Your catcalls aren’t compliments, they’re harassment

Your catcalls aren’t compliments, they’re harassment

Why street harassment is a human rights issue

The term “catcalling” is a misnomer. It is not catcalling; it is street harassment. Street harassment is often sexual in nature and is a form of gender violence and a human rights violation.

The act of street harassment is not unique to women; it can be directed at someone’s sexuality, gender expression, race, religion, and more.

Women and members of the LGBTQ+ community do, however, report the greatest frequency of harassment. According to a 2014 study, 80 per cent of Canadian women polled reported experiencing street harassment. Some women reported experiencing sexual harassment at as young as ten years old.

Of the women polled, 45 per cent reported feeling unsafe walking at night compared to 27 per cent of men. Women report having to plan their routes home well ahead of time, will often carry some form of self-defence apparatus, and have various strategies and plans to avoid danger (such as calling a friend, having an alarm, or using an app to alert contacts of danger).

Harassing women is not a compliment, it is an exercise of control and power over another person and is often a result of societal discrimination.

While blanket statements are usually dangerous, it can be said confidently that most people do not enjoy being catcalled and wish it would stop.

Street harassment can make the recipient feel objectified, embarrassed, and even threatened. Being street harassed is not a compliment, it isn’t wanted, and it is entirely inappropriate.

Everyone, regardless of what they look like or who they are, deserves the simple dignity of being able to walk down the street without a running commentary. The fact that most of the time that commentary is overtly sexual and coming from a stranger who is larger than you can make for a pretty uncomfortable, if not scary, scenario.

Street harassment is a human rights issue because it limits an individual’s ability to operate in public space.  

While men and other members of a privileged group can also be harassed these instances cannot be held as equal due to the power imbalance presupposed by binaries, by the frequency of those events, and the underlying threat of rape when men harass women or other minorities.

Furthermore, in the case of sex-based harassment, many men believe catcalling to be complimentary. Women (while generalizing in cases such as these is problematic, for the sake of brevity, we will assume the majority of victims to be female-identifying) are assumed to be stuck up, lying, or playing hard to get if they claim to dislike being harassed.

There is an element of victim-blaming in cases of street harassment. When an individual comes forward with an experience of street harassment, often the reply is something along the lines of “You shouldn’t have dressed that way” or “What did you expect, looking like that?”

The act of catcalling reinforces the idea that a woman’s worth is based on her looks.

Those who catcall are reducing a woman down to her skirt or her body rather than the complete tumult of who she is as a person.

Everyone, especially members of marginalized groups, deserves to walk down the street without comment from others, whether “well-intentioned” or not.

Photo by Alora Griffiths/The Ontarion.


  • Sue Fitzgerald September 1, 2017 1:19 pm

    I read this article about catcalls and was so turned off that I couldn’t finish reading it. Who still refers to someone who does something unpleasant as a “douchebag”? Why is it still acceptable to label a person with the same term as an item that is used to clean a vagina and therefore makes a direct connection between a “dirty” vagina that needs to be cleaned and a bad person? The term “douchebag” is derogatory and no longer belongs in our awareness heightened society. I am extremely disappointed in both the writer/photo credit and the people responsible for publication. Clean up your act!

    • Mirali Almaula September 6, 2017 11:47 am

      Hi Sue,
      The term douchebag is used frequently by students who are in our target demographic. In that context it means “an obnoxious or contemptible person (typically used of a man)” – a definition taken from Google. We also interpret the more historical definition of the term to mean a device that was unnecessarily forced on women by men — we see a similarity between this device and catcalling. We see the connection between the device and a bad person and not between a vagina and a bad person. We are sorry that you were put off from reading the whole article as we believe it is an accessible piece on power relations in a patriarchal society.

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