When Catcalling Becomes Sexual Harassment

By Anca Coman | Monday 27th August, 2018

On a normal Friday morning, feeling too lazy to cook myself breakfast, I decided to go get a supermarket meal deal. Wearing a Mikey Mouse t-shirt, no makeup and my hair a mess, I quickly ran to a nearby shop to buy my favourite tuna sandwich. In a time frame of no more than five minutes, three different individuals wolf-whistled, called me ‘gorgeous’, and laughed at their own jokes about my ‘fantastic bum’.

On my way back home, I got mad – but not at them. I was mad at myself because I couldn't understand why it made me so upset, so I felt like I was to blame. But then I realised, these types of comments have always existed. It seems unimaginable now, but back when I was as young as 14, men would ask me to call them in ten years time, because I had ‘enormous potential’. Back then, I was too young and naïve to understand that these comments had creepy, objectifying, pervy undernotes. I was actually happy and my self-esteem increased when my physical features were appreciated.

So why the tears now? What has changed – is it me, our society or how the media reports sexual harassment? A 2016 study found that 64% of women in the United Kingdom have experienced unwanted sexual advances in public places. My supermarket trip was the moment I realised that there’s a fine line between a compliment and sexual harassment – these comments don't validate my self-worth anymore, instead they make me feel small and objectified.

If you're walking along, minding your own business and somebody heckles you from across the street, it's rarely going to make you feel good in the same way a comment from somebody you know would. When a 'compliment' is unexpected and unsolicited, especially when it's objectifying, it can, in a blink of an eye, turn a powerful woman into a defenceless one.


I’m not an isolated case or the exception from the rule. Many women around the world have to deal with being cat-called on streets. CNN reported that in Egypt 99% (!!) of women surveyed across seven regions have experienced sexual harassment.

I’ve talked to women from different countries to find out what they believe the main differences are between a compliment and sexual harassment. Antonia from Bulgaria experienced cat-calling a lot in her country: ‘I never think it’s a compliment when someone catcalls. If he wants to flatter me, he can come to me, stop me and tell me something nice, but shouting something on the street or whistling is just disrespectful’. She believes that movements against sexual harassment like #MeToo have raised awareness, and now 'people can’t pretend it’s unclear whether their behaviour is inappropriate’.

Hannah from Honk Kong adds that she feels unsafe when being catcalled: ‘A compliment is simply being aware and respectful of other people’s comfort zones. Sexual harassment is when you step over that comfort zone’. She also believes that some campaigns around this issue haven’t had enough of a global reach, particularly in underdeveloped countries, and that there’s room for more discussion.

A British woman says she experiences a mix of feelings when being catcalled on the street: ‘I feel like “okay, I guess I’m pretty”, but then it makes me feel uncomfortable and vulnerable. Harassment to me is when somebody starts following you, repeatedly calling out to you, and when the compliments turn negative after they don’t get their desired response’.

Psychotherapist Toby Ingham believes that women have to develop a personal sense of boundaries with what is and isn't 'too far' or overstepping the mark. He explains why some people have the misunderstanding that catcalling is complimentary:

‘There is a difference between receiving a compliment on your clothing or hair and someone making an inappropriate or overly personal comment about your body. An innocent, or well-meant compliment will probably make you feel good, but an inappropriate comment would never. Being sexually harassed is unacceptable, like being bullied. You have to find a way of identifying it and refusing to accept it’.

The normalisation of sexual harassment diminishes women’s role within society and empowers men to objectify us and treat us disrespectfully. Cat-calling the street is an invasion of a woman's privacy, as it makes you feel like you'ree constantly being watched and analysed. Besides making people aware of the astonishing statistics that show sexual harassment happens every day in every country, it’s time to distinguish between being complimented and being sexually harassed. The timing, the context, the relationship with the man in question, and the tone used to cat-call a woman are all elements which must be taken into account. And it’s important to remember that no matter what women wear, how they look, or what they do, it’s never their fault. Movements like #MeToo or TIME’S UP have made a step forward to a better society for women, but there’s certainly room for more!

Photo Credit: Federica Diliberto on Unsplash | Erik Witsoe on Unsplash