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Why Catcalling Sucks

I was barely 13 years old when I was first catcalled. I was walking with a friend who was 12 at the time. We were both barely pubescent. We had gone to get a snack on Telegraph Ave by the Cal campus in between rehearsals one Saturday. As we walked, we noticed a car, full of college-aged, Cal-paraphernalia-wearing guys, rolling slowly along in the busy traffic. I remember feeling unsettled when I made eye contact with the man in the passenger’s seat, but I just shook my head and kept walking. As the traffic light turned green and cars started to accelerate, the men rolled their windows down, whistling and jeering at us before ducking their heads back in, laughing. It took me a moment to register what it meant, but my friend wasted no time before swearing loudly at their retreating vehicle; she had already learned this language of wolf whistles. My cheeks flushed and my stomach twisted. All of a sudden, I was looking down at the hem of my dress, which ended just above my knees, chastising myself for not leaving the dance studio more covered up. 

After this event, I started to accept catcalling as an unavoidable part of going anywhere. Men hoot, whistle, jeer, and stare. The more brazen ones ask for my number or make lewd propositions. On buses, and BART trains, waiting in the stations, in the grocery stores (once at 9 am at Berkeley Bowl), on streets, with my family; everywhere is fair game. 

As I got more and more fed up, I wondered if there was a way to respond other than looking past the aggressors and walking faster, checking over my shoulder after a few seconds to make sure they weren’t following me (a man once followed me off of a bus, so I had to duck into a store until I was sure he had left). I was tired of passive avoidance, and the angrier I got, the more I felt like yelling and swearing at every one of these men (although anyone can be a catcaller, all of my experiences have involved male-bodied individuals, so I when I say “men,” I am not generalizing so much as just speaking to my experience). Sometimes I would feel safe enough to retort “I’m 17” or otherwise indicate that I am a minor, but I have stopped saying that as much because sexual harassment is inappropriate regardless of the victim’s age. In the same vein, you shouldn’t have to have an excuse to refuse the advances of a complete stranger.

Think of virtually every movie scene involving a woman alone at a bar. A random man walks up, telling her she’s beautiful, maybe breaking out a bad pickup line. She usually laughs uncomfortably, saying “I have a boyfriend” or “I’m waiting for my friends.” First of all, “I have a boyfriend” is just code for “another man has claimed my body,” which is problematic for a whole other set of reasons. You should only have to be uninterested to refuse, which is a prerequisite I have always fulfilled. I know that I only stop myself from yelling or punching harassers because I am always evaluating and reevaluating my physical safety, and most of them could seriously harm me if they wanted to. 

A couple of months after my first experience of catcalling a group of boys in my middle school started harassing me. They would grab and touch me in the yard, in the hallways, and in class sometimes, high-fiving each other afterward. It was like a game to them. My friends tried to comfort me, but it didn’t occur to anyone to tell a teacher. It was in these moments that I learned that my body was not for me, but rather for other people to notice, judge, touch, and comment on as they pleased.

As I have thought about this more, I have become more and more certain that catcalling is wrong and cruel. It is a power play, plain and simple. A common counter-argument to my position is that harassers are doing their best to “put themselves out there” or “shoot their shot.” Yet, when has a woman ever been catcalled and gone on to have a relationship of any sort with the harasser? In my experience, never. When men continue this behavior after having countless women ignore their advances, it proves that for them, catcalling is a recreational activity, something they can laugh about while they drive away. 

The other day, I was driving myself home after an Open House at school; as I waited at that terrible intersection on Broadway by the freeway entrance, a man in a van going the opposite direction rolled down his window and shouted “Hey, baby!” at me as he went past. Logically, nothing could have come out of that interaction for him. Was I going to give him my number from behind the wheel? Was I going to turn my car around to go with him? No, and yet he still did it. Worse yet, chances are that he drove away and didn’t think about it ever again. Meanwhile, my hands trembled slightly at the rush of adrenaline (it is scary to be unexpectedly shouted at in any situation), and I felt worthless. Meanwhile, you can clearly see that I have remembered many of these encounters. In catcalling people, harassers have the power to make them uncomfortable and worried for their physical safety. 

Another comment I often get is “Well, aren’t they telling you that you are attractive? Isn’t it a compliment?” Again, no! When one person judges a stranger and publicly makes a comment (positive or negative) based on their physical appearance, they reduce that person to a collection of body parts and objectify them, which does not feel like a compliment at all. Furthermore, the unsolicited and aggressive nature of most catcalls is frightening, sometimes even implying the threat of rape or other physical harm. A catcall is essentially the catcaller saying “I have taken an interest in your collection of parts and want to assert that I have the power to do what I want with your body.” It is not a compliment, it is degradation and a threat.

Although I have drawn heavily from my own experience, catcalling is extremely common, and most women experience public sexual harassment of this sort. After a lot of arduous tallying (by hand! Google Forms can

only give so much detail), I have come up with some statistics. Based on the 262 responses to the survey I took of our community, 56.5% of community members have been catcalled, which I defined as hooting, whistling, yelling, or honking, at least once before. Of the 164 female respondents, 26.8% have never been catcalled, 9.8% have been catcalled once, 20.1% five or fewer times, 13.4% ten or fewer times, 15.2% more than ten times, and 14.6% have been catcalled too many times to count. All in all, 73.2% of female respondents have been catcalled at least once. Of the 90 male respondents, 74.4% have never

been catcalled, 8.9% have been catcalled once, 7.8% five or fewer times, 7.8% ten or fewer times, and 1.1% too many times to count. 25.6% of male respondents have been catcalled at least once before, and while every instance of catcalling is serious, it is important to note the huge gender discrepancy. While of course there is response bias at play, as nearly twice as many female people filled out the survey as did male people, the difference is staggering. The data I collected about sexual harassment, which I defined as unsolicited touching and/or lewd comments, yielded extremely similar results, including this large gender discrepancy. 

The statistics that perhaps make me the saddest were those regarding people’s ages when they were first harassed. Of the 178 people who reported either catcalling or harassment,  3.9% were 19 or older, 0.6%

were 18, 4.5% were 17, 10.1% were 16, 6.7% were 15, 17.4% were 14, 26.4% were 13, 16.9% were 12,and 13.5% were younger than 12, regardless of gender. Let that sink in: the plurality of people were 13 years old the first time, and a combined 30.4% of people were just 12 years old or younger the first time they were sexually harassed or catcalled. That is an extremely young age to be objectified and sexualized, to have your dignity ripped away. 

My goal here is not to say that this issue is the most pressing one facing women, or that it is only a women’s issue, or to complain about how difficult it is for me (okay maybe it is a little bit). I consider myself extremely lucky, and am fully aware that the harassment I have faced pales in comparison to the violence, assault, abuse, and oppression other women and people my age face and have faced in the past. Rather, I want to call attention to an important aspect of my life and my identity that others might not have considered before. Even more than that, I want this to be a call to action for everyone: for victims of harassment to share their stories and support one another, for bystanders to understand the weight of this issue and become mindful allies, and most importantly, for catcallers to cease their hurtful and inappropriate behavior.


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