Merriam-Webster defines catcalling as “the act of shouting, harassing and often sexually suggestive, threatening, or derisive comments at someone publicly.” However, the same definition also defines it as an act of yelling disapproval at a sporting event. This is telling of where the lack of seriousness in regards to this form of harassment stems from. Young women often grow up thinking that catcalling is an unavoidable part of being a woman, that it should be taken as a compliment, that it’s just something men have done throughout the years and will continue to do likely forever. This has to do largely in part with the toxic “boys will be boys” mentality that generations before us have instilled into society. Parents, law enforcement, other men, and even women who have not yet experienced extreme forms of catcalling might say that it’s harmless, that it’s just men messing around, or that it’s what they do when they see an attractive woman in public.

The truth is that it’s not harmless and the way that it’s treated without seriousness is a large problem for women all over the world. One of the first ways that we can fix the issue and begin treating catcalling as what it is: sexual harassment; by changing the way we refer to it. Is a group of buddies yelling profanities at a baseball game when their team is losing the same thing as a woman being harassed on the street? No. But using the same word to define these situations diminishes what is really happening to women every day.

Catcalling actually dates back to 200 B.C. when it was referred to as a wolf-whistle which refers to the high pitched, two-note whistling sound that men still often make when catcalling. The term wolf-whistle has predatory connotations. Some European countries have tried to make it illegal to whistle at people in the street and some even believed that the act would become extinct. One of the problems with using the term catcalling or wolf-whistling is that people have a very clear idea of what this harassment looks like, a whistle or calling after someone as they pass by. If countries like France were successful in reducing or even eliminating the number of whistles, the harassment would continue in other forms. 

I can’t speak for all women but in my personal experiences with street harassment or public sexual harassment, the occurrences that were bad enough for me to remember don’t actually involve whistling or being yelled after at all. We need to retire terms such as catcalling or wolf-whistling and refer to all forms of public sexual harassment as exactly that. By calling it public sexual harassment we begin giving it a level of seriousness. By telling society, law enforcement, our friends, and daughters that this is a form of sexual harassment we are telling them to take it seriously. 

Why does it matter?

Canadianwomen.org points out that: “the reality is street harassment often results in fear, dehumanization, and feelings of powerlessness. Many individuals who have been the target of unwanted comments or touching on the street experience severe and long-lasting impact.”

There have been many stories shared about street harassment by people all over the world, in an article about the long-term effects of street harassment, Holly Kearl who founded a nonprofit called Stop Street Harassment, (https://stopstreetharassment.org/) said the following:

“I face less harassment now that I’m 32—most harassers prey on teenage girls and   college-age young women—and mostly work from home but I have two recent verbal harassment experiences. Last week, a man on the street told me to smile, ironically as I was walking to a high school to give a talk on street harassment. In August, an hour after my life partner of 12.5 years and I got married, two men harassed me in a grocery store parking lot. They started off by saying I looked beautiful and then escalated into sexually explicit language about my body, making me feel humiliated and gross. I have yet to meet a woman who does not have her own arsenal of harassment stories like these. And some men have several stories, too.”

Holly Kearl

These two instances shared by Kearl are tame in comparison to the sexual harassment that many of us have faced in public. Stop Street Harassment’s website has a place for people to submit their stories and it’s saddening to see how many people have been made to feel less than human or are scared of going out alone because of these experiences, there is currently a focus on street harassment stories during the pandemic.

In 2000, research on a sample of Canadian women provided that over 80% had experienced harassment by a male stranger in public and felt unsafe in public because of it. An international study carried out by Cornell University in 2014 found that the average age of first-time street harassment almost always happened to girls under seventeen, and sometimes even younger than ten and that 79% of Canadian women report being followed by a strange man or group of strange men at some point in their life. In Canada, 70% of women report being harassed on the street before age fifteen.

Women, children, and teenage girls are not the only groups who are being largely targeted. The LGBTQ+ community also experiences extremely high rates of harassment and 90% of gay men around the world have reported harassment in public. It appears that the only group that is relatively safe from being sexually harassed in public are cis-gendered, heterosexual males, but again, their safety is only relative and there have been cases of these men being harassed as well.

Keeping our communities safe from public sexual harassment keeps everyone safe and public sexual harassment is not an issue that only impacts women.

What I perceive to be one of the biggest challenges with this form of sexual harassment is its anonymity. If a man approaches a strange woman on the street, follows her, yells obscenities at her, or even tries to coerce her into coming home with him, it’s very hard for her or the police to find out who he is. This is likely also the reason that public sexual harassment is so common, the rate of punishment for offenders is pretty much non-existent and offenders know that it would be very hard for them to be identified. Frequently, men in cars will harass women who are on the street and if these women can copy down or remember the car’s license plate number the police might be able to identify the offender, but that depends on if the police take the harassment seriously. And, as someone who’s been in such a situation, realizing that you need to get the license plate number at the moment when you’re being harassed and are scared is easier said than done. This is something that likely won’t even cross your mind until later on.

Another challenge is that this behavior is so normalized that witnesses often don’t even try to help. If you google “what to do if someone is being cat-called” above any search results you will be given the following advice: “when in doubt, just ignore it.” While the writer of the article that google took this advice from was actually telling readers that they should ignore it if someone is harassing them, this result hardly helps. It probably is a good idea to ignore someone who is beginning to harass you on the streets and see if the lack of attention makes them stop, but if you are witnessing someone else being harassed and you feel safe to say something, in doing so you will tell the victim that they’re not alone and that what’s happening to them is not okay and you’ll also be telling the offender that what they’re doing is wrong.

With the normalization and rapid frequency of public sexual harassment or street harassment, we need to begin telling society that it isn’t okay.