is can be immensely beneficial for children. Staying silent about harassment can be detrimental. Therefore, proper education will hopefully allow future generations to better express their emotions and lessen that 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men.

Women are taught from generation to generation about protecting themselves in public. Whether they are tightly gripping keys when walking home in the dark or always bringing a sweater in order to cover up, methods have been shared and collected like precious stones. Experiencing verbal harassment on the street has become normalized among women. Incidents of catcalls are shared as if they are gossip stories. Throughout my life, catcalls directed at me have ranged from short compliments to direct aggression, with the increasing amount of catcalls correlating with my changed outlook on the seriousness of the situation.

Education needs to be instilled in schools for children to learn about the harms of sexual harassment and what to do in the case that it occurs. Helping students classify what sexual harassment is, debunking the stereotypes regarding sexual harassment, and teaching about consent and its importance can all play a major role in broadening an individual’s understanding of harassment. Furthermore, emphasizing that sexual harassment can happen to anyone is especially important, as restricting harassment to just one group can prevent others from speaking out. Setting a strong base early on can eventually grow into a deeper understanding of morals, one day reducing the overwhelmingly large percentage of individuals who have experienced sexual violence.