Calling Out Catcallers: Why #WhenIWas Isn't Enough

Street harassment may start in childhood, but it's a highly stressful and upsetting part of womanhood, too. Here's why we need to listen to all reports of abuse on our streets, regardless of the victim.

Feature by Kate Pasola | 22 Apr 2016

The first time I was catcalled from the window of a transit van, I was ecstatic. I was also 12.

I learned from a young age that self-esteem, confidence and validation are often treated like a premium; divvied out to womankind, and ripped out from under our feet if we’re looking too comfortable. I grew up watching my sister, Sophie, who is older by three years, collapse into the sofa after Saturday shifts spent as a teenage waitress. Rolling her big, outlined eyes, she’d grumble anecdotes about a day spent as the butt of her sexist colleagues’ jokes. Waiters teasing, creepy customers reeling, chefs making lewd slurs about the pearl necklace she’d worn round her neck to work that day. Because I’d grown up learning that men’s appraisals were supposed to be welcomed, and because I was blindly oblivious to the repulsive connotations of a ‘pearl necklace’, I failed to see the problem. Despite her visible exasperation, my pre-teen self thought that the whole thing sounded magnificent.

Often, I’d walk with her through the city and catch the eager eyes of men trying to meet her gaze. On family holidays, we’d be approached in the pool by shark-like guys who’d splash my sunburnt face or flip my lilo, all the while slinking closer to the bait – my tanned, blonde-haired, adolescent big sister. Later, passing me aloe vera for my sunburn, she’d tell me how much she hated the ‘attention’. I’d nod, rubbing the aftersun into my face, but I never really believed her.

Catcalling: my first experience

Then, on a sunny school day in March, it happened to me. That morning, I’d foregone tights and had stolen a razor from the bathroom cabinet, skimming away whatever fawn I could find from my little shins. God knows why, at the age of 12, I felt compelled to shave my legs – probably something to do with my obsession with teen magazines. As I skipped to school in a skirt i’d slightly outgrown, I felt dizzily proud. Despite my Roxy rucksack, my head of frizzy mousy hair and my canary polo shirt, I felt like a bloody goddess.

Those feelings were crystallised when a sweating, greying man leaned from his window and made an obscene gesture at me, grinning toothily and pumping his car horn with an elbow. I’d been noticed! And by exactly the sort of man my sister was allegedly so fatigued by. I was a genius who’d fast-tracked into womanhood using only a purple Venus four-blade and a tub of cocoa butter. Like the puberty version of speedy boarding. Sure, it was difficult to ignore the sickly shadows that twinged in my gut, and yes, I shuddered when I later learned the meaning of his gesture, but at the time, I felt I’d achieved something magnificent. I’d finally been recognised. I was finally valid. Thank fuck. Right?  My first instance of sexual harassment taught me that no matter what efforts women take to nurture their own reservoirs of self-esteem, female confidence can become instantly golden-gilded or royally shat upon at the whim of any old average man.

More than decade later, almost nothing has changed about the way men treat women on the street, though we’ve made a smidgen of progress in expressing our refusal to put up with it. The internet blew up when a woman filmed the harassment she received on a ten-hour walk through New York, YouTube’s rammed with videos of women making a point of turning the tables, and this week EverydaySexism’s viral hashtag #WhenIWas began demonstrating the fact that for most females, being subject to street harassment begins in childhood.

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As I imagine is the case for most women, it didn’t take long for me to tire of men making verbal assessments, threats and crass jokes simply because I was a woman, alone, outside. It happens when I’m walking home from the pub with my hair down, feeling confident in a flattering dress. It happens at 8am, when i’m bomber-jacketed with a face full of acne. The time, place and outfit make no difference, because despite what the perpetrators claim, catcalling isn’t really about the woman. If these men believe what they’re shouting from their cars will improve our day, why do they cringe so desperately when an untimely red light halts their getaway? If, like they claim, these pavement creepers are just attempting to revive ‘The Good Old Days’ of chaps chirpsing women in the street, then why do they look so shocked when I call their bluff and respond? Street harassment happens when men decide to use the nearest object to assert their dominance and presence. And in these situations, the object is the woman.

And, just to chuck some extra-stingy rock salt in our wounds, women aren’t allowed to discuss their harassment for fear of looking immodest or arrogant. It’s often the case that the more conventionally beautiful the woman, the less validity is granted to their claims. My sister Sophie, now 26, lives in London. She’s extraordinary looking and works in the beauty industry. Often found flinging herself across cities wearing heels and smart coats, with pristine make-up and glossy hair, she’s objectively, sickeningly and maddeningly striking. She suffers street harassment and abuse at least once a day, usually more. I’ve watched the eye-rolling of her teens morph into tearfulness, fury, fear and exhaustion.

As both an outlet and an attempt to raise awareness, she began posting Facebook updates about the problem. It wasn’t long before that age-old disbelief, resentment and judgement came back to plague the discussion. Old classmates she hasn’t spoken to in years openly commented that they found her reports tiresome. Men on the defensive instructed her to take the harassment in the complimentary way it was clearly intended. One or two interjectors accused her of fabricating and exaggerating her experiences, snarkily congratulating her as if to expose some sort of ruse. She was driven into making a blog, The Sexism Experiment, providing a space away from her social media channels to record her abuse. Within minutes of creation, her thoughtful musings and concise reports were littered with comments describing her words as the ramblings of a vain, self-indulgent time waster.

Being a conventionally beautiful woman means that Sophie is silenced when she reaches out for solidarity and awareness. Many women feel uncomfortable discussing instances of street harassment unless: 1) we report the story confusedly, explaining that we ‘looked SO unattractive that day, too!’, 2) we’re telling the story on behalf of a friend, or 3) we’re discussing harassment we received as children as part of a #WhenIWas hashtag. Sophie’s blog is being subject to snarky, angry criticism because her stories are often none of the above.

Why must we hedge our complaints between self-deprecating remarks? Why can’t my sister tell her own stories without being branded narcissistic? And why, as soon as we reach the age of sexual maturity is sexual harassment no longer regarded a serious or shocking crime?

Mocking and criticising women who complain about sexual harassment is a form of victim blaming. Yes, It’s incredible we’re all finally twigging onto the fact that harassment of children is a pervasive and troubling problem. But we need to take a crowbar to this can of worms and wrench it wide open. This issue runs deep, and is a symptom of huge, oppressive structures that reinforce the idea that men are at liberty to greet, assess, distract and prod women whenever they please, and that women should be all eyes, ears and arse.

Street harassment is a silent, daily burden which doesn’t stop at childhood, and ignoring its pervasiveness in society does an injustice to over half of the population. We can do better than this, and the window to change things, though long ignored, is still wide open.