Even during the pandemic, catcalling goes on. I refuse to be treated as an object | Mary Morgan

It’s a gloriously sunny afternoon. I’m doing that half-run, half-hustle you do when you’re late for a train but don’t really want to fully sprint. I hear a man yell after me, and the sound of footsteps running after me. I assume in my hurry I had dropped something. I stop, turn around, and address him. “What?”

“Oh, I wanted to talk to you.”

“What?! I’m late, man,” I say dismissively, and continue running for my train.

I hear him run after me, the pace increasing.

I pick up my stride for a couple of seconds and hear him do the same. Without thinking, I stop and whip around. “What do you want?!” I shout at him as assertively as I can. He does nothing. I sprint to the train station, but don’t relax until the doors close and I know he hasn’t got on with me.

That was one of too many experiences I could detail for you. Every summer I, like many women, withstand a torrent of verbal harassment. Men stop their cars next to me on the road and ask where I am going. Men call at me from across the street; they hustle after me and ask how I’m doing; they try to get me to take my headphones out; they yell things as they drive by; they honk, wolf-whistle, and go “psst psst”. I have to cross streets and avert all eye contact. I sometimes keep headphones in with no music on so that I can hear what is going on around me for my safety. I am constantly on edge, fearing I’ll have to fight someone off.

You would think that with the pandemic and lockdown restrictions, the catcalling would have vanished. But even when the streets were at their emptiest during the Covid-19 outbreak, one in five women reported harassment, according to a study by Plan International UK. Virtually no one was outside, yet women were still being harassed. Now, with lockdown lifting and masks becoming the norm, catcalling still persists. Just last week, a man pulled his car up to me while I was in a bicycle helmet, sunglasses and mask – making my face almost completely covered – and told me I looked good. When I ignored him, he shouted “not even a thank you?” and some choice expletives before driving off.

Lockdown has showcased that catcalling is never about what someone is wearing or what they look like. It’s about power. It is a common experience for women. Studies have found that 64% of women of all ages in the UK have been sexually harassed in public, a number that increases to a whopping 85% among 18- to 24-year-olds. An international study of 16,000 women found 84% were harassed before they were even adults. In the UK, 90% of women are harassed before age 17.

Too many times I have been told to “let it go”, a phrase used to encourage women to be docile and polite instead of enraged when someone defiles their space. When it comes to body politics, none of us should simply let it go. Heatwaves like we’ve experienced recently tend to mean a spike in harassment, but shedding layers should not mean shedding respect for women’s bodies.

To some people, catcalling is a trivial thing – but this interpretation in effect reinforces the “rape myths” deeply entrenched in our society, that blame the victim and exonerate the perpetrator. To ask, for example, what someone was wearing at the time of the incident is as common in cases of rape as in street harassment. It is a response that immediately looks for ways a woman was deserving of her assault. It should not matter what someone is wearing; it’s her body, she can wear whatever she wants. It really is as simple as that.

Others believe somehow that catcalling is complimentary. It never is, because compliments do not incite fear. Catcalls give women pangs of anxiety. I’ve never complimented someone by shouting across a street at them, or driving slowly alongside them.

The link between our wider culture of sexism and the individuals’ violent behaviour is undeniable. A study conducted by a counsellor of male sex offenders found that the popular perception of women as sexual objects or as weak tied in with rapists’ attitudes. Additional studies have found that sexually objectifying a woman can lead to aggression towards women and to reduced moral concern for them. Quite literally, catcalling turns people into objects and can lead to violence.

To then belittle these experiences only perpetuates the problem. It may happen a lot, but this kind of behaviour isn’t “normal”. We are not born treating women’s bodies like objects; this is a learned behaviour. To excuse it as “normal” is upholding rape culture, because it tells us that it’s OK for men to feel entitled to women’s bodies.

So to the men who have the audacity to believe I owe them a “thank you” for harassing me on the street, let me put this clearly: my body is mine and mine alone, and I owe you nothing.

• Mary Morgan is an artist, writer and activist focusing on body politics

The Guardian

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