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Catcalling Isn’t — and Never Was — Harmless

In late November, Ruth George, a 19 year old student at the University of Illinois at Chicago was brutally murdered by a stranger as she walked to her car in a parking garage. Her killer had called out to her — catcalling her — and was angry that she had ignored him and continued on to her vehicle. He chased her down, sexually assaulting and choking her before leaving her for dead. When Ruth was discovered by her friends, family and police the next morning, it was too late.

This story is tragic, yet it is far from the only time that women have been killed or beaten by men who harassed them on the street. In addition to the murder of Ruth George, three other women in recent years have been murdered for rejecting men who publicly harassed them:

  • Janese Talton-Jackson was killed in Pittsburgh after she turned down a man who was harassing her in a bar.

  • Tiarah Poyau was killed in Brooklyn during the J’ouvert Festival when she asked a harasser to stop dancing with her.

  • After Mary Spears refused to give a man in Detroit her number when she was leaving the funeral of a family friend, he shot and killed her.

Catcalling may seem like a minor issue, particularly when compared to domestic violence and sexual assault. But it exists on the broader spectrum of violence against women, and is part of an overall pattern of aggressive and abusive behavior based on the sexual objectification of women. A recent study shows that the sexual objectification of women is directly related to a greater propensity to commit sexual violence, including rape. It is one of the four root causes of domestic and sexual violence in our society:

  • Objectification and degradation of women in our media

  • Rape culture

  • Harmful gender norms

  • Inequality

Catcalling is about treating women like objects. A man sees a woman, and yells out sexually suggestive remarks to her. The purpose is not to get the woman (or girl) to stop and talk to them. It is to exercise power over the woman, or to shame and degrade her.

Catcalling is not flirting, or a way to show appreciation or admiration for a woman. There is a way to compliment another person — and it is not by shouting lewd remarks at them as they walk down the street. Flirting assumes equality and has an element of playfulness, while catcalling or harassment is intended to demean and dominate the other person. Flirting most often happens one-on-one, while catcalling often involves a group of men and a single woman.

Too often, street harassment leads to violence because at its core, it involves a fundamental belief that men are entitled to women. When a woman rejects a man who catcalls her, either by ignoring him or by telling him no, he may react with violence.

All types of sexual violence are unacceptable, from sexual harassment to catcalling to rape. By addressing the seemingly minor forms of sexual violence — and the root causes of those violence, like the objectification of women — we can have a significant impact on the prevalence of gender-based violence in our society.

So what can you do? Speak up. If you hear someone harass another person, say something! Whether they are catcalling a woman in real life or online, you can make a difference simply by speaking out (safely). You can also make a difference by more thoughtfully consuming media. If we don’t buy products or consume media that objectifies women, we can sway advertisers and media companies to change the way that they operate. These are the small — but important — ways that each of us can play a role in changing our culture.

Learn More:

Sexual Harassment


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