Cat-calling. A.k.a. Public Sexual Harassment

Why We Must All Step Up

Thanks to organizations like Hollaback in the USA and Plan UK and Our Streets Now in the UK, cat-calling (as it’s more commonly known) is receiving a lot of attention right now. According to Plan UK’s research, since June 2020 in the UK, 51% of girls have experienced PSH, and 94% think it should be made illegal. During lockdown women and girls reported feeling less safe on the streets, probably because while deserted streets means fewer people, it also means fewer witnesses.

Photo by Ekrulila from Pexels

A quick look at the Our Streets Now Insta account shows post upon post about what girls are still experiencing:

I was walking home from school one day in my school uniform, when a group of men started harassing me. When I told them I was 13, they said age did not matter to them.

At the age of 18 I walked past a group of men one evening and one of them said “there’s 3 of us and only her, do you think we could have a go on her?” This was the scariest encounter by far, I had nowhere to run as I was on a bridge.

Fortunately, these organizations (and others) are making strides to combat public sexual harassment. Plan UK & Our Streets now are in talks with the UK government to make it illegal, and Hollaback has partnered with many businesses to provide bystander training so that members of the public will feel more comfortable calling it out instead of freezing or simply walking away.

It’s crucial that we all step up when we see sexual harassment of (usually) women and girls on the streets. Either out of fear, embarrassment, humiliation or simply being lost for words, the victim is not always in a position to deal with it, — and this is what harassers rely on.

So what’s all the fuss anyway?

Shouldn’t women be flattered at the attention? Shouldn’t we just laugh it off?

NO, and NO.

No. It’s not flattering and it’s usually not intended to make women feel good. At best it’s showing off for the lads, and at worst it’s a power play that attempts to put women in their place If it were a compliment, there wouldn’t be a #CrimeNotCompliment campaign. It’s unwanted and unwelcome attention.

Photo Plan International UK

And no, it’s not a laughing matter. Or if it is, it’s a coping mechanism because we’ve been raised not to make a fuss; after all, it’s not like it results in a black eye or anything. We laugh because those around us seem to think it’ s no big deal (or surely they would help us?) so we’d better not make a fuss either. We laugh because we don’t want to appear rude. Despite the fact that we’re embarrassed, mortified or scared s***less, we remain ever-polite. Just in case it does result in a black eye, or worse.

So yes, it’s everyone’s responsibility to end this disrespectful, often dangerous behaviour. Because it’s bad enough being humiliated or scared on the street like this, but it’s ten times worse when people stand by and do nothing.

As Hollaback says:

When we intervene, we don’t just reduce trauma for the person being street harassed. We also start to chip away at the culture that allows harassment to be so prevalent.

PS. And older women, just knock if off. Telling younger women that they should “enjoy it while they can” or that they’ll “miss it when it stops” is almost as bad as the harassment. You’re dismissing the very real distress and fear they experience. Maybe your memory’s already a little ‘unreliable’, but there’s no way your 12 year old self would’ve enjoyed being trailed in a car by an old guy (30+) hissing at you or asking you to “get in”.

Co-author of upcoming book “How to Stand up to Sexism; Words for when enough is enough”. @ToniHargis

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