The destructive power of catcalling
“When I was 14, this man told me that I had d**k-sucking lips,” Amiracle Williams, a 19-year-old psychology major at Roosevelt University, says with a shake of her head. She experiences something called catcalling about three or four times a week and can list off the worst ones she gets off the top of her head.
Catcalling is defined as by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a loud, sexually suggestive call or comment directed at someone publicly (as on the street),” and, unfortunately, every woman in the world could tell you about the worst catcall she ever got.
She could tell you exactly what she was trying to do: go to the store, return a book to the library, see a movie. She could tell you what some stranger on the street said to her while she was just trying to run an errand and how her heart sped up, terrified. She would tell you exactly what she would have said to the man, how she would have given him an earful for daring to speak to someone that way.
And she would tell you about how she held her tongue, petrified of repercussions.
Phylicia Richardson, a 20-year-old psychology major at Roosevelt University, can recall her weirdest catcalling encounter. “I once had a man come up to me in the mall and ask me- he was like ‘I’ll buy you a phone if you sleep with me.”
As the #MeToo movement has picked up and videos like this one, of a woman walking around New York for 10 hours, have gone viral, there has finally been more and more attention paid to the type of harassment that every woman receives at some point in her life. And, yet, catcalling has not received the same volume or importance of attention that other forms, like workplace harassment, have received.
Studies show that 81 percent of women have experienced harassment in their lives and 71 percent of women have experienced some form of street harassment. The study also showed that the ages that the harassment begins are getting younger and younger as well. Cornell University and anti-harassment organization Hollaback! found in a study that “the majority of women around the globe first experience street harassment between the ages of 11 and 17. In the United States, a full 85 percent of respondents said they first experienced being harassed…before they turned 17.”
For others, it starts much sooner. “The first time it happened, I was eight years old and I was with my mom and this grown man came to me and was like ‘damn, shorty, you fine as f**k,” Williams says.
Ashley Denny, a 21-year-old psychology major at Roosevelt University, can recall the worst catcall she ever got, which was just after her move to Chicago. While walking to the red line, she says a man driving in a truck began driving beside her, yelling comments about her legs and telling her to smile. “I was a little freaked out and started walking faster when he made a U-turn and continued to drive next to me until I finally ducked into a Walgreens and started crying,” Denny says.
“I feel really dirty when I get catcalled. I’m almost always desperate for a shower. It also makes me angry most of the time.”
Possibly, the hardest part of being on the receiving end of catcalls is the inability of women to be able to respond. A few months ago, a video of a French woman responding to a catcaller went viral. Marie Laguerre, a 22-year-old student, was catcalled by a man sitting outside of a café, “making obscene and degrading comments and ‘noises with sexual connotations,” the BBC reported. When Laguerre told him to shut up, the man began shouting at her, threw an ashtray at her, narrowly missing her, and then got up from his seat and hit her across the face.
And, as shocking as the viral video was to watch, all it did was confirm every woman’s worst fear: yell back and you could get hurt. “I only ever worry about being hurt or followed when I yell things back at them. This has been a more recent thing for me, but I think that I have been getting so angry that I can’t just keep my mouth shut when someone calls me a stupid pet name or says something outrageously inappropriate,” Denny says, detailing a time that she responded to man catcalling her. “I practically ran to work thinking that he could definitely shoot me.”
Luckily, there have recently been organizations and individuals taking great strides to bring this issue into the public sphere. An initiative named Catcalls of NYC takes stories sent in to them about street harassment and writes them with chalk on New York City sidewalks. Photos are then posted on their Instagram and shared to bring awareness to the issue; “We promote cultural change and hope that one day folks who face harassment on the streets will be able to walk without fear,” their website states.
The photos are often hard to stomach, with phrases like “Show us your ass, you stupid b*tch. This is Trump’s America!” and “Watch out bi*ch, my d*** is coming at you” etched into the pavement with colorful chalk. And that’s the point.
Others have taken to Twitter in the same way the #MeToo movement did, using the hashtag #ItMadeMeFeel to share stories of harassment and catcalling.
Although the future of harassment seems dim, some have a few ideas for how to stop forms of street harassment like this. “It would have to start when you were younger, boys and girls at the same age need to be on a level playing field where you understand that if I say no, that means no, and if you say no, that also means no,” Williams says. “At younger ages, you need to learn all of this, in age-appropriate ways, so that we can stop all of this early on.”
Others, like Richardson, aren’t as optimistic about the future of ending street harassment. “I think that’s beyond my lifetime.”