Catcalling is defined as a series of behaviours including whistling, gestures, comments and unwanted sexual advances, which are used to attract the attention mainly of women in streets and other public places by strangers. Involving a strong objectification component, catcalling can be considered a form of verbal harassment, as it is an unwanted behaviour with sexual connotations that offends a person's dignity. It is discriminatory, since it is mainly carried out by men against women. This type of gesture, being discrimination based on sex, violates the principle of equal treatment between men and women.
The US group "Hollaback!" in collaboration with Cornell University has conducted a study on the subject on an international scale.
Research has shown that the first catcalling experience usually occurs before the age of 17, on average for 84% of the women interviewed (16,600 women from 22 different countries). This is a worrying fact, as being subjected to this type of harassment can affect a person's growth and development, especially in this age group. The typical objection that is made to those who report the phenomenon is: "It is not harassment, it is just a compliment". There is certainly the possibility that some women may not feel bothered by this kind of attention. Nevertheless, the same study showed that in most cases the most common feelings of those who suffered catcalling were anger and humiliation. In the case of Italy, one of the countries examined during the research, the highest percentage of women who decided to take another route home after catcalling was found.
According to research by Fairchild and Rudman in 2008, only 20% of women openly confront men who engage in this type of harassment. The victim often feels a strong sense of frustration and helplessness as they are in a position of weakness and potential danger. They may also not react because of the implicit difference in strength, preferring not to risk violent reactions. Furthermore, women feel degraded because they are treated without respect and objectified. Sometimes a sense of guilt even emerges when the victim begins to wonder what she could have done to avoid being in that situation. This leads women to adopt behaviour aimed at avoiding this type of unpleasant circumstance as much as possible. A common fear is that physical harassment may occur as a result of a catcalling incident. Although statistics show that sexual harassment is more common within one's circle of acquaintances and in the family, the fear of strangers - always perceived as more unpredictable - remains strong and often re-emerges after a catcalling episode. In order to feel more secure, women limit their movements and freedom, avoiding certain places after certain hours, holding a bunch of keys in their hands or choosing ways perceived as more "quiet" to return home.
In August 2018, a law against catcalling was passed in France. Promoted by the Minister for Equal Opportunities, Marlène Schiappa, the law aims to combat all behaviour "of a sexual or sexist nature that damages a person's dignity because of its degrading or humiliating nature, or that creates intimidating, hostile or offensive situations". French law considers catcalling to be sexist harassment that undermines women's self-confidence, their right to safety and freedom of movement in public spaces. It requires law enforcement agencies, which are required to intervene on the spot to help the victim, to sanction such behaviour with fines ranging from 90 to 1500 euros depending on the severity of the harassment. One year after the law was passed, around 700 fines were imposed for various types of incidents on French territory. Considering the wide spread of the phenomenon, the number of fines is quite insubstantial, also because harassment rarely occurs in front of the police.
Formal laws alone rarely change people's behaviour. Feminist militant Anaïs Bourdet stressed that in order to really counteract the verbal harassment suffered by women on the streets, it would be necessary to start from the origin of the problem, through prevention and education from the very first years of school. The main positive aspect of this type of rule, however, is that it clearly and incontestably defines catcalling as illegal behaviour.
Nevertheless, those who put it into practice know that they can get away with it, because it is a demonstration of power over women and a machistic way of acting. In fact, catcalling is very unlikely to happen if a man is present in the company of the potential victim, perhaps because of the man's fear of a physical reaction or perhaps because he arouses greater respect, whereas it is quite easy if two or more women are present.
Fighting this phenomenon means fighting a prevaricatory attitude of someone who is not afraid of the reaction of the victim or people around him because he knows that such behaviour is widely tolerated. The fundamental step of activism against catcalling should be to focus on education and respect. Respect for the woman, not only as a sister, mother or daughter of someone, but as a person, is an essential element to ensure that catcalling is no longer accepted as tolerable behaviour, but assessed for what it is, i.e. a form of harassment that limits women's freedom and security.
Translated by Francesca Cioffi
Original version by Chiara Landolfo
Tuerkheimer, Street Harassment as Sexual Subordination: The Phenomenology of Gender Specific Harm, 12 WIS. WOMEN’S L.J. 167, 167 (1997);
Dottoressa magistrale in Relazioni Internazionali, con curriculum in Cooperazione Internazionali e Processi Sociali Trans-Nazionali presso l'Università degli Studi di Milano.
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