‘Hey, baby! What? Say thank you, it’s a compliment.’ This message comes in different forms, with different words and by different people, but countless women have had it shouted at them. Those exact words were yelled at me when I was in New York City in the summer with my mother. I was 15.
Every woman I know has had experiences of harassment in public places, ranging from being honked at by random people in cars or being touched inappropriately on the tube. Most of my friends dismiss catcalling as harassment and view it as a weekly occurrence; something they will have to deal with every time they leave their house. It has become almost a mantra for women to say to themselves and eventually repeat to their children ‘keep your head down, walk quickly and make no eye contact.’ Many women can relate to the instant terror you feel when you walk past a construction site or a group of men in the park. According to Stop Street Harassment, the End Violence Against Women Coalition commissioned YouGov to conduct the United Kingdom’s first survey on street harassment in 2016. The poll found that 64% of women have been victims of unwanted sexual harassment in public spaces. 85% of women from the ages of 18–25 had faced this and 45% had experienced unwanted sexual touching. This is not acceptable. Catcalling is sometimes labelled as a harmless joke or compliment, but it is FAR from this. Not only does it make women feel uncomfortable and unsafe, it objectifies and sexualizes them. It makes women feel like their body is not their own. It makes us feel disgusted to the core.
Women try to remind themselves they have a right to wear what they want, that being a victim of sexual harassment is not their fault, but often ending up blaming themselves for wearing ‘revealing’ clothing. Many women fear summer, as they know oftentimes, as the number of clothing decreases, the catcalling increases. One day, my friend came to me confused. She said, ‘No matter what I wear, I will still get catcalled. Last week I was wearing a short skirt and crop top, but today I am wearing the baggiest jeans and jumper. It doesn’t make a difference.’ What a woman wears is never a justification for harassment. A woman should be able to walk down the street without getting honked and whistled at regardless of what she is wearing. It is nobody’s business to ever comment on someone’s appearance and make unwanted sexual remarks. We should not feel unsafe walking to school, work or to get groceries.
One of the reasons women usually do not stand up for themselves when harassed on the street is because things can quickly turn violent. The Instagram accounts ‘Catcalls of London’ an ‘Catcall of NYC’ have highlighted to me how women are catcalled so frequently, in many different circumstances. One submission described a girl who was being followed for a cigarette and when she finally asked him to leave her alone, she was called a ‘stuck up b!tch’. Another submission was about a 15-year-old girl walking around London when an adult ‘kept trying to talk’ to her and followed her. Eventually, when she asked him to leave her, he angrily cried ‘f*ck you, you aren’t that pretty anyway.’ Women are scared of standing up for themselves will cause a scene, bringing even more attention to themselves. Sometimes, they are honestly scared for their lives.
We must remind each other that catcalling is not okay. Harassment is not okay. Victims are never to blame, whether or not they were intoxicated, wearing ‘revealing’ clothing or walking at night. When boys are growing up, we excuse their violence and misguided ways of expressing their emotions. If a boy pulls a girl’s ponytail and follows her around, it is dismissed, because he ‘must have a crush on her’. We must teach boys as they grow up that when they wish to express their affection for someone, they should do so in a consensual, peaceful manner. We need to teach boys how to accept the word ‘no’. At schools, dress code rules are made around boys. Girls can’t wear spaghetti straps that expose their shoulders or shorts that show their thighs, because it will ‘distract’ boys. ‘What can we say? Boys will just be boys.’ It is time we start teaching young boys as they are growing up to treat women with respect. Not as objects.