It is a common misconception among people who participate in catcalling that it’s a form of flattery that is harmless and even appreciated by the person they are doing it to. In reality, catcalling can be a horrifying, degrading, and threatening form of street harassment as a woman walks by, that has long term implications for their mental health.
What is Catcalling and Why Does it Happen?
Catcalling is a form of harassment that can include a variety of sexually suggestive derogatory comments or noises made at an individual in a public setting. This can include wolf whistlings, honking car horns, vulgar gestures and statements, stalking, and much more.
**Please note the following examples may be offensive or upsetting for some readers
Some examples of phrases include:
“Hey baby, give me a smile”
“Where are you going dressed like that?”
“How much for an hour of it? Name your price”
“I can show you a good time”
There is a difference between respectfully approaching someone you don’t know and doing so in a way that makes them feel unsafe and/or uncomfortable. Catcalling disproportionately affects women, but this type of harassment can occur to people of any gender at any time.
According to William Castello, catcalling is driven by low self-esteem, disappointment, and frustration with life in general for young men and older men alike. It is typically reflective of a rough upbringing; as an adult, this newfound freedom may develop into a sense of entitlement and power. Harassing a woman and making sexual comments can be a way of showing entitlement to the woman’s body (as if women are sexual objects), time, and space.
The Dangers of Catcalling on Mental and Sexual Health
Catcalling can impact every aspect of a person’s health – mental, sexual, physical, social, occupational, and more. This type of sexual harassment can be especially detrimental to the victim’s short term and long term mental health.
Short-term, they may feel angry, annoyed, embarrassed, threatened, and fearful that the situation could have or still will escalate. Catcalling is also correlated with increased fear of and perception of risk of rape. The effects can be especially harmful when a group of men catcalls a single woman.
Experiencing catcalling is connected to self-objectification for women. Self-objectification can make women feel shame and anxiety around their appearance. Additionally, self-objectification is linked to poor mental health outcomes including depressive symptoms and disordered eating, and it is even associated with reduced productivity (especially if the harassment occurs in the workplace).
Having high rates of self-objectification can seriously impact someone’s sense of confidence in their sexuality which can lead to poor sexual health.
How to Keep Yourself Safe When You’re Being Harassed
There is no one right way to deal with catcalling, harassment or sexual violence against women. It is impossible to control someone else’s actions and behaviors, but there are certain ways you can change your own behavior to keep yourself safe if you experience catcalling.
No matter your preferred response, you should always evaluate your safety first. If you don’t feel safe (if you are alone and it is nighttime, for example) it may be safest to just not engage.
Here are some strategies for different comfort levels if you feel safe expressing disapproval or responding at all. Trust your instincts to do what is safest.
- Make and hold eye contact with the harasser with a neutral face then continue walking. Sometimes this alone is enough to surprise the harasser and communicate to them that what they are doing is wrong.
- In a firm voice you can say “I want you to leave me alone” and continue walking.
- If the harasser follows you, fake a phone call (or actually call 911) wherein you tell your “friend” that you’re running late, give your exact location, and say that you will get to where you’re supposed to be “meeting” in 5 minutes. If they do not stop following you, go into a shop or get to a safe place with other people.
- AVOID swearing. Provoking the harasser in any way may incite violence.
- Do something out of left field: bark at the harasser (yes, like a dog) or start singing a completely random theme song (try SpongeBob SquarePants, for example)
- As a precautionary measure, you should keep pepper spray and/or a whistle on your keys, in a bag you always carry with you, etc.
Catcalling can be a really scary experience. When in doubt, just keep walking as if you didn’t hear anything and try to get somewhere safe. Always remember, being the victim of catcalling is never your fault no matter the circumstances. After an experience like this, be sure to decompress and take time for yourself or surrounded by people who make you feel safe and appreciated.