Catcalling: when a “compliment” turns into harassment

Catcalling: when a “compliment” turns into harassment

Catcalling is an English term that means you literally call a cat, but in vernacular, “catcalling” is nothing more than verbal harassment directed primarily at women – typically in public areas like on the street, in shopping centers, on public transit, etc. – such as unwanted comments, indecent gestures, whistling, chasing, persistent sexual advances, and groping.

The crux of catcalling, and why it is considered harassment, lies at the heart of the mechanism that leads to its perpetration: to sexualize a body, to cause someone to have to listen to indecent comments without having asked for them at all; it is invading another's space – another's dignity. It is considered harassment from the moment that an approach is sought, demanded, or obtained that does not take into account the will of the person targeted.

It’s only a compliment!

This is a catcaller’s justification after having been caught in foul play, perhaps following an angry reaction from the victim. The nature of the catcalling is more evident in this moment because the catcaller often reacts spitefully. The attempt at showing ownership or dominion over the victim crumbles – in its being questioned – and the only way to regain possession of it is to offend the person: verbally and, not infrequently, physically.

One of the most well-known globally and recent cases of catcalling involved a 19 year old student in Chicago, Ruth George, who after having persistently refused the insistent come-ons of a stranger on the street, was attacked by him, raped, and then strangled. This young woman was killed because, according to the same man who recounted his act of murder, “She refused to talk to [him].”

But why is it recognized as uniquely male harassment?

The most recent data in Italy, from 2018, is quite impactful in this regard and highlights how women are the most affected by this behavior and oppressed: the data points to an underlying fear that causes them to be afraid to leave the house alone. There is a fear of walking down the street – especially when it is simply dark outside or the streets are desolate. Many of the women who were a part of this research refer to experiences they might have suffered even decades ago which still affect them today. When a woman cannot rely on the presence of another person, she often avoids the “problem” by striking up a phone call for company (according to the data, about 56%) and only a small number of these women use pepper spray as personal defense.

It is clear that this phenomenon is recognized as purely masculine, since there is a sexist upbringing at the core of it that still has an impact today. Society’s progress, which also has fought for sex equality and supports minorities (ethnic, disabled, LGBTQA+), is gradually bearing fruit.

There are several European countries, which define catcalling as actual harassment – while some European countries do not – and therefore consider it prosecutable. In France it has been considered illegal since 2018, and you risk being fined up to €750 with penalties for aggressive or physical behavior. Since May 2016, Quezon City, in the Philippines, has had an ordinance against street harassment in place. In Belgium, a similar law was approved in 2014; and other countries, such as Peru and Portugal, have already set up severe punishments for this sort of crime.

Despite the fact that some countries are still a long way from providing concrete solutions to the discrimination a large part of their population and minorities have had to endure, it is comforting to see the political commitment to abandon a social system that makes no sense, is outdated, and is rightly considered offensive. Nowadays there must be absolute respect for one another, which goes far beyond one’s sex, clothing, geographical location, or sexual orientation. One should not be afraid to be oneself when walking down the street; one should not be afraid to go out when it is dark or to do so alone.

Future generations must be guided and educated on respect and love.

But where to begin?

Education on sex equality should be a part of everyone’s very foundation. One can also educate a child to not choose a particular color of dress because it “belongs” to boys: this concept belongs to a patriarchal society that we left behind years ago. It is necessary to keep up with the times, letting go of backward preconceptions and stereotypes that actually condition choices and behaviors in favor of social acceptance. Surrendering oneself to a train of thought that is not one's own is like applying handcuffs to one's wrists.

If making explicit advances is justifiable for men, what happens if men themselves consider such a behavior reprehensible? The handcuffs break.

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