Street Harassment Starts When We’re Children – So Why Is It Still Legal?

For many of us the first time that we're cat called is as teenagers.

Street Harassment Starts When We're Children - So Why Is It Still Legal?

by Rebecca Reid |
Updated on

I've done dozens of TV and radio debates about street harassment. Most of the time against a woman in her fifties or sixties who smiles and says 'you'll miss it when it stops happening to you love'. Only, it happens to me a lot less as I approach 30, and I really don't. Or its a middle aged man who has never been catcalled in his life and thinks that women are making a silly fuss.

Unfortunately the 'silly fuss' narrative seems to be a popular one. In 2017 Good Morning Britain polled 2,280 people about whether street harassment should be illegal. 62% said that it should not.

But the thing is, catcalling isn't just a little whistle when you've got your legs out on a spring day. It happens when you're alone at night, when you're feeling like you want to be invisible, when you're trying to drag yourself on a run. And worst of all, it happens when you're a kid.

Years before I was legally old enough to have sex, men started shouting things at me in the street, comments about my body (I was grown up looking teen), and what they'd like to do to me. The first time it happened I was 13. I was wearing jeans and a vest top and a passing man made a comment about my chest.

It scared me. I felt vulnerable and stupid for not knowing how to handle it. I assumed I was lucky, because a compliment was a compliment. Thought it was a kind of validation that I should be grateful for.

Yesterday, a woman named Mia asked Twitter whether she was alone in being catcalled more as a teenager than she is as an adult. The answer was a resounding no. Thousands of women replied saying that they've had the exact same experience.

'I’ve gotten cat called a handful of times since turning 18, but when i was 11-15, it happened daily. it was always far older men. i think about this a lot too and it makes me feel ill' said one woman.

'12/16 were, how should I say this, my peak days of being catcalled, around my neighborhood. Thinking back at it it’s pretty scary and I didn’t know any better so I thought it was funny and cute and ohhhh he likes me. Now? Not so much. Not ever. I’m not comparing either. Whew' wrote another.

A 2018 survey found that one third of all teenage girls have experienced street harassment while wearing their school uniforms.

Often when I wade into the debate about making street harassment illegal, someone (usually a man) will defend the harassment of teenage girls by saying 'it's impossible to know how old a girl is by looking at her.'

I would argue that not knowing whether someone is a child or not is a very good reason to keep your cat calling to yourself. But even if it's true that these men don't know how old a young woman is when she's wearing jeans, it's impossible to believe that a man can see a girl in a school uniform, a set of garments which purposefully marks you out as a child, and doesn't know whether she's an adult or not.

Grazia's Sofia Tindal shared her experience of catcalling, saying: 'My first memory of being catcalled was when I was 14, but I looked a lot younger than my age. I was walking down the street in trainers and a summer dress and two men in their thirties leaned out of the window and yelled 'I would' or something similarly crude.'

'A couple of years later when I was 16 was the first time I felt personally threatened - a man in his forties or fifties sat down next to me at a train station and started talking to me and remarking that I was pretty. Then he said that he had friends on the train and asked if I would come and sit with him so that he could prove he could pick up an attractive girl. I ended up going and finding a woman I could sit next to who had a child, I think I managed to calm down but I remember really panicking because I knew he was on the train somewhere.'

Catcalling isn't fun for adult women either. In some circumstances, when you're alone at night, it can be extremely intimidating and frightening.

Making street harassment illegal has been accused of being controlling, feminism gone mad and a crack down on sex. But what it really does is elevate sexist abuse to the same status as homophobic and racial abuse. Just as you cannot shout a racist slur at someone in the street, you should not be able to shout a sexist one.

There will always be those who claim that street harassment is 'just a bit of fun'. I would suggest that those people talk to a teenage girl who has had comments about her thighs, breasts or bum shouted at her by a man old enough to be her father, whether it was fun.

Ask a woman who has walked past a group of men, alone late at night, and listened to them whistle and shout as she tried to get home safely, whether that's 'just a bit of fun'.

There aren't many people whose love stories start with 'your grandfather shouted "nice tits darling" from the window of his Honda and next thing I knew, I was in love'.

Catcalling isn't about romance. It's not about having a crush on someone. It's about power. It's about the desire to assert yourself as an arbiter of what is sexually appealing, and a sense of entitlement to force a woman to hear what you think of her.

If you think that street harassment should be illegal, you can sign the petition here.

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