Balancing in the gutter of Coldwater Canyon, Veronica Crow ’16 turned away from the truck full of men whistling at her and continued walking with her mother. For all the times men have catcalled her, she has been taught it’s safest to ignore them. It’s happened to her less than 10 feet from school, at charity events and crowded boardwalks, around silent bystanders, in jean shorts and full-body running gear. It’s even happened to her during soccer practice, from a father within earshot of his wife and children.
Apart from men who have politely told her “Have a nice day” or “You’re very pretty,” Crow has been catcalled with demeaning whistles and obscene comments about her body more times than she can recall.
Eighty-seven percent of women will have been catcalled by age 17 and 13 percent by the age of 10, according to research done by Cornell University and anti-harassment group iHollaback.
In a Chronicle poll of 408 students, 45 percent said they have experienced catcalling ranging from whistling and honking to sexual comments.
“[Being catcalled] feels like a violation,” school psychologist Kavita Ajmere said. “You walk away feeling like you have to take a shower, versus ‘that made my day.’ That’s a big difference, and I would say that depending on the nature of the catcalling, it borders on harassment.”
Though almost half of polled students have been catcalled, 48 percent think catcalling is not a serious problem. Common arguments for belittling the issue of catcalling include beliefs that catcallers intend to compliment women or that what women wear provokes catcalling behavior.
“A huge misconception in our society is that catcalling should be taken as a compliment, which makes women believe that it isn’t a problem, when in reality, it very much is,” Taylor Ingman ’16 said.
Ajmere agrees that misconceptions undermine the belief that catcalling is an issue.
“Even if you had a bikini on, it’s still not okay,” Ajmere said. “And that’s the problem that I have. And I’ve heard guys say, ‘Well, look at what she’s wearing.’ That doesn’t give you the license to do anything.”
Even though many people view catcalling as a compliment, Ajmere believes understanding the extent of the problem is simple.
“It’s a problem because it really violates how a girl feels,” Ajmere said. “Girls feel objectified. That’s the biggest thing. It makes them feel like an object. The main thing is the objectification of women, bottom line.”
She also believes that catcalling can become a safety issue very quickly.
“There are so many times when I wanted to turn around and say something equally vulgar, and I hadn’t because you don’t know what someone else is capable of,” Ajmere said. “I grew up in Chicago, and I lived in Chicago, and I never dared to turn around and say something to somebody because it always felt like, ‘Well, what if they had a weapon on them or they lunged at you?’”
Fear of possible violence or harassment leaves many girls feeling helpless and embarrassed when catcalled, unsure of how to react.
“It makes me want to curl up into a ball, and I feel like I’m always looking over my shoulder,” Crow said. “It makes me mad that men have this much power through catcalling, but I can’t help it. It makes me feel pathetic.”
Many girls have also found themselves in dangerous catcalling situations that extended beyond comments or whistles. One man followed Crow and her friend around Venice Beach, repeatedly asking them for personal information like their Instagram accounts. Two men in a car followed Lucy Yetman-Michaelson ’17 and Maggie McCarthy ’17 as they were walking home late at night, pursuing them even after the girls tried to walk away.
“They slowed down and said, ‘Hey, you girls 18 yet?’ and they continued to drive and follow us as we walked away,” Yetman-Michaelson said. “It was dark out and very scary.”
Ajmere believes the motive behind catcalling is “absolutely power.”
“There is nothing empowering as a female to get catcalled,” Ajmere said. “You’re left feeling helpless. That’s the hard part. I think a lot of men know that, and that’s the power piece.”
She also believes cultural and societal factors play a role in the widespread nature of catcalling.
“There are still a lot of boys who grow up to be men who feel like [catcalling] is part of being a man,” Ajmere said. “They somehow feel like that’s in the man code. It’s not in the man code. That’s not a part of being a boy.”
Both Ajmere and Sohni Kaur ’17 agree that cultural messages, whether from family or mainstream media, add to the idea that catcalling is acceptable.
“I remember a boy whistled at me in fifth grade, and clearly it wasn’t some sexually motivated action, but rather something he’d maybe seen someone he knew do in a movie or something,” Kaur said. “I just think that behavior like that is ingrained today, whether in the media or behavior that we find acceptable.”
Harry Garvey ’18, who has witnessed catcalling, said he doesn’t understand catcalling behavior.
“You’d think that people are above catcalling, and then you’re appalled when you actually see it happen,” Garvey said.
Even though Harvard-Westlake and its surroundings are not immune to the catcalling so many students face, Ajmere said there is safety in being near the school.
Part-time security officer and LAPD detective David Hayden said students can call the non-emergency police line if a catcalling situation gets out of hand off-campus.
Ajmere said it will take a lot of effort to change how society views catcalling. However, it is an effort everyone needs to participate in, especially men, she said.
“It takes a lot of men and women to say ‘that’s not okay,’ ” Ajmere said. “I think it’s great when women say that, but it’s really wonderful when men stick up for women. You don’t treat women like that. You don’t treat guys like that. You don’t treat people like that.”