Catcalling and harassment are often mentioned in the same breath. That’s because many argue that catcalling is harassment, no matter the intention. A catcall is an unwelcome imposition, a not-very-veiled command: to feel complimented, to smile, to at least say hello or thank you, to “just ignore it if it bothers you” and “don’t dress that way if you don’t want the attention.” It’s an objectification, sexualization and subordination that often prompts fear, intimidation and discomfort. At least, that’s how it’s typically defined. Some, women included, would disagree.
In Milan, a woman walks into a café and orders a coffee and brioche. She notices a group of men sitting nearby. “Ciao, ma come sei bella,” trails her as she walks to her table. She dismisses the comments as part of the Italian culture, where women are often bella, cara, tesoro, and seldom referred to by their actual names. Later, when she leaves the café, the men don’t notice; they’ve moved on. She feels relieved. In DC, a woman walks past a group of men standing by a bar. They try to get her attention with “hello, gorgeous.” She ignores them and walks away uncomfortably. The next week, that woman is robbed. She tells the police that she remembers the men who did it and that before he’d run away with her purse, one of them had said: “you should have said hello.” Both of these stories are true.
You might say something along the lines of: The latter is just sensationalizing a one-off occurrence. Not every instance of catcalling escalates to assault or robbery. You’d be right — not every instance does, but enough do. More importantly, 68% of women who are harassed on the street fear the possibility that the incident will escalate to something worse. For many, escalation is a reality; 23% of respondents to this survey were sexually touched, 20% were followed and 9% were forced to do something sexual.
The average male is taller, weighs more and is physically stronger and has more muscle mass than the average woman (although there’s been a lot of debate about how to accurately measure strength). In his book, The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker captures how this discrepancy translates to a situation where women perceive threat, writing, “It is understandable that the perspectives of men and women on safety are so different — men and women live in different worlds […] at core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, while at core, women are afraid men will kill them.” When humans perceive threat, there’s so very little room and time to consider the more benign intentions of a larger, more powerful person. De Becker urges women to follow their instincts, to cherish and listen to their gift of fear and to stop letting the pressure to be nice nullify the need to protect oneself.
The problem with the term “catcalling” is it has become a catchall supposed to arouse feelings of indignation amongst self-respecting women. The debate is strangely categorical — you’re either with us or against us. It doesn’t leave much space for, well, reality. You’re allowed to feel in danger when you do, and flattered when you do. As Christina Cauterucci writes for Slate, “There is absolutely nothing wrong or anti-feminist about wanting to be objectified, whether all the time or in specific situations with specific people. But women aren’t creating drama when they resist their own objectification.”
In an ideal world, women wouldn’t have to worry about how to respond to catcalling. We wouldn’t have to convince others of our reality. We also wouldn’t all feel the need to be a united front on an issue that doesn’t always present the same way. We wouldn’t have to worry about how one particular personal experience does or doesn’t feed into the patriarchy. The onus to remove the threat and discomfort of a catcall would be on those who pose it, and that is overwhelmingly men.
Until this power balance changes, one option is to, when safe, firmly and negatively respond to situations that make you uncomfortable. Hollaback!, a grassroots movement to end street harassment, suggests naming and denouncing the offensive behavior while maintaining eye contact. Stop Street Harassment publishes success stories from women who confronted their harassers. There’s strength in numbers: If you witness predatory leering, or hear someone being harassed, help them. Public shaming is an effective deterrent of unwanted behavior.
Catcalling is often really scary. It makes the receiver assess her surroundings, look for exit strategies, grasp her keys defensively — it makes her feel that she might be attacked. As women existing in public, we’re sensitive to our surroundings; living in a world where street harassment is a constant serves to heighten this. But not all catcalls are preludes to harassment, just like not all attention is unwanted. Is it wrong to acknowledge that nuance? Where do you stand on catcalling? Where do we disagree? How do you respond when it happens to you?
Helena Bala is a writer, former lawyer and the genius behind Craigslist Confessional. Follow her on Twitter @Clistconfession. Photo by Alfred Gescheidt via Getty Images; illustrations by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.