This week I’m hoping to address a difficult topic, but I hope to do so in an inquisitive manner that is open for discussion. I’m certainly not saying that it won’t be full of my opinion, but I’m also interested in your comments, thoughts, and personal stories.
I’m sure many of you have asked, “How do I deal with these jerks catcalling me?”
If you’re fortunate enough to have not needed to ask that question, perhaps you should pose that question to yourself now, “How do we deal with these jerks catcalling?” Or if you’re questioning this statement and think that catcalling might be ok, normal, or part of life, than I insist you keep reading.
This is your issue. No matter your age, gender, sex, or identity.
Catcalling is harassment and it’s occurring in your community.
It happens every day, all around the world, catcalling, groping, following, and other unwanted sexual advances. This is a daily reality for women, LGBTQI individuals, and men. Some of these advances should be considered sexual assault, but are often deemed “not worth reporting”. Many people experiencing harassment feel that reporting to authorities is ineffective as the chances of having enough evidence to make a legal case are very slim.
Catcalling is not ok as a form of flattery. It is not ok, because it does not flatter me. These comments suggest an entitlement to my body. These comments do not recognize me as a person, they recognize my gender, race, and physical appearance. These offhand comments, although some say they are harmless, turn me into an object with the sole purpose of your pleasure. Catcalling can psychologically hurt someone, reinforcing stigma, discrimination, and solely defines persons by their sexual worth.
The bottom line here… when asked what to do about catcallers I’m always left feeling dissatisfied with advice on “how to deal with catcalling”.
At the age of 22 I am an adult. However catcalling starts when girls are very young. I remember one of the first times I experienced catcalling:
I was in Paris, France and I was 16 years old. Wearing a blouse and shorts (by the way, it’s crazy that I even have to mention what I was wearing for accreditation of this account). I was sightseeing at the Eiffel Tower with my classmates. Some men were sitting on a bench and started whistling, calling us “baby”, and wanting us to approach them. We moved on quickly, but that moment stayed with me. Our teachers and chaperones did nothing but shuffle us along. I was immediately uncomfortable and felt that I could not be on the street. That public space was not safe for me. This internalized as something that I was doing wrong. The disempowerment that this brought, as if I was out solely so that these men could view my body, is disgusting. It is also illegal.
The majority of women who experience catcalling for the first time are between the ages of 11 and 17. (Livingston, 2015)
This should be alarming. The majority of women who experience catcalling for the first time are between the ages of 11 and 17 (Livingston, 2015). These girls aren’t legally responsible for their own persons. In Canada they can’t even buy a lighter legally, so why are we expecting them to be responsible for their body and the actions of the adults around them?
What does it say about women in our society when we accept this behaviour? What rights do these catcallers have to these girls’ bodies? What does this teach young women about self worth?
The politically correct-fluffery of cross cultural experiences makes this issue more complicated. Do I, as a human being, have the full rights over my body? Yes, absolutely. There’s The Universal Declaration of Human Rights to point to as an international standard. But too often I’m told to “just ignore catcallers”, warned “you put yourself at risk if you talk back”, and lectured to “be polite and walk away”. Although these statements may be true, they ignore the need to question those who are eroding my rights to my body.
The layers of complexity are added by being told to be careful how I dress, “don’t show my legs and cover my shoulders”. Respecting a culture is important, but this narrative leaves me responsible for the actions of grown men.*
*For an insightful article on Dress Codes and discussions on “distracting clothing” check out this article: Your Slut-Shaming Dress Code Is Distracting My Daughter From Learning
These answers fall short and leave me feeling angry and helpless. Being told to pretend it didn’t happen sends me the message that the rights of men/others to comment on my body are more important, more valid, than my rights to a safe environment and personal control over my body.
The advice I receive on how to deal with catcalling, comes from the experience of women and individuals who have found the best possible means to protect themselves. It is how people are living with street harassment without many other options.
So how do we deal with catcalling?
I believe the problem is in this very statement, “how to deal with catcalling”. The word “deal” implies that we are tolerating a certain level of this behaviour. It means that it is my responsibility to handle an unchangeable fact. It has been necessary to pose many emotional questions this way, how to deal with anxiety, stress, bullies. This is because it is often left to the individual to be responsible for the behaviour of others.
We instead need to ask:
How we end street harassment?
How do we empower women and individuals experiencing street harassment?
One answer is coming from Hollaback! an international photoblog and grassroots initiative to raise awareness about and combat street harassment by posting photographs and narrative accounts of individuals’ encounters with offenders. This uses an application/website to collect area specific data on street harassment occurrences. This has made way for a partnership with Cornell Univeristy who have now run the largest analysis on street harassment to date. The project has been able to develop country specific statistics on street harassment, raising awareness of the issue, and giving hard data to leverage policy change from a higher level.
Here is their current information for Canada. Unfortunately they do not have substantial data on Jamaica at this time (an area of interest for me in the future):
How does this relate to HIV/AIDS work? (What I’m working on in Jamaica)
The WHO cites fear of stigma and discrimination as the main reason why people are reluctant to get tested, disclose their HIV status, and take antiretroviral drugs. Street harassment reinforces stigma and discrimination, further isolating individuals. The risk of experiencing street harassment after visiting a clinic or support group may dissuade individuals from seeking assistance. Further, in Jamaica there is a fear of being labelled as a homosexual due to the criminalization of homosexuality and cultural demonization of these individuals. In Canada, criminalization and demonization of HIV positive individuals is an equivalent cause of fear and anxiety to disclosure and seeking treatment.
Street harassment doesn’t just happen to women:
Catcalling isn’t the only form of street harassment. My friend Ryan shared this insightful video with me after publishing this blog post.
Jonthan Novick captured being gawked at, photographed by strangers, and mocked; harassment he receives everyday in New York City.
“The next time you see someone who is different than you, think about what their day might be like, think about all the events of their life leading up to that point, and think about their day — and think about what part of their day you want to be?”
Ending street harrassment:
Documentation, accountability, policy and social change are all part of the solution. However these things are going to take some time to change.
In the most immedate time, do you have any suggestions for meaningful ways to address harrassment in the street? How should we react to these incidences?
Let me know your thoughts!