In Depth Society, 29/09/2020

Stop Street Harassment!

Gender issues in general and gender-based violence in particular take many different forms. The movement called “Stop Street Harassment,” which took shape in combatting catcalling is gaining more and more strength.

What is harassment?

Equality and Human Rights Commission states that harassment is unwanted behavior that you find offensive.

Unwanted behavior could include:

– spoken or written abuse;

– offensive emails;

– tweets or comments on websites and social media;

– images and graffiti;

– physical gestures;

– facial expressions;

– banter that is offensive to you.

The unwanted behavior must have the purpose or effect of violating one’s dignity or creating a degrading, humiliating, hostile, intimidating or offensive environment for a person.

Street harassment

Stop Street Harassment site gives the following definition of this issue: “Gender-based street harassment is unwanted comments, gestures and actions forced on a stranger in a public place without their consent and is directed at them because of their actual or perceived sex, gender, gender expression or sexual orientation”.

Street harassment includes unwanted whistling, leering, sexist, homophobic or transphobic slurs, persistent requests for someone’s name, number or destination after they’ve said no, sexual names, comments and demands, following, flashing, public masturbation, groping, sexual assault, and rape.

Catcalling is one of the street harassments’ form.

Definition of catcalling

According to the Oxford dictionary, catcalling is a loud whistle or a comment of a sexual nature made by a man to a passing woman. It’s originated in the mid-17th century from cat+ call, initially denoting a kind of whistle or squeaking instrument used to express disapproval at a theatre.

Types of catcalling

Lindsay Hamilton in her “The History of Catcalling: Meaning, Motivation, And Intentions” article states that “there are different types of catcalling, but the two most common forms are wolf-whistling (a two-note whistle containing an initial high note, followed by a low note) and shout compliments. Catcalling can be done up close, when two people are sharing a small space, but is more often done when there is the distance between people, such as when a woman is walking by a man or group of men, or as someone drives by.

Catcalling emergence

According to Lindsay Hamilton, there are some theories as to where the practice began to gain traction. Most attribute the popularity of catcalling to the work of Tex Avery, a man known for his groundbreaking cartoons. The most prominent origin of catcalling in media (and, consequently, in American culture) is a piece created by Avery, in which a wolf emphatically whistles and drools over a performing woman. “The wolf first appears in Avery’s 1937 cartoon, Little Red Walking Hood, in which he-wolf whistles at the fairytale character and then chases her around town.”

As these cartoons gained in popularity, the advent of catcalling continued to gain traction. Young men and adults alike began to adopt the practice. For some, catcalling was seen as an innocent diversion and expression of attraction, while for others, catcalling had far more horrifying consequences.

Catcalling’s history is far from innocent, and despite the persistent suggestion that a wolf-whistle or shouted comment about a woman’s body is actually a compliment that should be taken and accepted graciously, plenty of women had historical precedent for being less-than-pleased with having a man shout at her, comment on her body outside of a relationship, or employ a whistle originally designed to herald the arrival of a wolf among sheep and their shepherds.

The movement against street harassment is gaining strength, having more and more allies around the world. The site states: “Catcalls, sexually explicit comments, sexist remarks, homophobic slurs, groping, leering, stalking, flashing and assault. Most women and some men will face gender-based street harassment by strangers in their life. Street harassment limits people’s mobility and access to public spaces. It is a form of gender violence and it’s a human rights violation.”

It needs to stop!

How is this issue spread worldwide?

According to international surveys:

Brazil – 99.6 percent people said they had been harassed;

Chile – 90 percent of women reported having been harassed at least once in their lives;

Croatia – 99 percent of women experienced some forms of street harassment in their lifetime;

Egypt – 99.3 percent of women have experienced various forms of sexual harassment;

France – 100 percent of more than 600 women surveyed across the country had faced sexual harassment on the transit system;

Tel Aviv, Israel – 83 percent of women in Tel Aviv reported experiencing street harassment;

The Netherlands – 59 percent of people had experienced some forms of harassment on the street;

The USA – in June 2014, SSH commissioned a 2,000-person national survey in the USA with surveying firm GfK. The survey found that 65 percent of all women had experienced street harassment. Among all women, 23 percent had been sexually touched, 20 percent had been followed, and 9 percent had been forced to do something sexual. Among men, 25 percent had been street harassed (a higher percentage of LGBT-identified men than heterosexual men reported this) and their most common form of harassment was homophobic or transphobic slurs (9 percent).

Worldwide statistics of street harassment

Stop Street Harassment website informs that YouGov conducted the largest study about harassment on public transportation to date in 2014. They polled people in 16 major cities worldwide and then ranked the transit systems from the safest (New York City, the USA) to least safe (Bogota, Colombia). As far as experiences of verbal harassment go, the top five worst cities were Mexico City (Mexico), Delhi (India), Bogota (Colombia), Lima (Peru), and Jakarta (Indonesia), while the top five worst cities for physical harassment were Mexico City, Bogota, Lima, Tokyo (Japan), and Delhi.

