Catcalling, wolfwhistling, and sexual harassment

The day my first article in “Girl Talk” was published in this newspaper was also the first day I was ever catcalled in my entire life.

I was alone at the Port Authority bus station in NYC, trying to go home for the weekend. I was in line to pick up a snack from a booth when a stranger who was well over six feet tall cut the line to stand uncomfortably close to me. I still remember it clearly: he came up behind me, looked me up and down, whistled softly, and then leaned down and crooned close to my ear “How’s it going, sweet thing?”

Prior to the incident, I had imagined being catcalled at before. I had tried to imagine myself reacting: I’d turn around and tell the man off, call him out for the scumbag he was.

But the reality of it, when it finally happened, was so very different. Although my friends later joked that I really should have told him off, in the moment, I was too stunned to react. My mouth went dry, and I said nothing. I was horrified, humiliated, and terrified all at once. Not to mention, as a girl who clocks in at 5′ 2″, my odds against a man who was well over six foot tall weren’t all that hot.

Instead, I silently slipped out of line and forced myself to ignore his catcalls behind me, to forget that leering look on his face. The man wasn’t even worth my time, I figured, and I could get food somewhere else.

But the incident shook me, and unfortunately, it became one of a few other incidents. The worst incident, I remember, was when I was texting a friend of mine. We were discussing catcalling and other forms of sexual harassment when mid-conversation, she got wolf-whistled at by another man. Of course. Get harrassed by a stranger while discussing harassment by strangers. The irony here was too real to handle.

What’s my point here? My point here is to draw attention to how real and how frequent this phenomenon is. Catcalling is of course, in many ways, a dehumanizing process. When a girl is catcalled, she’s not seen as a person who may have thoughts and emotions, but as a set of body parts that caught someone’s eye. It’s a stranger saying that they are entitled to your body or your attention or both, and it’s truly terrifying. I’ve yet to meet a guy who was catcalled, but for girls, we’ve all either had it done to us or known someone who’s been harassed in some way by a stranger. And of course, catcalling is just one of several kinds of sexual harassment forms around.

Girls have been told for ages to change their behavior to avoid sexual harassment and although there’s no harm in taking precautions, there isn’t necessarily any real evidence that it makes much of a difference. Changing the way you dress is hard, inconvenient, and not particularly helpful. The day I was catcalled, I was covered from head to toe in all black, not a sliver of skin showing anywhere. The time you go out is not a guarantee of safety either. For myself, it was four in the afternoon, and the day I went out, I wasn’t exactly alone. In fact, I was in a crowded, public area.

When it happens, no tips can really help. I can only caution girls to be careful, to be safe, and to use their wits. Nothing — and I do mean nothing — we have ever been taught really matters.

Why girls have been taught how not to get harassed while boys have never been taught not to harass, is beyond me. However, this requires a cultural change, or rather, a change in mindset. Even though I know this will take time, I believe that the burden of fixing the problem of catcalling is on the people who watch silently. Bystanders need to say something when they see sexual harassment happening. I met eyes with a few people that day in the bus station. They just looked away in shame or pretended like they hadn’t seen what happened.Like me, I guess they didn’t want to start problems. But what they didn’t realize is that, in that moment, they had essentially sided with the man who had whispered in my ear. They’d made what he’d done perfectly OK. I remember his eyes watching mine, as I searched for someone in the crowd to say something, anything.

Like me, I guess they didn’t want to start problems. But what they didn’t realize is that, in that moment, they had essentially sided with the man who had whispered in my ear. They’d made what he’d done perfectly okay. I remember his eyes watching mine, as I searched for someone in the crowd to say something — anything. In that moment, I had never felt so alone before, and I never want anyone to go through that again.

Finally, and I cannot stress this enough — if you know who it is, report it. Title IX is there for a reason. If you recognize a face, be it staff, student, or someone else, don’t be afraid to report what has happened, whatever it may be. The momentary embarrassment may save you, or someone else, from a lifetime of regret later.

About the Author

Namankita Rana

Passionate about technology, women’s issues, art, fashion, and global politics. Though maybe not in that exact order.