Your Space: Catcalling: It’s not a compliment, it’s harassment.

Kelsey Drivinski

You know the scenario. It’s a late Spring evening. After working a double at work, you’re tired and sore. Making your way down the street to your car, someone shouts out of nowhere: “Hey baby! Great ass! Lookin’ good!” Street harassment (also known as “catcalling”) is an area of street harassment that has been a topic of discussion for more than a century (harassers during the early 1900s were known as “mashers”). Today though, there is growing discussion around what can be done about street harassment. Why are comments that are considered harassment in a private setting (work, school) acceptable in public? As an extension of sexual assault, street harassment is a topic relevant this April as part of Sexual Assault Awareness month.

What is Street Harassment?

Street harassment impacts people in various ways and puts fear into being in a public space. In 2008 a survey by Stop Street Harassment showed that out of fear of harassment, 80% of women constantly assess their surroundings, 69 percent avoid making eye contact, 50 percent cross the street/take other routes, 42% talk or pretend to talk on a cell phone, 45 percent avoid being out at night/alone. Some women even made significant life changes such as moving neighborhoods or changing their jobs.

Contemporary culture has naturalized street harassment. Many will argue that catcalling is harmless. But intention on the part of the catcaller is irrelevant. The person being yelled at is not thinking of intent; rather the person being harassed is most likely reacting with discomfort and fear. Harassers will often insist that they just wanted to “say hi” or to compliment the person. However, street harassment is out of line with what would be considered “compliment behavior”. It’s an unsolicited comment that is more than likely obscene and offensive. Acceptance of street harassment as normal reinforces the idea that people are open and available to public access. Street harassment can occur at any time, leaving individuals on constant alarm. It is this same unpredictability that makes street harassment effective in maintaining a culture of sexual assault.

Those who are harassed are told to accept it as a compliment, submit to the harassment, or to ignore it. Instead, being yelled at in public instills a fear into those who experience it in regards to walking alone or doing other activities in public. Often the encounters happen so quickly and so briefly that there is no time for response. Across race, gender identities, and cultures, women and other minority groups are subject to street harassment. Behaviors that are congruent with street harassment can be seen in cultures around the world. Ultimately, street harassment reinforces ideas of fear and a lack of safety that polices the public environment and encourages a culture of sexual assault.

What to Do About Street Harassment

The next time you’re being harassed on the street, here are a few things that you can do. If you do not feel safe responding to the catcalls; ignore them, walk away or call for help. If you feel safe enough to, you can criticize the behavior: state what the behavior was and indicate that it’s wrong. For example say, “Do not whistle at me, that is harassment,” or “Do not touch me, that is sexual harassment.” You don’t need to apologize, answer their questions, or continue to engage with them.

The next time you see someone being harassed, be an active bystander. This can means being aware of others around you in public places and not ignoring when you see others being harassed. If you do not feel comfortable in the situation, you can ask for support from other bystanders or call for help. You can lend support to those being harassed by being critical of the person doing the harassing by pointing out the behavior and that it’s wrong. Negative feedback to harassers is valuable and supportive to the person being harassed.

To address catcalling, some communities have even created Public Service Announcements (PSAs) throughout public transport systems. The Chicago Transit Authority’s PSA stated “If it’s unwanted, it’s harassment. Touching. Rude comments. Leering. Speak up. If you see something, say something.” The Transit Authority also provided riders with information about who to contact in the case of being a target of sexual harassment.

People are coming together with their experiences and work to create safe public environments. Various websites are dedicated to bringing awareness and to and ending street harassment. (, What if craigslist had a section like missed connections where you could call out the harassers you encounter on the street? At you can read and share stories from around the world.

Street harassment is an aspect of sexual assault that perpetuates a culture of fear and violates a person’s private life while in a public space. Don’t do it.