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Feminspire | April 23, 2014

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Street Harassment & Catcalling: It’s OK to Feel Angry

Street Harassment & Catcalling: It’s OK to Feel Angry

| On 22, Aug 2013

In the summer, for whatever reason, I always notice an increase in catcalls. I hate it, but I’ve come to expect it. As a young woman in her 20s, being catcalled is sadly pretty standard.

Earlier this summer, something unusual happened: I was catcalled—twice—by boys in a school bus. A big, yellow school bus, the kind I used to ride in elementary school. It happened in the nice residential neighborhood I’m living in for the summer, and it happened in the afternoon, when I was outside enjoying the summer warmth. Like I said, I’m used to being catcalled—it happens basically everyday, often more than once a day.

But it was unnerving to hear a child’s voice screaming at me, high-pitched, from the back of a school bus. It was the same kid the next day, with another, smaller boy piping in occasionally. They looked like they were around 13 years old, and I was startled to hear the sexual violence and gendered hatred in their screaming. They shouted things like, “Fuck you, bitch!” and “Suck my big juicy dick, bitch!” They shouted for a long time. The first time they screamed at me, I was waiting for a bus, and the school bus was stopped at a seemingly interminable red light. The second time they catcalled me, I was walking home, and they yelled for the entirety of the block and were still yelling as their bus turned a corner and drove away.

Sometimes when men catcall me, they try to flatter me. They honk or whistle or invite me over. They make obscene suggestions, laughing as they drive away. However, there have been a couple incidences when men catcalled me and it’s been more explicitly violent. One night, as I was crossing the street on my college campus with a few of my female friends, a car full of drunken men from a neighboring university screamed at us, speeding at us in their car as we walked across the street. The called us bitches and told us to fuck off. They told us that next time they would kill us.

All of these incidences have happened in well-to-do, otherwise peaceful residential neighborhoods. Nearly all of these incidences occur when I’m on foot and the men are driving, or when I’m alone and they are in a group. But I’m far more thick-skinned now than I was at 13. Back then, if I was catcalled I self-consciously tugged my shorts lower or put on my jacket, even if it was hot out. Now I don’t look up; I don’t listen. I usually don’t let it get to me.

I’ve asked guys I know about this: Do they get hassled as they walk on the street, going about their daily lives? They always tell me ‘no.’ People never yell at them. People never leeringly compliment them or whistle at them or tell them to perform sexual acts or go fuck themselves.

street harassment

While none of the male friends have experienced it, every single one of my female friends has experienced street harassment countless times, no matter where they’re from. They all understand. Luckily there are movements out there targeting street harassment, encouraging women to share their stories. People are talking about street harassment, and people are trying to end it.

But there are still times when I feel like it’s a crime for me to walk on the street, regardless of whether it’s day or night, regardless of what I wear. I’ve been yelled at when I’m wearing a long parka in the dead of winter, and I’ve been catcalled in sundresses in the summer. It doesn’t make a difference. Either way, this is what catcallers are telling me: these are our streets. You are vulnerable, and we are in the position of power. You have to listen to us.

Something about having young boys—basically children—screaming at me last week really bothered me. I felt frustrated and vulnerable both times that school bus drove by. I didn’t understand why the bus driver wasn’t saying anything during the long minutes that those boys screamed at me, over and over: Fuck you bitch! You fucking bitch! Suck my big juicy dick, you fucking bitch! How were the other children on the bus feeling? The 12 and 13-year-old girls on the bus—how were they feeling?

These young boys hate women so much already. And they hate women in a very specific, very gendered sense. I, a complete stranger, am already less than a person to these boys. I’m a sexual object. I’m a bitch. My sexuality and my femininity repulse them. Everything is so gendered and so sexualized. These boys already know that they own their bodies and their sexuality—their “big juicy dick,” while my sexuality and my body degrades me, betrays me, exists out in the open for them to ridicule and judge and insult however they want. That’s the difference that they perceive between themselves and myself: that they have a right to their own bodies, while I don’t have a right to mine. They think that they have a right to my body.

These boys are performing, just the way the drunken boys who threatened to kill my friends and me were performing, and the way that the groups of men who catcall from their cars are performing. They are performing for one another, and they are performing for me and for all of us out on the street. They are saying: We are powerful. You are not. We have a right to you; we are entitled to you and your body and your sexuality. Catcalling has nothing to do with complimenting a pretty woman walking down the street, but it has everything to do with establishing and enforcing power dynamics.

I learned this lesson when I was 13. Back then, when I was first growing up and filling out and taking up more space, I learned to do the reverse. I learned that the streets weren’t mine, not even during the day. I learned that I needed to walk in quick little steps, head down, arms close to my side. I learned to squeeze into a seat on the public bus and cross my legs. I learned to take a sweater out with me to cover up if some men took issue with my existence and began degrading me in gendered and sexualized ways.

