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Catcalling is NOT a compliment

By Emily Dudley (@thatnastyfeminist)

Examining the culture of dominance and how we can dismantle it

I could start this piece by detailing one of the countless number of times I’ve been catcalled. I can remember them all, seared into my memory like a brand. But I don’t need to, because no doubt most of you reading this have your own experiences that parallel my own, and I don’t need to ask you to imagine because you already know.

Too many times we’ve been told to ‘let it go’, that we should “be flattered” by aggressive unwanted attention. Too many times I’ve been verbally assaulted with “nice tits”, “you’re a pretty young thing”, “come here you”, “how old are you?”, “give us a smile, sweetheart”, that last one’s the worst. For me, it epitomises the single goal of catcalling: to exert power.

Catcalling is public sexual harassment.

It’s not a compliment.

It’s objectification. It’s victimisation. It’s degradation.

It’s rape culture.

(Art from @thatnastyfeminist)

Often catcalling and other forms of public sexual harassment are minimised or dismissed, especially in comparison to instances of domestic violence or sexual assault, but these ‘minor’ actions are violent and are the very foundations of rape culture. Alongside rape jokes and the classic “boys will be boys” phrase, catcalling, wolf-whistling and up-skirting all uphold the normalisation of gendered abuse which facilitates patriarchal oppression.

Over two thirds of girls aged 14 to 21 experience unwanted sexual attention in public spaces. Many womxn I know, though still not feeling safe in public, have noticed a lower rate of public sexual harassment, specifically catcalling, as they have gotten older.

Most womxn recall their first experience of catcalling at an average age of 11. 35% of girls in the UK have experienced public sexual harassment while wearing their school uniforms.

Sadly unsurprising, considering the infantilisation of womxn is inextricably linked to cultural beauty standards (but perhaps we should unpack that another time).

People should ask themselves ' Would you tell an 11-year-old that it’s just a compliment?'

“Oh, that middle-aged man that called you sexy? It’s just a compliment! If anything you should be flattered!”

It sounds like an incredulous sentiment but it’s heavily prevalent one all the same, teaching young girls and womxn that they exist to be objectified, that it’s normal and to just get on with it. That's what these reactions and comments perpetuate. These ‘micro-aggressions’ (which often aren’t micro at all) serve the wider lens of rape culture and have been tolerated and concealed for far too long.

(Image from Plan International)

What Can We Do About It?

Being the victim of catcalling or sexual harassment can be incredibly intimidating and isolating. As well as this, the commonality of these experiences can trigger and internal justification that we must have deserved it, or that there is not a lot we can do to combat it. Among the smaller actions you can take to confront the culture of catcalling, there are a few direct behaviours that can counter on a more individual scale.

Respond: If you feel safe to do so, you can respond to catcalls. Assert that the attention is unwanted and unacceptable by speaking calmly and firmly, without trying to aggravate the perpetrator.

Intervene: Again, only if you feel safe enough to do so, you can intervene in situations where you are aware of someone else being harassed. You can either check the victim is okay and offer your help and/or let the perpetrator know their actions are not condoned by others around them. This can be especially powerful if men engage in this kind of action as the majority of perpetrators are men and may be looking for validation from other males.

Report: If the perpetrator(s) work for an identifiable company, perhaps they’re wearing a branded uniform or driving a branded vehicle, you can report their actions to the employer. Contact the company and inform them their employees are harassing people and why this is unacceptable.

Small scale counteractions like the ones just listed may seem like they could never actively prevent catcalling before it happens yet it is individuals that can make up a very influential collective power. If everyone who observed street harassment intervened by condemning those kinds of behaviours, less and less perpetrators would feel entitled to act on them.

Make It A Crime

Beyond the day-to-day actions we can take, there are organisations dedicated to ending public sexual harassment and you can help.

Plan International UK has teamed up with Our Streets Now, “a campaign demanding the right of women and girls to feel and be safe in public spaces”, to make public sexual harassment a crime in the UK.

Policy and law changes are vital in ending gendered violence and sit at the very centre of creating a counterculture that will dismantle the culture of dominance that plagues our society. Rape culture is real. It’s pervasive. Even during a global pandemic this kind of invasive, alienating abuse endures. In fact, the #CrimeNotCompliment campaign has found that over 50% of girls have experienced public sexual harassment since June 2020 despite two national lockdowns. This kind of cultural oppression will not disappear overnight, it is ingrained in our societal foundations and will be hard to dislodge. But that doesn't mean it's impossible.

If you wish to join the #CrimeNotCompliment campaign to criminalise public sexual harassment, you can sign the petition via this link:

Joining the campaign can take less than two minutes and you’ll be contributing to making a difference. Some of you may feel this is a futile attempt to dismantle a colossal patriarchal system, but…as the Notorious RBG (may she rest in eternal peace) once said:

“real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”


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