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The Burden of Catcalling and Street Harassment

Trigger warning: This article makes reference to sexual violence against women. Whilst we talk about abuse to women, our support extends to all victims.

Image Source: TalkSpace

Although, like most women, I am no stranger to casual sexual harassment, the impact of catcalling on women’s freedom of movement became startingly clear to me when, after an 8-year hiatus, I re-started my running journey in November of 2022.

Catcalling, or street harassment, a form of sexual harassment, can vary from making kissing noises, whistling, making sexist and/or degrading comments or beeping a car horn at someone.

Whilst anyone can be a victim of catcalling, it is something that nearly all women report having experienced. Indeed, a 2021 UN Women survey found that 97% of women aged 18-24 years old had experienced sexual harassment and 70% had experienced harassment in a public space.

Image source: Wales Online

Upon rediscovering running in November, I quickly became obsessed with the "runners high", feeling empowered and healthy.

But, at the beginning of May this year I went out for a run, for the first time, in shorts. I was quickly reminded of the reality of being a woman in a public space, daring to show their limbs.

I was catcalled whilst waiting at a traffic light by a man who incessantly beeped his horn and sneered, craning his neck to stick his head out of the window, shouting something unintelligible but no doubt disrespectful.

I felt trapped, unable to get away from him whilst waiting for the light to change. Then, after he drove off, I was left frustrated that I couldn’t defend myself against my harasser. Mortified, I was suddenly acutely aware of my body and what I was wearing. I had gone out for a quick run before a PhD funding interview to calm my mind. Instead, I had been left angry, upset, and ashamed.

But of course, as all women have had to learn, I shook it off, finished my run and attended my interview.

Later that day, post-interview, whilst out for a walk to get some fresh air and headspace, I was catcalled a further 2 times by separate men driving past me. The cowardice of this ‘drive by’ harassment, which ensures they will not be apprehended or confronted, infuriated me.

The next morning, I went out for another run, this time in leggings (I had learnt my lesson) but once again I was catcalled by two men in a car. I was so startled and upset at yet more harassment, in such a short space of time, that I tried to cross the road and nearly stepped out into oncoming traffic. Being catcalled whilst running is a common phenomenon, 60% of women report experiencing harassment when running.

Although catcalling is not experienced exclusively in warmer months, the intensity and frequency of this sexual harassment at the beginning of spring is unbearable. As women opt for less clothes to remain comfortable in the heat, it feels as though there is a sense of entitlement to objectify and comment on their bodies.

The internal battle of not wanting to be influenced by the behaviour of these perpetrators whilst being aware that you need to keep yourself safe is exhausting.

However, at age 25, like many women, this is not my first experience of sexual harassment.

At school, our teachers ensured we wore leggings under out sports skirts when walking home. Whilst this was a precautionary and protective method, it taught me, from age 11, to expect my body to be objectified and degraded by strangers whilst going about my day. Sadly, they were right, as my first memory of an adult stranger catcalling me extends back to when I was a pre-teen.

It is now September, and the novelty of seeing women’s limbs seems to have somewhat abated and the catcalling and sexual harassment, in my experience, has lessened (of course not entirely). Yet, I have run only 10 times since the start of May. What had become my daily escape became anxiety inducing. I didn’t feel comfortable running in shorts and so, rather than overheat, I opted for other forms of exercise, away from public spaces.

By necessity, women like me have had to learn to ignore street harassment and get on with our days. But the injustice and upset caused by such experiences should not be underestimated. In fact, catcalling can signify greater danger, tragically demonstrated by the rape and murder of 19-year-old Ruth George in 2019 in Chicago, by the man whose catcalls she had ignored.

Indeed, part of the sinister nature of catcalling is that its victims can’t distinguish acts of attention seeking or bravado from more threatening behaviours indicative of violent intentions. Thus, those trying to "flatter" their victims inadvertently "mask" those who have violent intentions.

At best, women can hope to leave such encounters belittled, dehumanised, and angry. At worst, they can end up dead.

Following the horrific murder of Sara Everard in 2022, there is a renewed focus on women’s safety in the UK. The Government has backed a bill to make catcalling an official crime punishable by 2 years in jail. Furthermore, the murder of Zara Aleena in Redbridge by a stranger who followed her, has led to the introduction of new roving police squads to target men catcalling women. Similar squads are likely to be rolled out across other boroughs of London.

Image Source: Home Office

It is a relief to see criminal action being taken against catcalling alongside Government campaigns.

I am often horrified by my mother’s stories of workplace harassment in the 80s, including quitting her job after being told she would be "frisked" by her male colleagues after having passed her probation period. I feel fortunate to live in a time where positive action is being taken to change the culture around treatment of women.

Promisingly, in 2020, the government introduced a compulsory relationship, sex, and health education (RSHE) curriculum for primary and secondary schools which covers sexual harassment and sexual violence.

It is essential that young boys are made aware that catcalling will not get them positive attention from women and girls. Furthermore, they need to understand that silence is compliance and that if they opt for inaction, women feel alone in their struggle and the perpetrators remain unchallenged. Men are essential to tackling violence against women and it is their responsibility to help alleviate the weight of harassment from women’s shoulders.

The vast majority of men do not objectify and offend women. But often they feel unsure how to stand up for women. Indeed, it is difficult and uncomfortable to be the one person to stand up in a meeting or a social setting when a colleague says something inappropriate about or to a woman.

One perfect example of a man enacting positive change and empowering his male peers to tackle sexual harassment is Richie ‘Reseda’ Edmond-Vargas. Whilst incarcerated for armed robery in a Californian prison, Edmund-Vargas developed a curriculum on patriarchy and toxic masculinity, which he delivered to his inmates, introducing them to intersectional feminism. Now out of prison, Edmond-Vargas runs a non-profit organisation called Success Stories which delivers the curriculum to state prisons.

I am hopeful that by having these conversations in workplaces and starting education early in schools, alongside changes in policy and laws, young boys and men will be better educated and will know how to stand up against catcalling and sexual violence, feel able to call out their friends and actively contribute to shifting the previous cultural acceptance of harassment against women.

In the meantime, should you see someone facing catcalling, the "Enough" campaign suggests four simple ways to step in safely:

  1. Say something.

  2. Tell someone.

  3. Offer support.

  4. Provide a diversion.

Together, we can relieve the burden of sexual harassment that weighs heavy on women and work towards the end to sexual violence against women and girls.

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