Deep dive / by Conor D'Andrade
Despite decades of progress pushing for parity between women's and men's rights, catcalling remains an unwelcome – and all too common –occurrence for women. In the first of 3 articles on the issue, Conor D'Andrade examines the impact of street harassment and investigates its underlying intentions.
Catcalling is a form of street harassment that often consists of unwanted sexualised comments, provocative gestures, and car honking. Although these acts are often dismissed, trivialised and normalised, they cause significant distress to their victims, the vast majority of whom are women. The negative impacts this behaviour has on its victims is why it is a behaviour worth studying, understanding, and stopping.
An all-too regular occurrence
Unfortunately, catcalling is extremely common. Conservative estimates suggest the number of victims is at least 30% of the female population, with others suggesting that 85%-100% of women will experience it at least once in their lifetime. This, combined with the fact that many victims of catcalling are adolescent girls, reveals the gravity of the situation at hand.
Victims of street harassment often report a physical response, such as increased muscle tension, difficulty breathing, numbness, dizziness, nausea, trembling, and a raised heart rate – all symptoms similar to a panic attack. Emotional distress is also common, resulting in victims feeling anger, frustration, humiliation, confusion and fear, while their efforts to mask these feelings tend to result in further distress and feelings of disempowerment. These feelings can even trigger psychological trauma, anxiety or depression.
The distress victims experience is not the only issue catcalling presents to women. Because catcalls degrade and sexualise their victims, they cause increased self-objectification, body-image self-consciousness, and negative self-evaluations. In a world with rising rates of eating disorders and depression, these effects are very worrying.
A huge amount of the distress associated with catcalling likely comes from the knowledge that this behaviour may escalate into something more dangerous. The fear of violence from men even leads to women avoiding specific geographical areas, restricting their movement and opportunities.
Unfortunately, this fear is completely justified. There are many examples of rebuffed street harassers becoming aggressive and violent with tragic outcomes. One example is that of Sakia Gunn. A 15-year-old African-American lesbian who lived in Newark, New Jersey, Sakia was murdered after rebuffing the advances of two men on her way home with friends.
Clearly there are instances where women being catcalled are potentially in a life-or-death situation, where their safety depends on whether their response to the harassment is satisfactory to the harasser. Considering the serious impacts for many recipients of catcalling, we would expect this to be a behaviour that a minority of people engage in. Unfortunately though, this is not the case.
Examining the roots of catcalling
Although most research has focused on the number of victims of catcalling, new data has been published that examines, for the first time, how common it is for men to engage in street harassment. The study found, in a sample of 258 heterosexual men, 33% had engaged in catcalling in the last year.
Considering that only a small minority of women report enjoying receiving catcalls, do these men actually think this behaviour will result in a positive interaction between themselves and their victims? Surprisingly, yes.
The same study found that most men that catcalled wanted a ‘friendly’ reaction from the person it was directed at, with 85% hoping the recipient would smile in response, 81% hoping they would flirt, and 78% hoping it would initiate a conversation. Not only did these men want their catcall to facilitate a positive interaction with the victim, but 73% hoped the recipient would be flattered by the catcall, and 62% hoped the recipient would admire their confidence.
It seems then that most men who engage in catcalling do so with good intentions, hoping to initiate an interaction or increase their desirability to the victim. But it isn’t quite that simple.
The study also found that these men scored much higher on tests of sexist attitudes and misogyny, suggesting that, although seemingly well-intended, this behaviour is still routed in sexist beliefs.
What, then, are the beliefs that these men hold that foster their sexist attitudes?
Well, to define them broadly, it seems they can be categorised as ‘traditional values.’
According to research into the area, street harassment from men is commonly linked to high levels of conservatism which tend to support traditional gender roles of women raising children, and men being dominant breadwinners. These values tie a woman’s worth to their ability to reproduce and suggests they are subservient, not only justifying a man’s right to express their attraction to a woman – even if it is unwanted by the recipient – but going as far as to suggest the recipient should be grateful for the approval.
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It isn’t just individual beliefs that drive this behaviour though. Peer pressure and group behaviour are also major influences.
One study reports that men attending university are more likely to catcall when in a group, due to the influence of other members and the anonymity provided by being in a group (meaning a lower chance of being accused). There also seems to be an opportunity provided to bond with their peers. This supported previous findings that the majority of men who took part in catcalling did so to relieve boredom and facilitate camaraderie with other men – worryingly suggesting that men who engage in this form of harassment both enjoy it and bond over it.
A blindness to sexism
It seems then that we have men engaging in a behaviour that they aren't recognising as being routed in misogyny and sexism. So what’s causing their supposed ignorance?
As simple as it sounds, one reason seems to be that a lot of men struggle to spot sexism.
In one study, men and women were instructed to complete daily diary entries detailing the events they experienced where women were treated differently to men due to their gender. Men reported significantly less incidents of sexism than the women.
A different study had similar findings. Here, men and women were instructed to rate the extent that derogatory statements about women (such as claiming men are smarter than women) were prejudiced. Although these statements were overtly discriminatory against women, men were much less likely to label them as sexist.
Men are also very likely to struggle to consider something sexist when it manifests subtly. One study presented men and women with a list of common sexist behaviours made up of traditional blatant acts of sexism – such as statements that women are worse at certain tasks than men – and subtler acts of sexism – such as men feeling the need to be protective of women. Participants were instructed to track observations of these behaviours in a diary.
Despite men recording as many observations in their diaries as women, they were significantly less likely to label them as sexist, particularly when the sexist act could be seen as caring or compassionate. This is particularly relevant to men that engage in catcalling, as many see the ‘compliments’ they are giving as generous and so struggle to recognise the behaviour as sexist.
These findings suggest that men that catcall don’t necessarily believe sexism is okay, but rather that they fail to recognise their behaviour as sexist. Of course, this isn’t to say that most men’s inability to recognise sexism is justified. On the contrary, it highlights that this is an issue in desperate need to be addressed.
What can be done?
In the next instalment of this series, Conor D'Andrade looks at what exactly can be done to tackle the issue of catcalling and street harassment, from legal instruments through to improvements in education.