Catcalling: combating the normalisation of sexual harassment

Most women can recall the first time they were catcalled. Mine was when I was 13, walking alone in my home-town centre when two men in a van shouted out of their window that they would like to have sex with me. This did not remain an isolated incident. From that point on I experienced honking, shouting, and even being followed by men. Sadly, these instances of harassment became half expected when walking alone or within a group of girls. 

Just last week, my friend and I were shouted at by a man on a bike by the entry of the alleyway that runs alongside Headingley Stadium. When we reached the other end of the alleyway, he had cycled around and was waiting for us to pass to comment on our bodies yet again. 

Unfortunately, I am not alone in my experiences. A study by the Women and Equalities Committee found that 85% of women between the ages of 18 and 24 years old have experienced sexual harassment in public. Women and girls continue to endure this behaviour from some men who think they are within their rights to degrade and sexualise women, reducing them to the mere components of their physical beings. 

The frustration of experiencing catcalling is further amplified by voices who tell women to take these incidences as “compliments”. Is it really a compliment for women to have everything about them disregarded except the outline of their bodies underneath their clothes? Their personalities and intellect deemed entirely irrelevant. Is that truly all they can be hoped to be judged by?

France, Belgium, and Portugal have all passed laws making catcalling and verbal sexual harassment punishable by large fines and in some more extreme cases in Portugal: a year in prison. Where other countries have acknowledged these acts as entirely inappropriate, the UK has not. In the UK, catcalling is still not against the law which produces an assumption that this behaviour is deemed to be acceptable. 

The failure to protect women and girls against catcalling in the UK also has implications that reach much further than these uncomfortable experiences. Verbal sexual harassment and physical sexual assault are two very different things, however, they both lie on the same spectrum. When the behaviour on the less severe end of this spectrum is normalised, such as catcalling, the point of consequence is shifted further along. If harassment is only worthy of note when the incidents are more damaging to the victims, then it is already too late. 

If the UK law were to criminalise catcalling it would set the standard that no behaviour anywhere along this spectrum is tolerated. By discouraging these acts at the less severe end of this spectrum it will propagate further along so that more damaging acts receive more of the outrage and disgust that they deserve, hopefully manifesting itself in an overall reduction of these crimes. 

Catcalling has its roots deeply embedded in misogynism, where some boys and men are brought up to believe that women exist for their sexual gratification. Although no law will eradicate these mindsets on its own, they can help to initiate the shift in society’s attitudes towards them. History has shown us time and time again that change like this is possible. Of course, it takes time: it takes conversations and education, understanding and discussions, but a legal grounding would certainly not go amiss. 

Louise Danger

Image source: Wikimedia Commons