I looked up the word catcall in multiple dictionaries and found only two definitions;
1. A shrill whistle or shout of disapproval, typically one made at a public meeting or performance.
2. A loud whistle or a comment of a sexual nature made by a man to a passing woman.
So there you have it. Either a phrase of disapproval or a sexual comment made by a man to a passing woman. These were the only two definitions that I could find, (even Urban Dictionary agreed.) So, when you hear someone try to refer to catcalls as friendly, harmless, or fun, they are literally wrong by definition.
If I didn’t know any better I would say the definition of catcall came straight out of the definition for street harassment.
So let’s just call catcalling what it really is; street harassment.
A lot of men don’t seem to understand what the big deal is. I’ll admit, I was one of these men. I’d say things like, “what’s the big deal? It’s a compliment.” OR “I would love if random people shouted compliments at me from the street.” I didn’t understand that my remarks were coming from a place of privilege. I am a 22-year-old white man with a dark beard and an athletic build. When a women shouts, “Hey babe!” at me on the street, it is rude (because it is uninvited) but it isn’t dangerous.
And yes, I do mean dangerous. Harassment is always dangerous. If you’re skeptical just readKaterina Hybenova’s personal story of what it’s like to be a female runner in Brooklyn. Or read Natlie DiBlasio’s account of how she was not taken seriously when she tried to report her street harassment. Or read Shannon Deep’s article explaining how street harassment comes in all forms and often hides behind seemingly innocuous phrases.
If you need more evidence listen to the women around you. I remember when one of my closest female friends spoke to me about an incident where an older man had snapped at her in public and used his words to treat her like an object. When she told me the story I laughed it off. I thought that it wasn’t a big deal. I reacted this way because I didn’t recognize the most fundamental and important part of her story. She was hurt.
A lot of men don’t seem to understand what the big deal is because they don’t have the same experience. I’m not claiming that men are never hurt by street harassment, but it is inherently different for men then it is for women.
First of all, it doesn’t happen anywhere near as often. I can’t think of a time in my life when I have been harassed on the street by someone of the opposite gender. I know for a fact that most of my female friends can’t make that claim about the past year- or even the past month.
Second, (and more importantly) street harassment doesn’t carry the same weight when directed at men as it does when it’s directed at women. Street harassment for women is a reminder that the vast majority of sexual abuse victims are women and the vast majority of perpetrators are men. Not to say that all men who harass are physical abusers but accepting street harassment is accepting the implicit dangers that sexually charged remarks can lead to. The truth is, sexual abuse is enough of a problem that these ‘catcalls’ must be taken with at least a hint of caution.
It is a reminder that for a large chunk of history, women were viewed as less than men. That their opinions and their feelings and their rights didn’t matter. That they were objects.
Worst of all, street harassment is a reminder that men today still believe that their comments and personal opinions are more important than the feelings and rights of the women around them.
So What Can We Do?
Last summer I worked on a furniture delivery truck. My partner made it a habit to roll down his window and call out to women we passed on the street. I knew it was wrong but I didn’t stop him. I was scared. I wasn’t even the victim and still I was scared. Why? Simply because this man wore cutoff shirts and could probably take me in a fight.
If it is hard for me then it is infinitely more difficult for her. For this reason I have a deep respect for the women who stand up to their harassers.
Women like Kati Heng, creator of ”But What Was She Wearing? a Tumblr page dedicated to proving that women are harassed on the street despite what they are wearing.
Women like Jenny Kutner, who uses her voice to enact change by publishing intelligent and insightful articles about the issues that matter most (like this one).
Women like Shoshana Roberts, who endured hundreds of incidents of harassment in order to help create the incredibly viral video which has brought so much awareness and discussion to this ongoing form of harassment.
And countless others who are standing up to their harassers and fighting back every day.
But, they shouldn’t have to. It’s never the obligation of a victim to stop their harasser. It is the obligation of the harasser not to harass- an obligation that is being widely ignored. Which is why people like myself need to be doing more; learning about the issue, raising awareness of the problem, and stepping in to stop street harassment when we can.
Are you wondering if you might be one of these men that can (and should) help? Just ask yourself this simple question:
Do I care about and respect the women in my life (or women in general) and want them to feel safe and comfortable as they go about their daily lives?
If you answered yes then congratulations, you are a decent human being. And YOU can help by following these simple rules. (Disclaimer: I made them up myself because honestly these things are not that complicated.)
• Respect Women. (Actually… respect all people.)
• DON’T CATCALL. (This is covered in Rule #1, but just so we’re clear- it’s also Rule #2)
• Don’t Tolerate Harassment. This is hard. I am guilty of letting this one slide a few too many times. Peer pressure is powerful- here’s your chance to use it for the right reasons.
Educate yourself. Knowledge is power. I care about this problem because I decided to learn about it. What I discovered was eyeopening and made me want to be a part of the solution. If you want to learn more, start by checking out the organization Hollaback! They provide information about street harassment as well as an extensive list of ways that you can learn more and take action.