Sometimes, if I’m feeling naive, I like to assume that nobody makes judgements about me when I’m out and about, and that we live in a perfect, unassuming world where everyone can freely be themselves. But this is not always the case. Even a young, capable, and independent person can feel violated when walking outside. I am not a visible minority, which would likely provoke further judgements, but I have still experienced my fair share of negative experiences in public simply because I am a woman.
When I was in high school, I used to walk home almost every day of the week. I should have felt comfortable outside during my walks, especially considering my school was in a notoriously safe neighbourhood. I should not have anxiously tugged down my skirt for fear that my school uniform was too “revealing.” And I should have been able to enjoy my beautiful community stroll without being hollered at with catcalls. However, too often, this was not the case and I instead felt the need to keep my head down and quicken my pace.
My encounters with sexual mistreatment did not stop when high school ended. Even here in Waterloo, I have experienced several instances of harassment. Just the other day, for example, I was exploring the city with my friend on a Saturday afternoon when a group of drunk boys started — and wouldn’t stop — badgering us with comments such as, “Hey you, give me your Snapchat!” and, “Your outfit is so hot!”. The harassment escalated until we weaved in and out of the downtown streets and finally lost them.
It’s safe to say I’m not the only one facing these disgusting behaviours. In an anonymous 2008 study conducted by a student at George Washington University, 811 women were asked if they had ever experienced verbal or physical harassment in a public place. Over 99% of respondents said they had. This includes catcalling, sexist comments, being followed, sexual assault, and excessive staring. Clearly, this is a problem; women should feel comfortable on their own in public, especially younger and therefore more vulnerable women. It’s 2021, almost four years since the explosion of the #MeToo movement, but somehow, the topic is still not discussed nearly enough for real change to occur.
Unfortunately, some people, particularly men, have yet to comprehend women’s disgust for catcalling. “They’re just complimenting your appearance, don’t be so sensitive,” my peers and even some family members remark, making me question if I am overreacting. But after serious consideration of whether I should even be talking about my experiences of sexual harassment, I realize that I’m not overreacting; instead, some just lack understanding of the vulnerability and violation that I feel. What those who have not experienced verbal harassment have yet to understand is that it’s vastly different from a friend of yours calling you pretty at a party or commenting on your Instagram posts. When the comment comes from disrespect and objectification rather than a message of empowerment, it becomes offensive. It’s as simple as that.
When someone faces offensive sexist behaviour, there is an immediate and indescribable feeling of disgust, violation, and discomfort. To paraphrase Michelle Obama, some cuts are so small, they’re barely visible. Others are huge and gaping, leaving scars that never heal. But they all cause injury. The message we need to spread to perpetrators is to be aware of their judgmental words and objectifying behaviours as well as how they impact others, and to realize that they can be extremely hurtful. In other words, catcallers: keep your eyes on the road, not the innocent teenager walking next to you.