In 2016, ActionAid conducted a survey on street harassment in a number of countries. They found that 79 percent of women living in cities in India, 86 percent in Thailand and 89 percent in Brazil have been subjected to harassment or violence in public, as had 75 percent of women in London, UK.

How is street harassment prevented worldwide?

The Guardian informs that since 2016, Nottinghamshire police in England classifies street harassment as a hate crime because it is “behavior targeted towards a woman by men simply because they are a woman.” Two years later, France passed a law banning street harassment. More than 400 citations were issued under the law in its first nine months. “With this law, France has become the first country in the world to punish harassment in the streets with fines.” The law allows for on-the-spot fines of between €90 and €750, a measure designed to avoid victims having to go through a lengthy, formal complaints process.

Anyway, according to “Global Study: Authorities not Acting on Street harassment,” a major worldwide study has revealed fewer than one in 10 incidents in five cities are reported to police, and when they are, less than one-third of cases were acted upon.

Plan International and Monash University in Australia used crowd mapping technology to allow girls and women in five major cities to anonymously record incidents of street harassment, from catcalling to stalking, threatening behavior and physical and sexual assault, via its Safer Cities Free to Be project.

In 2018, young women and girls dropped 14,500 pins on maps denoting incidents or “bad” places in Sydney, Madrid, Lima, Kampala and Delhi. Of those incidents, 1,270 were reported to authorities, but of those, 67 percent (852) reports were not acted upon.

When researchers looked at entries with a specific comment detailing the incident, only 124 of the 733 (or 16 percent) of incidents reported to authorities were acted upon.

 What campaigns have been held against street catcalling?

Since people, mostly women, worldwide endure catcalling on the streets of the world’s cities every day, “women around the world are fighting back. They’re documenting actual catcalls they’ve received by writing them in chalk on streets and sidewalks from Boston to Barcelona, then posting them to Instagram,” reports CNN.

What began in 2016 with a single account, Catcalls of NYC has become an international movement against street harassment. There are now more than 70 related Instagram accounts around the world where people share photos of pavements, they’ve chalked with the words they’ve had to endure.

“All of the catcalls I post are submissions that have been made to real people in public spaces, most of the time the street, occasionally on public transportation such as buses and trains,” said Farah Benis, the founder of Catcalls of London.

Organizers of the movement hope the messages — many of them startlingly crude — call attention to a global problem.

Since September 2020, Ukraine has joined the worldwide action. Volunteers of Catcalls_of_Ukraine civic initiative are documenting actual catcalls quotes from the girls’ stories about harassment and catcalling which they experienced by writing them in chalk on streets and sidewalks.

“We are a public initiative that fights harassment and catcalling through street art. Our weapon is chalk. We write on the street words of the offenders-catcallers or touching quotes from the girls who experienced harassment. We followed this format from @catcallsofnyc, activists who started the chalk movement in New York and spread it in more than 150 cities around the world. We are turning the streets into platforms for discussion. That sexual harassment ceases to be the silent norm. We currently have volunteers in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Zaporizhia and Odesa,” inform the activists.

By creating the initiative, the activists began highlighting such a form of street harassment as catcalling that had hardly ever been noticed before.

Kharkiv Observer correspondent talked to Kateryna Sapsai and Christina Rupp, creators of a project in a comic form called “Ne Movchy” (Don’t Be Silent) which comprises various gender issues including catcalling.

Kharkiv Observer: Can you tell our readers a little about yourself?

Kateryna Sapsai: I’m 24. I was born in Kharkiv region and currently live in Kyiv. I work as an interpreter at the Canadian Police Mission of Ukraine. Together with my Canadian colleagues we go around Ukraine and hold courses for Ukrainian police officers.

Kateryna Sapsai

Christina Rupp: I’m 23. I’m a Kyiv resident. Together with Kateryna, I studied Law at the Ukrainian State University of Finance and International Trade. I currently work as a lawyer.

Christina Rupp

Kh.O. When and why did you take interest in gender issues?

K.S.: Since we have started delivering courses on domestic violence, I was involved in gender problems. Thanks to the theory I learned with my Canadian colleagues, I realized that I experienced all features of domestic violence myself and I ended my relationship about two years ago.

C.R.: There wasn’t a certain point when I realized there is a problem of gender equalities and rights of two seemly equal biological organisms that in fact are not being equal. I experienced a toxic relationship and thanks to information I heard from Kateryna I managed to get out of the situation. I realized it wasn’t something wrong with me. It often happens that a person who experiences domestic violence blames him-/herself in that situation due to a lack of awareness on this issue.

