It's Not a Compliment:
Setting the Record Straight on Street Harassment
By Gillian Smith-Clark
Editor in Chief, KBI Inspire Magazine
Gillian Smith-Clark is a photographic artist, writer, and mental health advocate based in Ontario, Canada.
Link to her website here. Twitter: @Kbiinspiremag
Photo: Courtesy of Catcalls of NYC, @catcallsofNYC
"We need to turn the question around to look at the harasser, not the target. we need to be sure that we can go out and look anyone who is a victim in the eye and say, 'You do not have to remain silent anymore'. "
— Anita Hill
I was catcalled recently while crossing a street in my hometown. Yes, during a pandemic. Yes, days after returning home from my father’s funeral in another city. I found myself standing in the middle of an empty street, unable to see where the call was coming from, angry at the intrusion on my thoughts; an unwelcome intrusion on the few moments I had alone to reminisce about my Dad.
Let me be clear, the event in question was minor. Yet in the moment it brought back a rush of memories, it took me back to the first time I was subjected to aggressive badgering in public as a thirteen-year-old girl at a bus stop. And it brought to mind recent incidents in the media: the wave of harassment and hate directed at Asian women, the case of Sara Everard in the U.K.
Even as I crossed the pavement that day and (with relief) got safely into my car, I was reminded of the many conversations I’ve been a part of over the years and more recently, in the wake of the #metoo movement and the recent 97% TikTok trend: so many frustrating discussions on sexual harassment, gender based violence and assault. Conversations where adults attempt to normalize street harassment and further, to sometimes justify it as complimentary. In anticipation of more of these talks, I decided to write about the dangerous reality of public street harassment.
This is what you need to know: repeatedly publicly objectifying women and girls creates an unsafe environment, which can and often does turn violent. While catcalling can consist of seemingly harmless whistles and innocent remarks, creating the illusion of a compliment, those behaviours often quickly escalate and become aggressive and hostile. Catcalling (aka street harassment) is a global problem, deeply rooted in sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and racism. Additionally, street harassment is a behaviour commonly directed at young people and can have lasting and detrimental health effects, both mental and physical, if harassment graduates to assault.
"The idea that any individual should not only put up with sexual harassment on the street but additionally that they should be grateful for it, is both repugnant and damaging to the mental health of everyone involved."
The mythology still bought into by too many is that street harassment is harmless, that many women enjoy the attention, and that as long as it’s not derogatory, it’s okay. This “Scarlett O’Hara” style, romanticized version of reality still persists today, the fictionalized idea of a beautiful woman, surrounded and worshiped by devoted and (mostly) gentlemanly, male admirers.
The reality is starkly different: sexual harassment in any form is never harmless, and catcalling is, simply put, a statement of ownership over women’s bodies, not a "gentlemanly declaration of admiration". Street harassment commonly creates an environment of fear, it is frequently directed at young people, and BIPOC women are disproportionately affected.
The public sexual harassment of youth, particularly but not exclusively girls, starts on average around the age twelve or thirteen, and many will be forced to deal with being repeatedly exposed to vulgar, rude and misogynistic comments throughout their teens and into adulthood. For those unfamiliar with what young women are frequently subjected too, take a few minutes to watch this TEDx youth talk by Jess Leigh. Or for something closer to home, visit @catcallsofottawa or @catcallsofnyc on social media; both groups use public chalk art to raise awareness about gender-based street harassment, writing out word for word derogatory slurs that are heard on the street, then posting the images on social media.
A quick review of the YouTube videos out there on street harassment, or the chalk messages depicted by groups like Catcalls of NYC, provides a stark contrast to the fairy-tale version of street harassment. Real street harassment is typically demeaning, disrespectful and frequently frightening.
