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Catcalling is not a compliment — it’s harassment

in The Feminist Agenda by

In 2000, researchers published a study suggesting that 80 per cent of Canadian women have been harassed by a stranger. They also found that harassment from strangers makes women feel unsafe in public. (Whoa, shocking.)

Catcalling, or ‘street harassment,’ ranges from fairly tame comments such as “hey girl,” to extremely vulgar comments such as “hey, do you like anal?” (The second example comes from a real life George Street dude who shouted that exact phrase at my roommate a few weekends ago.) Whether they are relatively tame, or extremely vulgar, all catcalling is wrong.

Catcalling is dehumanizing because the catcaller sees the woman as just a body, instead of a complete human being who may feel uncomfortable or upset by having random strangers yell sexual comments at her.

Catcalling objectifies women. Similar to dehumanizing, objectifying someone means treating them as just a physical object. An object, a lampshade for example, will never be offended or upset because you yelled something vulgar at it. That’s why women have human rights and lampshades do not. Women are humans, lampshades are objects.

Catcalling perpetuates rape culture and gender violence. Because catcalling objectifies and dehumanizes women, it helps keep alive the idea that women exist for the sexual pleasure of men.

(And if you’re worried that I’m just a shrill, militant, overly-sensitive feminist, then maybe you’ll be more open to Playboy’s handy guide to catcalling.)

Clearly wrong, but not clearly defined

In researching for this piece I spoke to the N.L. Human Rights Commission, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, the N.L. Crown Attorney’s office, and a local private lawyer who specializes in sexual assault cases. Long story short: catcalling is not clearly covered by our current laws.

There are laws and acts to protect people from harassment and discrimination in workplaces, institutions (i.e. a hospital or school), or places that offer a service (i.e. a city bus). But public spaces such as parks, roads, sidewalks, and George Street do not fit neatly into any of these categories. Also, legal charges must be laid against an individual or a defined institution (i.e. a company or organization) and criminal harassment doesn’t apply unless the individual/institution harasses more than once. This means that while a woman on George Street might be hollered at by 10 different men on a Friday night, our legal system doesn’t have a clear or established mechanism for correcting the situation.

On the other hand, if we thought about all the catcallers in St. John’s alone as one individual person, we’d have a very strong case for criminal harassment. But since the sleazy comments and profane language are distributed across so many people (men), catcalling is a big, loud idiot that lives above the law.

There’s no piece of legislation for dealing with catcalling directly, but the legal tools do exist. We just need lawyers to get creative. Perhaps we could think about catcalling in terms of causing a disturbance? Or what about arguing that since city streets and parks are managed by identifiable organizations (i.e. the City of St. John’s), these organizations are responsible for maintaining a safe atmosphere free of harassment and discrimination?

In the absence of a clear legal strategy for dealing with catcalling (or as a complement to it), I’ve created these anti-catcalling cards. Download and print the cards and hand them out to catcallers if/when you are comfortable doing so.

And don’t forget to smile, baby.

(Note: More on catcalling and street harassment at www.ihollaback.org and www.stopstreetharassment.org.)

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