I looked around and there was a man standing with his trousers down holding his penis. I thought maybe he was pissing on the street ― which isn’t great, but isn’t a massive surprise.
Then, looking directly at me, he said, “Hey lady, come and see how big my dick is.”
I didn’t, obviously. But just in case I’d misheard, he asked again.
I exploded at him, swearing and calling him out for harassment. I think he got it that no, I didn’t want to see his dick.
My reaction wouldn’t normally be so aggressive, but for months now I’ve been answering back to catcallers and street harassers, and I’m angry. The more I’ve tried to engage with them, the more hyper-aware of this harassment I’ve become. And I still haven’t had an apology, only denial or more verbal abuse.
I decided to start my little experiment last summer after being stopped on my bike by a group of about eight men in their 20s who were on their way to a football match. One had whistled to get my attention, and when I looked over, he shouted “Can you ring my bell?” as he gestured to his penis.
Feeling particularly outgoing that day, I stopped and politely asked why he said that.
“Do you want a kiss?” he asked, before walking toward me, getting so close I could smell the beer on him. A couple of the other men in the group went away, but some stayed around keeping their distance, joining in with shouting profanities at me: “Get your pussy out,” “Suck my dick,” their chests puffed up in a peacock display of masculinity. I was powerless and intimidated, and I found it humiliating.
Since then, I’ve been trying to regain some control over these unwarranted interactions. I’ll stop and ask my catcallers to repeat themselves and explain why they said that thing or made that gesture. I’ll explain why it’s wrong to do so. I want to know why catcallers choose to reduce women to a body, or what they get out of sexually propositioning me from a distance.
If anything, it’s an attempt to change the power dynamic in that situation – and hopefully, maybe, change their behavior.
But most encounters end like the football fans. When a man whistled toward me as I passed him on a busy shopping street during the day, I turned and told him to stop. He ignored me. When a guy made sexually aggressive signs toward me on an evening walk home, I questioned his intentions. He looked confused, even a bit ashamed, then flatly denied he had said anything. When a friend and I were called “sexy girls” as we passed a man outside a pub, I stopped and told him he couldn’t speak to us like that. He called me a bitch.
I remember being catcalled as a 13-year-old schoolgirl. I was confused and a little frightened, but I ignored it. Over time, I assumed it was just part and parcel of being a girl. Only as I got older did I see it as an inherent seed of misogyny in our society.
I no longer take the comments from catcallers in isolation or see them as silly “banter” ― they’re perpetuating inequality. Catcalling is part of a cycle that harms women. Sexual objectification impacts women’s mental health; it can lead to aggression toward women. It’s a systemic problem, and men need to consider whether their actions ― their catcalls ― are part of this system.
That’s why I wanted to engage with my catcallers and tell them how their behavior is causing me and other women harm. The more I do it, however, the more I see how insidious sexual harassment is, and how catcallers seem to be so disengaged with what is coming out of their mouths. None of my catcallers have taken responsibility for their words.
It can feel like a futile experiment, but it’s now become some kind of addiction. I can’t let it go.
Of course, there’s an inherent danger in this approach. Street harassment evokes our vulnerability as women. It reminds us of the assault and violence that could happen ― and does frequently happen ― at the hands of abusive men.
I’ll only engage in encounters when they happen at times and in places where I feel secure to an extent. And I know that I come from a place of privilege. I’m a heterosexual white woman in a world where LGBTQ people and minorities are at greater risk of assault. I also don’t have a disability, and women with long-term illnesses or disabilities are more likely to be victims of sexual assault, too.
I am, however, part of the statistic of more than 3 million women who have been victims of sexual offenses the U.K. My experiences haven’t gone further than being masturbated at in a public place by a stranger, but I still walk down the street on some nights holding my keys like wolverine claws between my fingers out of fear. I have been given “rape alarms” multiple times to use as a form of defense and told not to walk alone when it’s dark just in case words turn physical.
The onus is still on women to protect ourselves or to ignore unsolicited comments, rather than on men to change their behavior. And this is what motivates me to keep answering back. I want men to change.
Sexual harassment of any kind ― from being called out on the street to physical assault ― has always been a dangerous part of our society. The aftermath of the Weinstein revelations, #MeToo and other campaigns suggest there’s a growing intolerance for this abuse. And until we get there, I’ll continue with my personal battle against catcalling.
I’m still waiting for an apology.