Let me paint you a picture. Summer has finally hit London. The skies are blue, the sun is shining. It’s a perfect day to head to the park for a lunch-time stroll.
I have my headphones in - listening to Taylor Swift, of course, so I’m not really paying attention to my surroundings. But I hear someone near me say something, and I think they’re talking to me, so I take my headphones out and look over my shoulder.
A man is standing a little further up the street, looking at me expectantly. “I said you have a nice arse,” he tells me, as if doing me a service by repeating what I didn’t hear the first time. I turn, cross the street, and walk away, positioning myself next to a woman on the phone just in case he decides to follow me.
Luckily, he doesn’t. He takes the hint and heads off in the opposite direction. But this isn’t always the case.
In the past, ignoring a catcall like this has resulted in me receiving comments like, “hey, don’t ignore me, b*tch”, or, “you don’t take compliments well, do you?” I know friends who have been followed until they engage in some sort of conversation, or who have been screamed at for simply walking off.
The thing is, it doesn’t necessarily sound like the biggest deal. There are lots of things in life for which a reasonable response is, “just ignore it”, or, “at least it’s harmless”. But this just isn’t the case with catcalling.
Firstly, it’s not a compliment. If catcallers actually think shouting something at a woman across the street is going to get them somewhere or be a great starting point for their next romance, they’re sorely mistaken. I challenge you to find any woman who finds catcalling attractive.
But also, I find it seriously difficult to believe that the men who do this are doing so with the intention of complimenting a woman - of putting a smile on her face.
No, catcalling is sexual harassment. Sometimes, I think it’s about power - a man knowing he can make a woman feel uncomfortable by uttering a few words from across the street. Sometimes, it seems more about control - because when women don’t respond the way they want, that’s when the anger starts.
Again, at this point - it’s just words. You can usually just walk away. And on a sunny day, with lots of people around, when I was near my flat, the threat didn’t feel too great. But this changes instantly when you’re somewhere you don’t know, when it’s nighttime, and when it’s just you and the catcaller.
The reason for this should be all too clear. These days, we’re constantly hearing about women being attacked, raped, and even murdered by men - often when they’re walking home, often by a complete stranger.
We also all know that sexual harassment exists on the same spectrum as sexual assault. There are often warning signs with rapists, whether that be nicknames they’re given by friends because of how they treat women, or previous instances of lewd remarks or “jokes” about assault.
It’s difficult not to think of Zara Aleena, who was murdered in June 2022 whilst walking home from a pub. Jordan McSweeney, the man who sexually assaulted then killed the 35-year-old aspiring lawyer, was caught on CCTV harassing several other women in the hour before he, in the words of prosecutor Oliver Glasgow KC, “tragically fixated on Zara”.
No one reported him to the police while he was catcalling, following, and harassing other women on the street. It wasn’t until it was too late that anyone realised how dangerous he was.
So even if it’s ‘just’ sexual harassment at this point, when it happens, you’re wondering what type of man is standing in front of you - and how far he’s willing to go. Because here’s the thing: women can’t tell which men to fear and which men not to just by looking at them.
Fortunately, the government is doing something about this. In March, MPs approved plans to make street sexual harassment an official crime, with offenders receiving a jail sentence of up to two years. This means catcalling, following someone, or blocking their path will become an offence across England and Wales.
Of course, this offence will be hard to prosecute - and many catcallers will think they can still get away with it. What we need then is societal change, especially so young girls walking the streets in their school uniform aren’t targeted the way they are now.
So please. It’s 2023. Let’s finally leave catcalling in the past - even if it shouldn’t have existed there in the first place.