Catcalling is sexual harassment: Here’s what to do when it happens
Catcalling is not harmless, it's sexual harassment that can be frightening. Hollaback! offers tips on what to do if you're harassed or see someone being harassed. (iStock)

While there is no off-season for catcalling, especially in big cities, the offensive act toward women usually ramps up this time of year as temperatures rise and, yes, summer clothes come out.

 

As “harmless” as many may think catcalling is — after all, “What woman doesn’t want a compliment like, 'Hey, beautiful?” is a common question raised when a women expresses that she is uncomfortable after a catcall — it isn’t.

 

In fact, we need to stop classifying the act as "catcalling" altogether.

 

“The term ‘catcalling’ really does minimize what we’re talking about. It’s important for us to call it what it is — it’s harassment,” Debjani Roy, deputy director of Hollaback!, told Metro.

 

Hollaback! is a global, grassroots initiative to “understand harassment, ignite public conversations and develop innovative strategies to ensure equal access to public spaces,” its website said.

While street harassment is historically defined as sexual harassment in public spaces, “it’s often at the intersection of other forms of discrimination including racism, homophobia, ageism, sizeism,” Roy explained. “It is basically unwanted attention or act of a sexual nature that could start with verbal harassment, but also include non-verbal gestures, looks of intimidation, leering, being followed by one or more individuals, touching, grabbing, groping and can escalate into physical violence and physical assault.”

What to do if you’re harassed

If you find yourself being harassed, Hollaback! suggests you:

• Assess your safety: If you feel you may be at risk of the situation escalation, do not engage and keep moving.

If you do decide to address your harasser, “don’t give an indication that you’re trying to start a conversation,” Roy said. “Oftentimes, that’s how it’s read if you do respond in any way.”

• Keep it short: Say something succinct like, “That’s not OK,” “That’s disrespectful” or “Leave me alone.”

• Make eye contact and be firm.

• Quickly move away from the situation.

What to do if you see someone being harassed

“The most important thing to acknowledge about harassment is that it is unwanted,” Roy said.

For the person being targeted, "it can be a frightening experience," but it is not one they should face alone.

“It’s not just an individual’s responsibility to respond or protect themselves when they experience harassment — it’s a community’s responsibility to respond,” Roy said. “We should be looking out for one another when someone is being harassed.”

Hollaback! has seen an uptick in interest in its bystander intervention training and promoting the idea of community accountability.

To that end, the organization has the “Five Ds of Bystander Intervention:”

• Direct interaction: Tell the harasser to leave the targeted individual alone with a firm, short statement without engaging in a debate, conversation or argument.

“It’s something that should be done with caution because sometimes it can create escalation,” Roy said.

• Distract: Ignoring the harasser, go up to the person being harassed and ask them something simple, such as the time or for directions. 

“The whole point is to deescalate the situation and help the person being harassed or targeted move away possibly from the situation,” Roy said.

• Delegation: Consult a third party, such as a transit employee, teacher or someone in a position of authority, who may be in a better position to intervene.

• Delay: Because a large portion of harassment can happen quickly and in passing, if you witness such an act, check in with the person who was targeted to see if they are OK.

• Document: If you can safely do so while someone else is intervening in a harassment situation, take a photo or video of the incident. However, "you should not use it without the consent of the person being targeted — you should offer the documentation to them,” Roy said.

Speak up about harassment

If you have been the victim or bystander of harassment, Roy encourages you to share your story on Hollaback’s website or app and tell someone.  

“There are so many situations no one does anything — they might look up for a second from their phone, and then go back to whatever they’re doing,” Roy said. “That causes a huge amount of distress for the person being targeted because if someone is experiencing this in a crowded space and no one did anything, that can increase trauma, anxiety, depression and can contribute to PTSD if it happens repeatedly.

"There are psychological and behavioral impacts, so everyone can do something," she added.