A young woman walks down the street. Overflowing with the excitement of a backpacking adventure, she seems fresh and brave as she heads out into the world. “Hey, you’re beautiful!” a voice calls out to her from the foreign lands, and she laughs brightly as she responds “thank you~”. This familiar scene, taken from any number of stories, any number of films, can draw a range of responses from audiences. Perhaps the most important being “is it a compliment? or is it sexual harassment?”
It’s not a Compliment
🐱 + Calling
Catcalling refers to the act of making sexual remarks or overtures to strangers in public. It can include sexualizing the other person by referring to a specific body part, whistling, or pretending to compliment. In some cases, it can include physical contact such as grabbing someone’s hands, hair or even their butt.
Someone unfamiliar with catcalling might mistake the act as a compliment. But if you look closer at the intention and the result you can see the difference. While a compliment may be shared between two people, catcalling is an act of objectification, positing the receiver as something to be evaluated.
Streets lined with Catcalling
In a 2015 study of 16,600 women in 22 countries around the world, more than half stated that they had been sexually harassed on the streets, including catcalling. 84% of women responded that they had been catcalled before they reached adulthood.
90% of British women, and 81% of Polish women, reported being catcalled before the age of 17. 88% of Italian women described choosing certain routes and taking certain streets in order to avoid being catcalled.
64% of Irish women stated that beyond indirect acts such as starting conversation or whistling for attention, they had also experienced unwanted physical contact.
In 2014 an experiment in New York City, U.S.A., caused outrage around the world.
The experiment was simple. For 10 hours, a young actress walked the streets of downtown New York. That was it. The results were remarkable.
As she went along her way without saying a word, she was met with a stream of calls and statements disguised as praise. “Hey baby”, “sexy, damn” and “what’s up beautiful, have a good day”. An unknown man even walked beside her for five minutes after she did not return his attention. Another man shouted at her as she walked by, “someone’s acknowledging you for being beautiful. You should say thankyou more often”.
That man is wrong. No one is obligated to thank strangers for an assessment they didn’t ask for. It doesn’t matter if the evaluation was a positive one or a negative one. The man indulged in the act like it was a sport, with her as a sexual object in the center.
Is Ignoring it the Answer?
When facing street harassment many people choose to ignore the behavior, write the perpetrators off as rude people and continue on. From an individual perspective this course of action can be seen as safer. The simple matter of fact is that one never knows how the perpetrator react.
But does ignoring catcalling really guarantee safety?
in November of 2019, a man killed a 19 year old college student in Chicago, U.S.A. for ignoring his catcall. When questioned about the motive for his crime, Donald Thurman, 26, replied he was angry he was being ignored.
The hurt pride resulted in the loss of an innocent woman’s life.
Society can no longer place the risk and responsibility for dealing with street harassment on the victims. The time has come for legislative legal action against this behavior, which is not simply rudeness but a threat.
Catcalling Laws around the World
Catcalling has long been considered socially acceptable under the excuse of familiarity, compliments and positive intentions. However, there are growing calls for changing social perception of catcalling and legal sanctions.
Many countries around the world do not yet have legislation specifically related to street harassment, and may rely on sexual harassment or nuisance laws to punish offenders if at all.
Let’s look at how some countries are attempting to fight back against catcalling.
Sexual harassment and catcalling were outlawed in 2014 after a documentary spurred national conversation. Violation of the law is punishable by a fine or up to one year in prison.
Since August 2015, sexually harassing women on the street in Portugal is illegal. Offenders can face up to a year in prison or, if the victim is under 14 years of age, up to 3 years.
- 🇳🇿New Zealand
Causing fear or intimidation to others by using threatening, insulting or obscene language can be fined up to $1,000 NZD (around $589 USD) under the New Zealand Summary Offences Act.
Since 2018 French authorities can fine anyone harassing women in public with on-the-spot fines of up to €750 (around $839 USD).
It was a normal day for college student Noa Jansma, when she decided that she didn’t want to just accept the catcalling she was facing everyday. She wanted to share with the world just how bad the problem was.
Instead of getting angry or running away, she held up her smartphone, turned the camera around and took a selfie. The picture showed both her face, unamused and unsmiling, with that of the perpetrator.
Noa created an instagram account called ‘dearcatcallers’, and uploaded a total of 21 photos in one month, from August 29th to October 1st in 2017. She captioned the photos with the actions and remarks made at the time.
The men whistled, put their hands on her shoulders or pulled on her hair, shouting things like, "You wanna kiss?" and "heey horny girl!" The 21 photo’s all featured different men, sometimes groups of men who had sexually harassed her.
Her post has hundreds of thousands of comments. People shared their own experiences and joined the #dearcatcallers movement on social media.
Her project cause a huge stir in the world, as people’s eyes were opened to the issue of catcalling.
- No matter how you package it, Catcalling isn’t a compliment is sexual harassment
- Society needs both a change in understanding and a change in laws regarding catcalling