I learned all this, and I got angry. I got angry that I had to keep my legs clamped together in the scorching summer heat. I got angry that I had to worry about strange men yelling at me when I was just trying to get home in a blizzard. I got angry that these men feel so obviously entitled to my body, my sexuality, and my life, when I was struggling to navigate all three.

And when I got angry, people told me I shouldn’t be. They told me not to be a feminazi. They told me not to have a chip on my shoulder. My mother told me that no one likes a bitter girl with a sharp tongue. My father told me that I can’t help it; I can’t change anything, because men and women are the way they are because of evolution and ancient biological practices.

It’s taken me a long time to come to terms with it, but I’m angry. I’m angry that I can’t walk on the street without being reminded of my bodily presence as a woman. I’m angry that young boys feel like they are entitled to degrade me and humiliate me on the street, even though I am an adult, just because I am a woman. I’m angry that I have to tug at my hemlines and pull up my necklines, that I can’t just feel comfortable in my body and my clothes. I’m angry that I take up so much less space than the leering man who sprawls on the bus seat beside me with his legs spread. And I’m angry that for all these years, no one’s let me be angry. I haven’t let myself be angry. I’m angry now.

Written by Zoya Haroon
Image courtesy of Javier Galeano

  • Veronica

    I’m so with you on all of this! I’m a fifteen year old girl and for the last four years I can’t walk outside without being sexually harrassed. And then people tell me sexism ins’t prominent in modern day society.

  • Jennifer Elford

    I live in a small town right now, but last Summer I lived in Toronto and the amount of sexual harassment that goes on is ridiculous. I couldn’t go out by myself without hearing at LEAST one catcall, comment, or have one or two men follow me from station to station on the transit system. It’s scary, and it PISSES ME OFF.

  • Jolyon

    Hear, hear.

    I am male, but the behavior of my gender positively disgusts me at times. I’ve never catcalled any female in the street, and I’m ready to stand my ground against any idiot who catcalls a female who I’m with. However, this doesn’t seem to arise all that often, from my experience – I was wondering if others have found that similarly? (ie, that being with a male companion reduces the occurrence substantially?)

    I am much less likely to stick up for a girl that I don’t know, partly because I don’t know if it would be appreciated. I figure that this is as good a forum as any to ask for opinions on that. Thanks!

    • Veronica

      The key with that is to defend her in a passive agressive way. Make it clear to the catcallers that it’s not okay, without making it seem like the woman can’t take care of herself and needs a big strong man to chase the others away.

    • alice

      Always call the dude out, worst thing that could happen is said female tells you its fine and not to worry about it. The problem with catcalling is that its so socially acceptable.

  • Elise

    I know exactly what you mean, a few weeks ago i was with my friends and these two guys began catcalling at us.This gradually worsened until they were yelling threats of gang rape, when they realised there were guys with us they instantly shutup. My friends say they were probably joking which is probably true but i dont know how a “joke” about gang rape shouted at a group of 18 year old girls could possibly be funny.

  • Flora

    I can remember the first time I was followed by a group of boys a few years older than me at school when I was walking home, I was 12 and they shouted at me from across the street for about half an hour calling me names etcc. There have been countless other times since then. Even when I was 17 a group of 14 year olds followed me from the bus stop shouting and swearing. I’m now at uni and a month or two ago a man followed me and said he was going to chase, stab and kill me. It’s not fair how I am petrified to walk alone after dark. As soon as I see a group of men I’m frightened.. From a young age I have learned to be scared and it disgusts me how this happens and people blame women for dressing ‘provocatively’. Several times I’ve been shouted at, honked, followed, touched. Once about 10 drunk football fans on a bus harrassed me for the entire journey, and I refused to speak back. One 40ish man kissed me on the cheek as he got off the bus laughing with his friends. Then they saw me later in town and followed me until I basically shouted to leave me alone. The bus was packed and there were people about in the street yet no one intervened when it was obvious I was close to tears. I’m angry and sick of this. I’m not a violent person… I’m not going to shout and swear back. So I can’t defend myself.

  • Little Lindsey

    I had an experience a few years ago in Philly where a 6-7 year old boy riding his bike behind me put his hand in my pants and grabbed my thong underwear. He said “Let me get in there.” He was so young…his friend that was with him was carrying around a box of popsicles, slowly melting through the cardboard. They were kids….little kids, and they were from my neighborhood. I stopped my bike and said “Listen to me. Is is not ok to ever touch anyone, especially a woman. You’re lucky I didn’t just knock you off of your bike. I’m calling the police.” They immediately apologized and ran off, popsicle box and all. But really….these little boys….it’s so sad that they behaved that way but even more upsetting that this was learned behavior from their families/peers.

  • JD

    I’d like to share this comic strip on the subject: