Calling Out Cat-Callers

The Siren’s Photo Campaign to Stop Street Harassment: How Street Harassment Hurts People and What You Can Do To Help

The widespread and insidious nature of street harassment dawned on me a couple of weeks ago when my friend, Liz Hawryluk, posted a Facebook status about some guys who “catcalled” her, shouting terrible words at her like “ho,” as they drove past her walking back from volunteering at the Orange County Rape Crisis Center.

My first initial thought was: Damn, that’s SO clearly wrong. Why do guys do that and how do they get away with it?
I then realized that I’m not the only person who has had to deal with harassing words from men I don’t know—and men I do know. I’m not the only person who changes my outfit based on where I plan to walk that day, who plans my route to avoid places where I’ve been harassed before, who has become hyperaware of my surroundings, who has been conditioned to fear men as threats to my safety. These are actions and thoughts I engage in almost subconsciously—they have become a normalized part of my daily life.

Acknowledging the sexism and misogyny still ever-present in our society is half the battle—these are painful realities that we try to bury deep. We minimize harassment and pretend that it isn’t as much of a problem as it is. Yet most women—and many men—feel fear and discomfort simply while walking down the street. I think of myself as a strong woman, and I used to think that meant I shouldn’t let something like “catcalling” get to me—that if I simply ignored such actions, they couldn’t hurt me. But being a strong person is about standing up for yourself and others who have been hurt. It’s about asserting your rights and dignity as a human being. It’s about calling out people who aren’t being held accountable for their actions.

I’ve tried to avoid people, places, and the problem of catcalling. Now, I want to reclaim my right and everyone’s right to a life free of fear, intimidation, and harassment.

Why Harassment Makes Us Worse People
Let’s begin by examining the common word used to refer to street harassment—catcalling. Catcalling is a word I’ve used before to describe experiences of unwanted, public attention directed at me, in all cases by men, that have made me feel humiliated and threatened sexually and/or emotionally. But the last time I checked, I’m a human, not a cat. Why am I using this term that implies that I belong to some sort of subhuman category?

I want to begin my petition for a life free of fear, intimidation, and harassment by calling catcalling what it really is: street harassment. Calling harassment “catcalling” trivializes the harm and pain inflicted by harassment. It allows men a free pass to humiliate and exert control over women in public, because “catcalling” sounds like a silly part of our culture, not a serious problem that demands to be addressed.

Myth: Street harassment is just about giving someone a compliment.
Street harassment is not about giving someone a compliment.

You give a friend a compliment (Cool shoes!) or compliment someone you’ve struck up a conversation with (You have such an interesting perspective on feminism). You give people compliments to empower them, show them respect, or enter into a sense of community with them.

Street harassment, on the other hand, is a social tool used to assert dominance and control over others in public spaces. This is the opposite of a compliment—the target of harassment feels inferior, disrespected, and unwelcome. The relative freedom of women to move about in public spaces is actually a fairly recent phenomenon. The mobility of women is still severely restricted in parts of the world today. Taken in context, street harassment is part of a series of daily micro-assaults in the lives of women meant to remind them of their “true place” in the social hierarchy.

It is important to recognize that many men who engage in harassment may not be aware of the harm they cause by saying something as seemingly benign as “Smile, you’re beautiful!” Despite any good intentions, men who engage in such behavior deny the harmful impact of their controlling actions and need to seriously examine the roots of their motivation to tell another person what to think of her appearance and express her emotions.

Furthermore, we need to cultivate a greater consciousness around the culture of male entitlement that street harassment perpetuates. These are not isolated events that exist in a vacuum, but rather actions connected to a wider societal permissiveness towards gender-based violence.

Myth: “Catcalling” is just one individual’s choice to act inappropriately.
According to Holly Kearl, the author of Stop Street Harassment, 87% of women have been harassed in public by age 19. But how often do we talk about street harassment as a widespread problem that reinforces other forms of gender-based oppression? Why aren’t we asking ourselves why so many men engage in these behaviors? Why do we frame this issue in a way that makes incidents of street harassment appear isolated, ignoring systemic societal violence directed toward women by men?

We hosted an event for our photo campaign, “Calling Out Cat-Callers”, in the Pit, during which I benefited from many conversations, in particular with male students, who had never thought about street harassment as an issue before. One male student told me that he thought street harassment was “hilarious” and that it wasn’t a big deal. I then realized the vast differences in how we experience reality based on social categories such as gender, race, and sexuality. This male student has probably never experienced threats of violence from a woman, and therefore he may be able to laugh off a female stranger’s harassment as a joke. However, for most women, gender-based violence, or the threat of it, is a reality in their own lives—if they haven’t experienced it personally, they’ve been instructed since birth to avoid male violence through their dress and actions.

A crucial component of activism lies in bringing awareness to diversity and how it shapes our perceptions. So while harassment may just seem like a joke to someone who benefits from male privilege, it’s important for men to not only recognize this privilege but to also recognize that other members of society experience harassment in much more devastating ways. Gender-based violence exists on a spectrum; telling a woman how to express herself or her emotions connects to more extreme actions of violence such as sexual assault. While men commit acts of violence and harassment in different ways, the common center of this violence is a need for control.

In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We must search for justice in all matters because ultimately, all forms of oppression are related. Gender-based violence will not end until perpetrators of street harassment are held accountable for their actions, educated about the harm street harassment causes, and forced to examine the root motivations for harassment and violence.


If you want to help stop gender-based violence and street harassment, you don’t have to do it alone. Hollaback! is an international organization dedicated to stopping street harassment. The Durham-Chapel Hill chapter of Hollaback! will launch in December 2013.

“Hollaback! Durham-Chapel Hill is an empowered response to street harassment. We believe that everyone deserves to be who they are, and to do so in public without fear of harassment and violence. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter to get involved and be the first to share your badass Hollaback! responses!” –Rachel Valentine, Rape Prevention Education Coordinator at the OCRCC

Facebook: Hollaback! Durham & Chapel Hill
Twitter: @Hollaback_919

One comment

Comments are closed.