Addressing a catcalling culture

The normalization of street harassment has taught young women to brush unsolicited appearance-based commentary off their shoulders.

October 25, 2018

Seventh grader Annie Kelley serves a ball to her coach after hours of practice on a sunny summer day in 2014. Her friends chat over a water break from the tennis clinic’s daily drills on the side of the court. Kelley’s coach critiques her stance and she hits the ball once again. Nearby, a construction worker smoking a cigarette approaches the fence of the courts. Kelley continues to practice but is instantly distracted from her work when the man blurts, “cut me a slice of that,” staring directly at the shocked 13 year old.

“Even though there was a fence between us, I was scared he would come on the courts and hurt me,” Kelley said.

According to Cornell University, 85 percent of women experience catcalling before the age of 17. The study states that the most common emotional effects these women experience are anger, fear and low self-esteem. Now a junior, Kelley feels these impacts all too frequently and believes catcalling is not an easily solvable issue.

“People say, ‘if you don’t want to get catcalled, wear something modest,’” Kelley said. “We will get catcalled no matter what.”

Kelley frequently experiences catcalling in parking lots, stores and was once harassed on a ski lift. She feels the harassers are at fault rather than the women themselves.

“If men are taught that women should be allowed to wear whatever they want without being judged, then they shouldn’t need to catcall,” Kelley said.

Freshman Lilly Hupke has also experienced street harassment running for the cross country team. The athletes are frequently honked at by cars on Ward Parkway and hear shouts from unknown drivers.

“During the summer, there was this van that was stopping and asking people that were walking questions,” Hupke said. “We had to be very careful that day because we run through the backstreets and neighborhoods.”

Hupke explained that protective measures are taken to prevent dangerous instances. Spatial awareness has proven to be key for the runners’ safety. Cross country coaches have also expressed that the athletes must always run with a teammate during practices. The rule was created to ensure the girls’ safety when interacting with possibly predatory members of the community.

“Our coaches know what’s going on, so they tell us watch out for this car,” Hupke said.

Senior Bella Brown agrees that awareness around harassers is vital and has experienced catcalling in countless forms since the sixth grade. She believes her mature appearance subjected her to street harassment much earlier than expected.

“When I was 11 years old, I remember I was out on the patio seating of a restaurant on the Plaza and this guy came up to my table when I was with my mom and he said, ‘you are so beautiful,’” Brown said. “My mom [hadn’t] talked to me yet [about catcalling] because she didn’t expect that it would happen to me so early.”

Brown felt unprepared to handle the situation at such a young age and was startled by the man’s comment.

“In the moment, I just said, ‘thank you’ because I didn’t know how to react,” Brown said. “I was surprised and thought it was creepy because he was old.”

After years of men following her in their cars, slyly commenting while holding the door for her and shouting at her on the street, Brown has identified a new form of harassment.

“I would say [Instagram direct message] is our modern-day catcalling [source],” Brown said. “At least once a week I’ll have a few people comment in my DMs asking me for my Snapchat. I just think that’s just gross. It’s continuing to ask in a flirty way for my number.”

Brown believes this should be taken no less seriously than typical street harassment.

“This is guys’ new way of being disrespectful because they don’t have to see me in person and see my actual reaction,” Brown said.

However, she believes catcalling can be interpreted as a compliment depending on the circumstances.

“Sometimes if a guy is kind of cute I will think, ‘Oh thanks, but it’s still a little weird you’re saying stuff like that,’” Brown said.

Senior Grace Coleman, on the other hand, believes that unsolicited commentary on her appearance is never flattering.

“Women get catcalled because guys don’t know how to approach a girl in a respectful manner,” Coleman said. “They don’t know how to talk to people. Some people think catcalling is a compliment because it means you look nice, but is it a compliment if they’re just commenting on my body?”

Either way, Brown believes street harassers do not have entirely pure intentions. She thinks their actions are disrespectful and cannot be encouraged.

“Men catcall women mainly to just show their dominance, sexuality and that they’re interested,” Brown said.

Due to her experiences with harassment from boys significantly younger than her, Coleman agrees that street harassers catcall as a display of their dominance.

“I was on a run through my neighborhood’s country club and it was really hot out, so I had a sports bra and my running shorts on,” Coleman said. “This kid on a bike was following right behind me. I kept feeling this presence, so I stopped to tie my shoe and the kid hit me on his bike because I stopped so abruptly.”

Coleman confronted the boy, but he denied that he was following her and continued to bike next to her after she started running again.

“I should have asked him where he lived and told his parents,” Coleman said. “He was between the age of 12 and 15. Boys wouldn’t want to get catcalled but they want to catcall [women] because they feel like ‘oh, I know I can get this girl,’ but it does the opposite.”

Kelley agrees modern day catcalling is a product of toxic masculinity, passed down from men to boys and transforming them into harassers before they are aware of the emotional impact of their actions.

“I think they see older guys do it and they think it’s cool,” Kelley said. “I think if our generation is the generation to stop catcalling, we just can’t continue doing it. We don’t catcall guys, guys don’t catcall girls. It’s respect.”

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