OPINION: Catcalls are not compliments

Often when I walk to the train after work or when I walk home at night, I encounter a series of catcalls pertaining to my body, my face and my size. All of which are sexualized, degrading and are — to the best of my abilities — ignored. 

Many times I’ve ducked into open stores, restaurants and bars while I’ve let a group of catcallers or a catcaller walk past me far enough on my way home. I’ve seen my friends being grabbed by these men without permission, and I myself have been unwillingly grabbed at on the streets, whether it be nighttime or broad daylight. I’ve heard the anger behind men’s voices after a woman rejects their catcalls, I’ve seen men chase after these women before and I’ve feared for them and for myself. 

Ruth George, a student at the University of Illinois of Chicago, walked to her car at night last month on campus, when a man [Donald Thurman] began to catcall her. 

Just like most other people would, George ignored the man. But instead of the man giving up and turning the other direction, he continued to pursue her and followed her to her car, where he raped and killed her. Because this man was angered that George didn’t respond to his catcalls, he decided to take her life. 

We as women and as people shouldn’t have to respond to these horrific and degrading comments thrown at us by men. Catcalling isn’t a form of flattery; it doesn’t make us blush or want to stop to talk to these predators. 

Commenting on our bodies, our shapes and sizes when it’s uninvited and none of your business only leaves us in a vulnerable defensive state. It doesn’t make us feel empowered or flattered whatsoever. In fact, it instills a sort of fear and discomfort in us, a response that often leaves us frozen to think, “Should I ignore it and walk away, or do I respond hoping he’ll leave me alone?” 

Sangi Ravichandran, a sociology professor and PhD student at the University of Illinois of Chicago, has similar opinions on the idea of catcalling. 

“I think that catcalling is absolutely an unwanted communication,” she said. “Catcalling isn’t about flattery just as like rape isn’t about sex or desire. Both are about power. I think that any type of unwanted contact and communication is uncomfortable and undesirable and can even be scary.” 

George’s death leaves many fearful to the responses of catcalling. It isn’t just women who are catcalled, but also transgender and gender nonconforming people. 

 The Human Rights Campaign’s website lists a variety of statistics on sexual violence related to various groups of people, including heterosexual males and females, homosexual males and females, cis and trans men and women, as well as gender nonconforming people. The website also lists statistics of sexual violence related to race.  

In the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, it was found that 47 percent of transgender people are sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime. Among people of color in the survey, it was concluded that 65 percent of American Indian transgender people are sexually assaulted in their lifetime as well as 58 percent of those who are Middle Eastern and 53 percent of those who are black.

In 2018 alone, there were at least 26 deaths of transgender or gender nonconforming people in the U.S. from fatal violence, whether it be from an acquaintance, partner or stranger. The majority were black transgender women. 

Although the cases of these deaths are different and unique from another, it is evidential that fatal violence, whether it be correlated to sexual harassment or not, is heavily placed upon those who are transgender women of color. The junctions between racism, sexism, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia put all trans women and gender nonconforming people, especially those of color and who aren’t heterosexual, at most risk. 

Going to a school like DePaul, I’m very exposed to the city, the streets, the trains, the busses and everything it encompasses. I’m constantly watching my surroundings, and although it seems like I’m listening to music with my headphones in, I’m actually staying alert, especially at night. If I ever feel at risk of anything, I call whoever I know is up and talk to them to just not feel completely alone. 

“I believe catcalling is scary because you never know someone’s intentions, or what they plan on doing based on your reaction,” said Natatlie Kokaska, a DePaul junior. “Being in the city and walking alone can already be scary enough because you never know what is going to happen, but when I get catcalled, then I feel even more uneasy.”

Nighttime is very fracturing to me and other women. I get scared to leave my house alone, I get scared to walk home from work, I get scared to take the train. I don’t leave my house without my pepper spray, no matter the conditions of where I’m going. 

I’ve talked to many other women who also do this. Many also have pepper spray and many even carry tasers with them just in case.

When I am walking, no matter what time of day, I always carry pepper spray and a knife for protection. I have strongly considered getting a taser,” Loyola junior Lily Khanbegian said. 

Although I’ve been fortunate to not have to use my pepper spray, I’ve sadly had to prepare myself for any situation I need to, especially following the death of Ruth George. 

Many may say that if I’m truly scared of walking alone at night or taking the train at night, then I shouldn’t be living in Chicago or a city at all. But that’s unfair to me and to anyone else who shares these fears. 

How come I’m told I should leave where I love to live while the predators who inflict the most fear out of us get to stay? How come I put up a shield of defense and have to carry a weapon to make myself feel safe just from someone else’s words? 

Catcalling happens in any city and any state and country, it happens in the suburbs and it happens on college campuses. It happens wherever society views cis women’s, trans women’s and gender nonconforming bodies as disposable and objectifies them. 

Although George’s murder is one that is well-known across the city of Chicago and the nation, it is not an isolated incident. Catcalling isn’t a rare experience; it stems from a history of narratives long before colonial times related to the way we treat and perceive women’s bodies as disposable and as objects, especially those of color. 

“I don’t think catcalling as flattery is an isolated notion,” Ravichandran said. “I think that it is fueled by all of these other harmful narratives that we have in the ways that we look at women’s bodies and perceive women’s bodies, especially women of color and trans bodies of color.”

One of the harmful narratives that Ravichandran shares that catcalling originates from is the notion that black bodies and Native bodies are deemed violatable [and or] rapable similarly to the way that Latina bodies are hypersexualized in our society. Women of color, trans bodies of color and gender nonconformers of color are more susceptible to sexual harassment because they are sexualized simply because they are a person of color and culture. Women historically have especially been at the center of sexual exploitation, but whenever they are a woman of color, the risks of being sexually harassed exponentially increases.  

There also has been many narratives surrounding the rape and murder of Ruth George, and many are found to be toxic by both Ravichandran and myself.  The notion that women can get murdered when they ignore catcalling is an example of an extremely harmful narrative. Or the notion that many believe George is at fault for walking home alone at night and that women now need to get home before dark in order to ensure their safety. All of these are harmful to women because they only inflict fear and limitations on those vulnerable to attacks.

Women should not fear for their lives when they say “no” to a predator and a harasser, and women should not feel that if they speak up, they will be murdered. The problem and solution to catcalling shouldn’t pertain to the way women respond to these predators, but should pertain to how we can prevent these predators from catcalling and harassing people in the first place. 

The issue of catcalling and street harassment isn’t an issue on security and protection. It should be an issue on the way society shapes people to view groups of bodies as accessible and degradable. 

Our society must stop perceiving the bodies of women, trans folks and gender nonconforming people as disposable and as something to be fetishized.