Calling Out Catcalling

UK feminist zine Parallel Magazine - Calling out Catcalling

“I couldn’t imagine getting catcalled,” said a male friend as I moaned to him about my daily walk to work. First, I walk 15 minutes down a road where the traffic is nearly always stationary; cue: every van driver sees fit to comment on me, or my clothes, or my boobs. Then there are a few building sites – always a red flag. Sometimes I cross and walk the long way to work, other days I don’t bother, but live to regret it. Then, so close but yet so far, I walk through the meat market – and I, and every other woman who dares to go from A to B might as well be the meat. It’s like Pokémon Go, and the men on the streets of London seem determined to catch us all.

“But then I was!” said friend continues. “Some girls shouted at me when I came out from the gym!” And, I asked, what was it like? “I was really taken aback,” he said. “I felt a bit uncomfortable." No shit, I want to scream. It’s horrible. To have to wake up and adjust your outfit to minimise risk. To cross the road when you see builders. To turn your music up so you can’t hear people shouting out of vans. To wear a double layer of foundation so they can’t see how red your face is going. I’m sure I speak for most women on the planet when I say I am sick to death of being catcalled – and I’m sure I get it a lot less than many.

Of course, worse things have happened at sea, and in the grand scheme of things having a couple of men shouting at you isn’t too bad – it’s not life-threatening, for the most part, and most women learn to brush it off, sadly from a young age. I am also fully aware that people receive much more malicious and terrifying forms of verbal and physical assault in the streets. But sexist comments can be scary, and occasionally violent.

One friend told how, when telling a passerby who commented on her looks to go away, he didn’t take rejection well and pushed her violently up against a shop front. Another friend had just stepped out of her front door when a moped drew up and the driver told her how good she looked. When she said thanks but no-thanks he circled her, told her how ugly she was, and said she was wearing too much make up. A passerby stopped to ask her if she was OK, and the moped drove off – lobbing an empty can of Pringles at her head as he did so.

Once, as I walked down a quiet, but not empty, street, three boys rode up behind me on bikes. One slapped my bum, a hard and deliberate thwack, as he cycled past me. I didn’t see him coming and I barely saw him leave. Instead I just carried on down the street, in tears. They were tears of frustration more than anything else – that this boy, who couldn’t have been more than 16, thought that that was OK to do, and that he would do it to other people, and that I was completely powerless to stop him planting a sexually charged slap on my bum. I could continue with examples, but it’s boring because every female knows what it's like, and they get it on a daily basis.

So what is the solution? It’s not easy – the mindset that women are there to be looked at and have their appearances commented on is entrenched in people from a very young age. Small steps have been made recently. No More Page 3 succeeded in getting pictures of topless women taken out of The Sun. Lads’ mags got moved to the higher shelves in supermarkets, out of sight of young children. Yet still, people are growing up thinking women are objects, and their parents aren’t helping. Just a few weeks ago I walked to play tennis with a friend. A father, holding the hand of his young son, told my friend how sexy she was. His young son will grow up thinking that's an acceptable thing to do.

But now, Nottinghamshire Police has broadened its categories of hate crime to include misogynistic incidents, including uninvited sexual advances and unwanted verbal contact with women. This includes catcalling and wolf-whistling. Now, these incidents can be reported to police, and should, in theory, be investigated. It is the first police force in the country to label misogynistic abuse as a hate crime, crime that it defines as “any incident which may or may not be deemed as a criminal offence, which is perceived by the victim or any other person, as being motivated by prejudice or hatred”. Misogyny hate crime is classed as “incidents against women that are motivated by an attitude of a man towards a woman, and includes behaviour targeted towards a woman by men simply because they are a woman”.

Could recording and investigating incidents of catcalling be the solution? In many ways, it makes a lot of sense. If men know there could potentially be legal repercussions, it is likely that some will rein in their behaviour. It also means women now feel they have a right to report harassment, whereas before, many, myself included, would brush off even physical assault, simply for fear of wasting police time by reporting it. And now, even if no prosecution comes about from reporting such an incident, which is likely in the case of a wolf-whistle, reporting it will help build a bigger picture of just how common and widespread the problem is. This point of view is the one put forward by Rachel Krys, co-director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition.

“In a recent poll we found that 85% of women aged 18-24 have experienced unwanted sexual attention in public places and 45% have experienced unwanted sexual touching, which can amount to sexual assault,” she said, speaking to The Guardian. “This level of harassment is having an enormous impact on women’s freedom to move about in the public space as it makes women feel a lot less safe.”

Krys adds that the simple act of making catcalling an offence challenges the very notion that women in public are “fair game”. While teaching that women and men are equal should start from a very young age, until every man understands that women are not there to be shouted at or touched, perhaps making misogynistic verbal assaults in the street a crime may go some way to cutting it down – and at the very least it will give everyone an idea of just how big a problem it is, and how it stops hundreds of thousands of women going about their lives as they would choose on a daily basis.

Words by Imogen Robinson

Image by blondinrikard via Flickr