Kh.O.: When was the “Ne Movchy” project created? Who are its founders? Who funds it?

K.S.: We have prepared it for over a year. Due to our bad experience in relationships, we had knowledge and skills on how to get rid of them and a great desire to transfer information to other people. We published the first post on Instagram on July 14, 2020, so we can consider it as a starting point of our project. Because of the symbol limitations in Instagram posts, we decided to create a Facebook page as well.  Christina and I are the project’s founders. She draws comics and I write posts. I can say we’re on the same wavelength. No one funds our project and we work on it on a volunteer basis.

C.R.: Since we had an idea to create a comic project, we have reworked it many times. Our first sketches were too violent as we broke up with our partners at that very time. Now we have calmed down, we are ready to speak about the problem rationally. Firstly, we wanted to cover only the domestic violence problems but now we understand we should raise gender, race, LGBT and other issues. In my opinion, all these problems are closely related.

Kh.O.: Christina, do you collaborate with other organizations?

C.R.: Currently we don’t but in the future, we would like to collaborate with NGOs which can provide physical, psychological and financial support to people who ask for help.

KC.O.: What are your plans for the future?

K.S.: We want to become mediators who refer people suffering from various sorts of violence to specialists in order to provide them with professional support.

C.R.: Our main goal is to become an educational project.

Kh.O.: Which of your posts got the most feedback?

C.R.: It was our post about catcalling. It has been commented on the most. Women shared their stories on this issue.

Kh.O.: Why has little attention been given to the catcalling problem in Ukraine?

K.S.: There is lots of information on this problem in foreign media but we can’t give a direct translation of this word into Ukrainian. When we created a poll about catcalling on Instagram most people didn’t know what it is. This term derives from “kity-kity” or whistle sound when a person calls a cat and it’s hard to translate this sound, you know.

C.R.: It happens because catcalling is considered normal here. Abusers even believe it’s a compliment. There are vague notions of personal space, our people are too open both in a good and bad way, the level of empathy and understanding is very low here. An abuser doesn’t put him or herself into the place of an abused person. I consider that’s the reason for it.

Kh.O.: In your opinion, is catcalling not only a verbal but also physical harassment?

C.R.: I think catcalling is both verbal and non-verbal types of sexual abuse which aren’t qualified as either a criminal act or administrative offense but it is unacceptable.

K.S.: I believe it should be considered as both verbal and physical harassment.

Kh.O.: How to draw the line between catcalling and a compliment?

K.S.: According to the dictionary, a compliment is nice or kind words, praise or flattery. In my opinion, the main difference between compliment and catcalling is the thing which aims these words. Compliment’s goal is making a person feel nice but catcalling aims at pleasing the abuser.

C.R.: The main difference is that catcalling is always about the domination of one person over another while compliment is always about equality. A compliment is always mutually pleasant and doesn’t have a sexual undertone. Catcalling is inappropriate words and gestures and compliment is pleasant for both people who tell and receive it.

Kh.O: How does catcalling influence men and women?

K.S.: It’s all about gender stereotypes. There is a perception in society that men are considered “true men” if they express such behavior, it’s cool and it’s praised by society. It’s not a problem of men and women but society as a whole. When men experience catcalling it influences them differently. A woman doesn’t feel safe when she faces catcalling as she never knows what happens at the end. Typically a man is stronger than a woman and catcalling could lead to physical violence against a woman. But when a man experiences unwanted attention, he isn’t afraid it could end up with rape or other forms of physical abuse. So, if a man faces catcalling, he could feel discomfort but hardly fear. I believe that’s the main difference.

C.R.: I consider that men suffer from catcalling more than women. If it’s “acceptable” by stereotypes that a woman experiences violence, for men it’s absolutely taboo as it’s considered by the society that it humiliates a man. So, when he admits that a woman expresses unwanted attention towards him, he belittles himself. That’s why we will hardly find statistics of men who experienced catcalling.

Kh.O.: Why are men most likely to be subjected to catcalling?

C.R.: There is still a patriarchal upbringing in our society where a man is considered to dominate while a woman is a somewhat low priority. That’s why man’s instincts are justified and in my opinion, that’s not right.

K.S.: I think catcalling is caused by gender stereotypes like masculinity, “to be a real man” which are formed by society.

Kh.O.: At what age do women most often experience catcalling?

C.R.: According to my research, 85 percent of women up to 17 faces this problem. I consider it happens because abusers think a person at this age won’t fight back neither verbally nor physically. Such a bad experience has a permanent effect on their thinking about men in general. As a result, it could cause serious psychological damage in the future.

Kh.O.: Do women’s clothes affect the incidence of catcalling?

