No matter how prevalent it is for young girls and women, catcalling isn’t harmless.
The murder of Ruth George, a kinesiology student at a University of Illinois at Chicago in 2019 a Chicago man — prosecutors allege — was angry the Berwyn 19-year-old didn’t respond to his catcalls shines a new spotlight on those dangers, particularly for tween and teen girls who might not know how to react. George’s body was found in a UIC parking garage.
Street harassment is “part of the larger problem of rape culture,” where “sexual violence is viewed as a normal, everyday thing, something that can be dismissed and joked about,” says LeChea Mottley, trauma therapist with Resilience, a Chicago nonprofit for sexual violence survivors.
The Girl Scouts found that 1 in 10 girls is catcalled before she turns 11. Cornell University and the nonprofit organization Hollaback! also found that 85% of the 5,000 women they surveyed experienced catcalling or street harassment before age 17; 31% were just 13-14 years old. Half of the women surveyed reported being groped in public, while nearly 80 percent said they’ve been followed.
Catcalling not only feels annoying, it can feel threatening.
To help girls figure out how to respond, the Oak Park Police Department, Resilience, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s West Office and Youth Services of Oak Park Township offered kids training addressing street harassment.
“Remember: who can protect you better than anyone else when mom and dad aren’t around? You!” Oak Park Police Officer Anthony Coleman told the group.
What to do
People who want to hurt others watch for those who look distracted or are obscured from public view. Pay attention to your surroundings and listen your gut, the experts advised the group of kids gathered for the training.
When someone catcalls and harasses, say “no” with conviction and in your loudest, strongest voice. Saying no to catcallers may sound like this: “No! Nobody speaks to me like that.” “No! I deserve to be spoken to with respect.”
But don’t engage with them. Get away from the person.
“Don’t be afraid to hurt someone’s feelings if your gut is telling you that person is dangerous. Trust your gut. Do whatever it takes to get to safety. Worry about that rather than caring about the feelings of that person who is making you uncomfortable,” Oak Park Police Officer Traccye Love told them.
How bystanders can help
Elexys Isidore, legal and medical advocate at Resilience, told the group there are safe ways to help if you notice someone being harassed.
She told the students to ask themselves first if intervening will put them in danger. Among the options to consider is confronting the situation directly, causing a distraction so the person being harassed can get away and getting an adult or the police to help.
Kids react to catcalling
“It made me angry and sad. It also made me worry, did I do something to cause this? Is it because of what I’m wearing?” — Sylvia Rose, 13, Oak Park
“I’ve been with my mom and my sister when it happened to them. I don’t relate to it as a guy because it’s something I wouldn’t do. It’s too rude, and it makes me feel embarrassed.” — Nicholas McMillian, 12, Berwyn
“It made me feel weird and a little nervous and uncomfortable, but I just ignored it and walked to the other side of the street.” — Josie Mayer, 13, Berwyn
This article originally published on Jan. 15, 2020. It also appeared in Chicago Parent’s January 2020 issue.