‘Hawn, sex!’ – Why cat-calling is sexual harassment, not a compliment

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wolfwhistle

 

Where I’m from, cat-calling is so common, it is almost seen as a national stereotype. Woman walks down the street; man rolls down car window and makes a noise to, presumably, show his appreciation, usually accompanied by some hastily and loudly uttered proposition.

So common an occurrence is it, that some people joke about it and don’t give it much of a second thought. But is it really harmless? What is it like to know that every single time you walk down the street, or into a pub, or onto a bus, or into a restaurant or even, vows a friend of mine, into church (!), you are likely to be subjected to a cat-call? Every day, from the time you start to look like a woman, and simply because you look like a woman.

As of October 1, 2005, the EHRC defines sexual harassment as:

Unwanted conduct on the grounds of your sex

You must be able to show that the treatment is because you are a woman (or a man). […] The conduct must be done with the purpose of, or have the effect of, violating your dignity, or of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for you.

Unwanted physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature

If the conduct is of a sexual nature, this is unlawful in itself and you do not have to compare yourself to how somebody of the opposite sex would be treated. This could include: Comments about the way you look which you find demeaning; Indecent remarks; Questions about your sex life; Sexual demands by a member of your own or the opposite sex.

By definition, then somebody sticking their head out of a window and yelling something like “Heyyy sexy” at a passer-by IS sexual harassment.

I asked some female friends of mine how they felt about being cat-called. Some dismissed it as “entertaining”; another said “It would be entertaining if I had a taser-gun. I consider it harassment”; another replied “Entertaining in a sarcastic way. I feel sorry for the filthy bastard who thinks I’d even consider complying with a request like that.”

Even wolf-whistles add up if they’re received on a daily basis, but there are degrees of harassment and cat-calling. I have been on the receiving end of a variety of propositions and exclamations. From the ubiquitous “hawn sex”, to the more offensive “Hey zejza” (Hello, breast), to the appalling “What colour is your pubic hair?” – the latter shouted at me by a man as I was getting on a bus. By far the worst incident I encountered was (again, on a bus), where a man behind me made ‘kissing’ noises at me. When I looked back, I saw he was very obviously masturbating. He made a lewd gesture at me with his mouth and winked. I was 16 and petrified of what could happen next. I ran off the bus at the very next stop.

Still something to be taken lightly?

In a way, it’s unfair to compare a whistle to a masturbatory display, certainly, but my question is: WHY should women HAVE to be subjected to such behaviour? And WHY should they be advised to dismiss it?

It reminds me of that scene from an old Red Riding Hood cartoon, where a wolf goes crazy in a nightclub, howling at a sexy girl on stage. Of course, in a strip club (although there are rules, and although I won’t get into how I feel about strip clubs), it is expected that patrons will objectify the women there – it’s what they’re paying for. However, there are some men (and please don’t misquote me on this – I know LOTS of men who are decent and who would never dream of humiliating a woman) who didn’t get the memo:

The world is not your strip club. 

Last May, CNN posted an investigative video wherein they had a male actor made up to look like a woman and sent out onto the streets of Egypt. The results speak for themselves.

Within minutes it starts: stares, sexual advances, offers of money for sex…

It’s not just Egypt and Malta. My South American friend spoke to me the other night about how uncomfortable she felt when a police officer made a comment about her legs as she walked home. In London, I have had men making thrusting motions in my direction on the street. In Rome, another friend had her bottom groped in public. As for sexual harassment in India, my good friend Hannah has written an excellent post on her experiences, which you can read here.

What do they expect us to do? Drop everything and run into their arms? Feel flattered that we’re receiving male attention and have thus taken the next step to achieving our biological function? I’m not sure, but the fact remains: it is humiliating, it makes us cringe, it makes us feel dirty.

So am I saying women don’t want to be noticed by men? Don’t be silly. We just don’t want to be humiliated. There’s something lovely about a man approaching you in a cafe or a bar and politely and privately asking what your name is. There is something wonderful about the slightly awkward interaction that ensues when both parties are interested. Men: ask women their name. Ask what she’s reading. Ask what she does. Ask what she thinks about the coffee where you are. If she seems interested, tell her you’d love to get to know her. There may be time for sex later, but do we really have to make it the premise of every single interaction? More importantly, give the woman the freedom to say no, hopefully politely. She has every right not to be interested, at which point you should leave.

Even if she’s really pretty.

Even if she’s wearing something really skimpy.

That’s right.

And I’m sure men aren’t the only ones guilty of cat-calling, although I’ve never personally encountered it from a woman. I’d be interested to hear if you have.

It’s a long discussion but in the end, it boils down to human decency. The next time you’re tempted to yell your “appreciation” at somebody who catches your attention, try a different tactic and offer a friendly smile instead. You may be surprised at the result.

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