C.R: I believe this issue depends on the country. I would like to mention “What Were You Wearing?” exhibitions conducted by Kansas and Oregon universities where they displayed types of women’s clothes that they wore when they suffered violence. And it doesn’t meet the “it’s your fault” criteria meaning she may have dressed provocatively. Analyzing all victims of violence clothes, it could be concluded that they weren’t dressed “provocatively” and they wouldn’t have been assaulted according to stereotypes. To conclude, a woman can experience street harassment wearing any clothes. So, it’s hard to answer this question with simple “yes” or no.”

K.S.: I would like to mention a video that was recorded in the USA. A woman whose goal was to combat catcalling was wearing a black T-shirt and jeans which doesn’t meet gender stereotypes how a person who experiences catcalling is perceived to look like. The woman was walking around New York all day and she experienced about 100 cases of street harassment. As for me I faced catcalling when I was wearing a warm long winter coat or a long dress carrying a big bag. So, from my experience, I can say clothes don’t cause catcalling behavior.

Kh.O.: What emotions does a person experiencing street harassment feel? Can its consequences affect her future life?

K.S.: It doesn’t depend on the fact whether it’s verbal or physical contact, she feels harsh emotions. Firstly, it’s fear as a woman doesn’t know what may happen next. At this moment in time feeling of inequality remains high. I believe catcalling is disgusting.

C.R.: The main thing a woman shouldn’t feel any fault. She needs to understand that neither her behavior nor her clothes caused the abuse. When it happens at a young age it may influence the future life of the woman. She feels she can tell no one including her parents what happened and lives with it in silence. It often occurs when a woman tells about the harassment she could be blamed for it. The problem is that the person who suffers from harassment doesn’t get any support. Embarrassment is a rather negative experience and it’s hard to live with it.

Kh.O.: What behavioral strategies are recommended to get out of this situation? Does it make sense to react to insults?

K.S.: I consider, the person who suffers from catcalling should assess the situation. If a woman experiences street harassment she should attract the attention of surrounding people. It’s very important to say no to an abuser in a tolerant way but firmly. Anyway, it depends on the situation. It’s crucial to have a real picture of the situation and possible risks. It’s also essential to teach society intolerance towards catcalling.

C.R.: I would like to add concerning the reaction to catcalling: if a person witnesses catcalling, he or she should be involved in this situation, not in a conflicting manner but to try to defuse tensions, for example, to ask how to get somewhere in order to not leave an aggrieved person face to face with an abuser. As an example, I would like to mention the video about catcalling. It suggests how people should react to such situations. For example, an elderly lady who witnesses catcalling towards a young girl leaves her seat and stands between a girl and her abuser in a crowded bus. I believe this video is a bright example of how society should react towards street harassment.

Kh.O.: What should a person who experienced street harassment do to get rid of its negative consequences?

K.S.: An aggrieved person should tell her close ones about such an unpleasant situation. I would like to share my own experience. I graduated from university when I faced catcalling. I posted about it on Facebook to find support. I got responses from my online friends that it was not me who was guilty, it often happens and I’m not alone. Anyway, if street harassment has serious implications for an aggrieved person, he or she should contact specialists to get help.

Kh.O.: Are there any laws against harassment in Ukraine?

K.S.: The law “On Preventing and Combating Domestic Violence” passed in December 2017 came into force in January 2018 and such terms as psychological, sexual and other types of violence are included in it. It’s all about domestic violence but it’s the first step towards combating all sorts of harassments.

Kh.O.: Which article in our legislation refers to catcalling? 

K.S.:  It’s Code of Ukraine on Administrative Violations, Article 173:  Petty hooliganism, like obscene swearing in public places, insulting abuse of citizens and other similar activities that disrupt public order and peace of citizens. But we still don’t have a specific article on that issue.

Kh.O.: What would you like to wish our readers?

K.S.: On my own behalf, I would say don’t be silent, openly manifest about any inequality you experience. For instance, it could be a post on social media. The more society speaks about problems, the more rapidly they will be solved.

C.R.: I would like to add: the more people speak about it the faster problems will be solved. If 90 percent of people keep silent it won’t be considered a problem. I agree with Kateryna that it’s important to speak up and only then the problems will be addressed. One needs the courage to talk about issues but it’s worth it.

Being catcalled on the street can be an unfortunately frequent experience for many women, and sexual harassment of this kind leads to self-objectification, negatively impacting on how women view themselves. People who have experienced catcalling should not blame themselves in this situation but talk about it with their close relatives and friends and should not remain silent.

Text: Natalia Ivanova

Photo: opendemocracy, talkspace,, @catcallsofnyc, iStock, Kateryna Sapsay, Christina Rupp

The material was prepared as a part of Gender Sensitive Space of Modern Journalism, implemented by the Volyn Press Club in partnership with the Volyn Gender Center, supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and implemented by Internews international organization.