About a year ago, while I was walking down Thayer Street one afternoon, a man told me he liked my dress. Pleased with the compliment, I thanked him as I continued down my path, only to hear him shouting after me: “It would look better off!” Infuriated and embarrassed, I turned around to say something, but he had already diffused into a crowd of people. I never suspected that someone would catcall me so blatantly on College Hill — and I was even more surprised that none of the people around us confronted him or offered me support. As I kept walking down the street, I began to question whether I was in some way responsible for eliciting this inappropriate attention — whether my outfit or appearance was somehow provocative — even though I knew that I wasn’t to blame. The incident and other similar ones soon after also made me question how safe I really was on College Hill. I am not alone in this experience. In fact, a recent Herald undergraduate poll shows that 48.2 percent of female-identifying students surveyed are catcalled at least once a month while at Brown.
Many of us tend to dismiss catcalling as a form of harassment that is annoying but not particularly harmful; some even seem to think that these remarks are complimentary. But in reality, catcalls can have serious implications for an individual’s confidence and self-esteem. Deeply rooted in implicit sexism, these comments are objectifying and perpetuate the stereotype that those targeted — who are overwhelmingly women — are only valued for their physical appearances. Catcalls can be particularly harmful if recipients begin to feel unsafe in their daily environments or internalize the comments, blaming themselves for the unsolicited attention — like I did.
We are all aware of the pervasiveness of catcalling in general: A controversial video titled, “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman” shows a woman being catcalled over 100 times in just 10 hours for simply walking down the street. But much less is said about how commonplace catcalling is around campus. Now that we finally have survey data showing that many students experience this as frequently as once a month, it is time to begin conversations about verbal harassment on College Hill and how we can best address this.
Unfortunately, catcalling is a difficult problem to combat because it happens so quickly and catcallers are not always as explicit as they appear to be in commercials or movies. And even if catcallers are confronted, there’s no guarantee that they will apologize for their actions or learn the error of their ways — an issue that is perhaps more frustrating than the comments themselves. Moreover, since Thayer Street is a hub for Providence as well as Brown, catcallers often throw out slurs from the windows of moving cars. For example, I remember quite distinctly an occasion in which a young man shouted a sexual comment at me from the window of his car as I walked past the SciLi, comparing the way I was drinking a smoothie to how I could provide him with sexual favors. This type of drive-by catcalling makes it virtually impossible for people to challenge the offenders.
Still, there are things we can do to address catcalling in our community. Bystanders who observe this type of behavior should offer their support to those who need it and report it to public safety staffers if the situation escalates. Preventing catcalling also begins with making perpetrators aware of the dangerous implications of their words. Though it is not necessarily our responsibility, it can be helpful to explicitly state that such behavior is offensive and wrong. Standing in support of those targeted can also help them feel safer and less embarrassed: I, for one, would have felt much more comfortable if bystanders had reacted in my defense.
Another way to help combat this issue, on a more general level, is to start discussions about it on campus. For one thing, this can help identify the areas on campus in which this occurs the most and the people who are repeat offenders. These conversations can also help educate people about the insidious effects of catcalling — and letting catcalling go unchallenged. Finally, these conversations can help those targeted of all genders understand that they have nothing to be ashamed of, and counteract the internalization of harmful comments.
I understand that there will always be people in the world who make offensive remarks, both on campus and off. But by opening up a discussion and brainstorming strategies to combat this issue, we can help make our community — and the world — a safer and more inclusive place.
Samantha Savello ’18 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.