International Women’s Day and Thoughts on Street Harassment

Trigger warning: Discussion of street harassment, catcalling and assault.

As many people will have noticed, yesterday was International Women’s Day. International Women’s Day is a global event, in which many people take the time to celebrate the achievements of feminism and to consider how far we still have to go – and yes, we definitely have a long way to go. Unfortunately, International Women’s Day also seems to enrage or annoy many people, who, rather than taking the time to learn about why the event is still necessary, instead complain, “What’s the point? Women got equality 50 years ago. If women get a day, why is there no International Men’s Day?”. Explaining all of the current issues feminism is tackling is a huge subject, one which I am not going to try to attempt. But, since it’s International Women’s Day, I thought I would take the time to write a short post focused on feminism. In particular, I would like to talk about my experiences with objectification and street harassment.

Hailey Corrall - My Name Is Not Baby

Femme Nation: Part of a photo series by Hailey Corrall.

The first time I ever witnessed catcalling was in the car with my dad, when we drove past a young woman and he shouted “Oh! Sweetcheeks!”. I couldn’t have been older than 7, and at the time it just made me and my sister laugh (mostly due to the absurdity of the word “sweetcheeks”). He carried on doing it for years, whether the window was open or not, and I was never quite sure if he was just doing it to make us laugh or not. Whatever the reason was, it normalised catcalling to me when I was a kid, and from then on I believed it was something that women should just expect.

"Girl Tips #6" comic by Kendra Wells

“Girl Tips #6” comic by Kendra Wells

At a music festival, multiple men in my group sat looking out of our camp waiting for women to walk past. When they did, they rated them on their appearance, decided whether or not they “would”, and catcalled them. They thought it was a laugh. At the same music festival, a group of men stood with scoreboards, and decided to act as a judging panel of women’s looks. Multiple men I consider to be friends saw this or heard about it later, and again shrugged it off as a “bit of a laugh”. But it doesn’t matter whether you’re doing it for fun or not. It doesn’t matter whether or not you would do it alone (and in fact, having a group of men publicly harass you can be even more intimidating and terrifying than just one). Whether you are doing it for a “laugh” or not, you are still deciding that you have the right to judge random women’s appearances, as though the only worth women have to you is their looks.

Street art, Brooklyn 2013

Street art by Brooklyn-based artist Tatyan Falalizadeh.

This isn’t even starting on when I have personally been harassed, or how harassment can sometimes be a precursor to assault. As someone with big boobs, I remember being catcalled as young as 11. I remember being propositioned by a group of guys when I was 12. I remember the bus driver who accepted my fare, staring hungrily at my chest the entire time, when I was 13. I remember a man driving past fully sticking his head out of the window to look back at me and shout when I was 14. I remember a group of men surrounding me and not letting me walk home when I was 15. I remember the man who started talking to me, complimented me on my clothes, then lay on the floor to try and look up my skirt. I have had “tits” shouted at me more times than I can count. I have been followed off and onto trains. I have had people tell me to smile, and become genuinely annoyed or angry if I don’t. I have had someone sit next to me and back me against a wall, insisting “I just want to talk to you”. Some of these things might feel like a compliment the first once or twice, but they get old, and eventually even genuine compliments are met warily, because too many have had bad experiences when they respond the wrong way to the wrong person.

Please Stop Being Sad - Street harassment is not a compliment

“Street harassment is not a compliment.”
Comic by Emm Roy of Please Stop Being Sad.

This is not individual to me – I don’t think I know any women who have never experienced catcalling or street harassment of any kind, and in fact, I actually consider my experiences to be on the “minor” end of street harassment. Perhaps if it only happened once, it could be easy to brush off, but for women, this is an extension of a culture where our looks are seen as the most important thing about us, and where men feel entitled not only to judge us on them, but to make their judgements known. This entitlement towards women’s time and bodies (and in particular, trans women’s and WOC’s time and bodies) is widespread and unquestioned, and many of my friends have had experiences which have escalated hugely.

The Cotton Project comic

Part of a comic by The Cotton Project.

Catcalling is not pleasant. It is not flattering. It is a reminder that, as women, we can’t even walk down the street or through a field without being scrutinised, objectified, and reduced to our looks. Even somewhere like a music festival, often considered to be a welcoming place with a great community, women can’t get away from this. It is intimidating, it is demeaning, and it makes many women feel unsafe. Countless women feel they have to change where they go, what they wear, or who they walk with, due to being harassed. It is not a compliment, and it should never be seen as “a bit of fun”.

Sulphur & Bone - "No, I won't fucking smile for you."

Image by Lauren Gonsalves (Sulphur & Bones)

It doesn’t matter that you have female friends. It doesn’t matter that you have female family that you love and respect. What shows your attitude towards women is not only how you treat the women you know well and care about, but how you treat the ones you don’t. The sexual objectification and harassment of women is one small part of why feminism and International Women’s Day are still necessary. If you can’t see the point of International Women’s Day, that is because you are part of the problem.

Oh, and by the way? There is an International Men’s Day. It’s on November 19th. Now please, feel free to shut the fuck up.

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Founder and main author of Bras and Body Image. Anna is a lingerie lover, feminist and maths student based in the UK, who hopes to someday cuddle every cat in the world.

2 thoughts on “International Women’s Day and Thoughts on Street Harassment

  1. Has anyone else ever been in a situation where a randomass guy will start following you out of nowhere and start shouting “Hey! I just want to talk to you!” and keep insisting when you ignore him? It has happened to me multiple times, and has got me wondering if these guys have an online secret society dedicated to pulling this shit on women. It is so fucking annoying! Some of them give up after a few tries, and others will shout “bitch!” after you ignore them.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly- I was catcalled when I was 12 for the first time and was so startled that I ran right home! And quite recently, I was spending time with some of my male friends and all they did for three hours was pull up girls’ social media profiles and rate them on a scale of 1-10. I couldn’t wrap my mind around looking at another human being and assigning them a number. THAT’S why we need International Women’s Day- to remind everyone what non-aesthetic contributions women make to the world.