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 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-based 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% said they’ve been followed.
Catcalling not only feels annoying, it can feel threatening.
In light of the Ruth George murder, the Oak Park Police Department in Illinois, Resilience, the Illinois State’s Attorney’s West Office and Youth Services of Oak Park Township offer these tips to help girls figure out how to respond.
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.
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, says there are safe ways to help if you notice someone being harassed.
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.