It’s usually not hard to tell when it’s about to happen. It may begin with a strange look from a man at a bus stop or the slow up and down gaze of a passerby. Sometimes it’s only a prickling sensation before a “Lookin’ good girl!” comes from a passing car. Catcalling—the act of shouting harassing, sexually suggestive, threatening, or derisive comments at someone publicly, is exasperating and humiliating. It is something many women have to deal with every time they leave their homes.
“The first time I was catcalled I was probably around 12 years old,” says Juno Tippet-Hunt (16). “Since then I’ve been honked at by cars, yelled at incoherently, asked if I wanted a ride, told I should wear less makeup, and asked to smile.” While these actions aren’t as threatening as they could be, they serve as a reminder that women shouldn’t get too comfortable in their lives and a warning that we aren’t safe out in the world. The sad thing is that women already know we’re taking a risk each time we step outside; we don’t need a reminder!
Not only is catcalling scary and threatening, it is a major inconvenience. A large study conducted in 2014 by anti-street harassment group Hollaback!, with help of Cornell University, surveyed over 16,000 women across 22 countries and found that 84 percent had experienced some form of street harassment before they turned seventeen. More than half also reported that they had been fondled or groped. In the United States, street harassment has led 72 percent of women to take a different form of transportation for their daily commute, while 80 percent of South African women have reported changing the way they dress for the same reason. If we ever want to reach true gender equality in the world, we need to stop shifting the blame for misogyny onto leggings and tube tops.
Unfortunately, there is still a large group of people who do not comprehend the idea that women do not enjoy being harassed every time they step outside of their homes. An argument I often hear goes something like this: “What, are you saying women don’t want to be admired and appreciated? Are we now living in a world where people are so sensitive that any man who wants to give a woman a compliment is considered a criminal? Are we now going to ban flirting all together?” In 2014, New York Post writer Lee Lewak stirred up controversy when she published an article titled “Hey ladies—catcalls are flattering! Deal with it,” in which she attempts to make the point that seeking out attention in the form of catcalls goes hand in hand with feminism, which is all about self empowerment. Lewak describes her “first time,” when she was 20 and a group of construction workers called after her shouting “You’re hot!” and high fiving each other. Lewak, or anyone who believes that catcalling could be considered a compliment or an act of flirtation for that matter, is sorely mistaken. It should go without saying that true compliments are made respectfully and politely. Commenting on my body is not flattering, and you know it. In addition, there is the racism, homophobia, and transphobia that can too often get mixed up in the tangle of misogyny. If you are still unsure of the line between flattery and abuse, ask yourself “could this comment cause someone discomfort?” The answer should be clear and if it’s not, then please, for the love of god, don’t say it.
The bottom line is that no matter how much catcallers and street harassers try to play the “I’m just trying to pay a woman a compliment” card, they are only maintaining a system of sexism and misogyny. By legitimizing catcalling, we give a voice to those who don’t deserve it and empower people that tell women to smile and comment on their bodies instead of empowering the women facing this gauntlet of misogyny on a daily basis. If we ever want to break out of the endless cycle of bigotry playing out across streets around the world, then each of us needs to understand that catcalling is harassment and shouldn’t be treated as anything less.