Catcalling is an Anglicism that in the German-speaking world stands for „verbal sexual harassment“ in public spaces (Ismail 2020). In English, the term street harassment is also frequently used for the phenomenon of catcalling, although it also includes physical assaults in public (see DelGreco/Ebesu Hubbard/Denes 2021, 1403).
Catcalling describes verbal and paraverbal statements that sexualize victims and/or refer to physical characteristics. Examples of this are statements such as: „Smile, young woman!“, „Now don’t be like that, with that dress you’re begging for it“, „Horny ass, you pussies!“ or „You’re as beautiful as my car!“ (cf. CatcallsOfHildesheim 2020)
Sexual Harassment, Street Harassment, Catcalling
Sexual harassment, street harassment, stranger harassment and catcalling cannot be clearly distinguished from each other. While Sexual Harassment also includes physical assaults, Street Harassment refers more to the place of harassment, namely the public space. Stranger Harassment, on the other hand, determines a non-existent relationship between perpetrator and victim. Sexual harassment functions as an umbrella term under which street harassment, catcalling and stranger harassment can be subsumed.
It should be noted at this point that in such contexts it is more appropriate to speak of sexualized harassment than sexual harassment. The background here is that it is not primarily sexuality but harassment; however, the term „sexual harassment“ is more familiar in common usage.
The motivation and perception of the perpetrators
Perpetrators of catcalling have different motives.
Both so-called person factors and situational factors play a significant role (cf. Wesselmann/Kelly 2010, 452). Among the situational factors, Wesselmann/Kelly include group-specific norm conventions and the perpetrators‘ feeling that they can act anonymously and deindividually in a group (ibid., 453). In addition, a strong sense of belonging to a group lowers the inhibition threshold to harass fellow human beings (ibid., 457). Person-related factors are more complex to define and their weighting has not yet been conclusively clarified. Here, DelGreco/Ebesu Hubbard/ Denes cite a loss of power as an intrinsic motivation for harassment among the predominantly male perpetrators; i.e., perpetrators often try to compensate for a power deficit they perceive by harassing in order to simultaneously feel superior over those affected (DelGreco/Ebesu Hubbard/ Denes 2021, 1419).
In a self-assessment of male perpetrators, the harassment is often not assessed as such: catcalling is rather understood by these men as a positive compliment that is supposed to express appreciation and affection.
Consequences for Perpetrators – Consequences for Victims
Street harassment has characteristics that overlap with sexualized harassment, such as gender specificity (cf. DelGreco/Ebesu Hubbard/ Denes 2021, 1420). Nevertheless, sexualized harassment is often handled differently from a legal perspective than it is viewed from a societal perspective/suggests (cf. Fileborn., 224). There are laws and draft laws in some countries that protect employees and students in the case of sexualized violence, but there is less legal basis in the case of street harassment (cf. Sonntag 2020).
For the facts of street harassment and especially catcalling, there are thus limited legal options for action under the current legal basis.
On the other hand, those affected suffer greatly from the unasked-for attention they receive. In an attempt to cope, some sufferers tend to engage in self-objectifying behavior and/or develop eating disorders, as the unwanted comments often relate to and sexualize the sufferers‘ bodies, so that this perspective on their own bodies is also adopted by the sufferers (Fairchild 2008, 355)
In some areas of research, it is now believed that the negative consequences that result, such as depression or eating disordered behavior, even justify recognizing Street Harassment, and Stranger Harassment in particular, as a separate form of discrimination against women and those read as female (ibid.).
Chalk Harassment: Chalk Back
Catcalling and street harassment is a problem with international scope and studies show that worldwide at least 65% of women (sometimes up to 90%) have already been and/or are affected by street harassment (cf. DelGreco/Ebesu Hubbard/ Denes 2021, 1403).
Although these acts take place daily in public spaces, they often last only a few seconds and are thus not always easily comprehensible. This is where the activists of the collective Chalk Back come in. Chalk Back is an international movement led by young people. The activists campaign against catcalling and street harassment through chalk art in public spaces by documenting such experiences on the ground with commercially available street chalk – where they occurred (ibid.). In this way, they reclaim the space for those affected, who may begin to avoid the places as a result of the experiences, and make the harassment visible to everyone – while it otherwise immediately fades away the moment it is spoken about and becomes invisible to the general public.
To give the action some permanence with washable chalk, they share photos of their chalk art on social media, especially on Instagram.
In doing so, they initiate discussions about catcalling and harassment in public spaces as well as on social networks and educate people about the issue, including in workshops. Based on the Instagram account @catcallsofnyc, each Chalk Back account is called @catcallsof*location*. Chalk Back activities can now be tracked on 6 continents, in 49 countries and over 150 cities.