If the highest rates of street harassment are experienced by the young women and girls, how do they react? What is the impact on society? Young people often stay silent and keep it hidden. Many are shocked and ill equipped to cope with the situation, and when they do speak up, rather than reacting with compassion, parents, friends and other adults are often dismissive or shaming. Questions like “what were you wearing when that happened?”, “what were you doing there in the first place?”, or “how much did you have to drink?” imply that wearing certain clothing or being in a specific location somehow makes harassment, or worse yet assault, permissible. Compounding the problem is the idea that not only are victims responsible for inciting the unwanted behaviour, they should at times be appreciative of the attention, resulting in demeaning comments like, “you should be flattered!” and “Enjoy the attention, it’s a compliment!”. The idea that any individual should not only put up with sexual harassment on the street but additionally that they should be grateful for it, is both repugnant and damaging to the mental health of everyone involved.
It should go without saying, but for those who need to read it again: it does not matter what someone is wearing, or if they have been drinking alcohol or taking other substances. Everyone has the right to safety in a public place, and that includes the right to not be publicly harassed by strangers.
Why it happens.
That street harassment still commonly occurs isn’t surprising when you consider that we are surrounded by a culture that commonly reduces women to sexualized objects, and a society that normalizes sexual harassment. In an environment where bad male behaviour is often dismissed as part of biology – boys will be boys – street harassment is simply tolerated by many as a part of life. My experience a few weeks ago was a reminder that street harassment isn’t going away, in fact far from decreasing during the global COVID-19 pandemic, there is evidence that in many countries’ street harassment and gender-based violence is on the rise. The so called “Shadow Pandemic”. It is impossible to know for sure, but possibly the anonymity of wearing a mask, feeling belittled or inadequate due to job loss and a perceived loss of freedom, combined with xenophobia, misogyny and racism, are leading to an increase in both hate crimes and street harassment, often simultaneously. The recent spike in anti-Asian harassment and violence is one example.
Pandemic aside, racism is often tangled up with misogyny, and one reason non-white women are subjected to much higher rates of gender-based harassment and violence. In Canada for example, indigenous women are three times more likely than other women to experience sexual harassment and assault.
We can only speculate on why rates of harassment and gender-based violence are rising during the pandemic, but one explanation may be that when people feel a loss of control over their own lives, acting out aggressively is one way to assert their power over others. Conversely, those with too much power can feel a sense of entitlement or ownership over others and act accordingly. In other words, they do it because they can, because their behaviour will likely go unchecked. One thing is clear, public sexual harassment has everything to do with power and control, and little to do with actual physical attraction.
A Call to Action.
The single most powerful thing we can do as individuals is to educate ourselves on the issue and then work to change the mindset of those around us whose ideas are still entrenched in past decades. Adults need to stop normalizing and justifying sexual harassment. Instead of repeatedly reinforcing the idea to girls and women that they need to modify their behaviour to stay safe, accept and teach children early that the sole responsibility for harassment rests on the perpetrator, not the target. Focus on deconstructing harmful gender stereotypes, such as the “boys will be boys” belief, and speak out against street harassment and the sexual objectification of women and girls within your circle of friends, particularly if you identify as male.
Learn how to intervene when you see harassment happening by using Hollaback’s 5 D’s: Distract, Delegate, Document, Delay, and Direct. Hollaback has some amazing and free resources on responding to street harassment, you can read them here.
Take political action. Join or start an anti-harassment organization. Get involved in local politics and lobby for changes in the law. We can take inspiration from countries like Belgium, where street harassment and catcalling have been illegal since 2014. In 2018, France banned street sexual harassment, passing a law declaring catcalling on streets and public transportation illegal and subject to fines of up to €750, with higher fines for more aggressive and physical behaviour.
Finally, the antiquated, decades-old notion that catcalling is a compliment needs to go. Viewed in the best possible light, street harassment is rude and disrespectful. At it's worst, it creates a climate of fear that leads to violence and death. This is a dangerous, global public safety issue that needs to be stopped. Period.
Additional Reading & Resources: