Catcalling is Not A Compliment”: Reclaiming My Healing from Street Harassment

Written by Meghna Bhat

Trigger Warning:
This post discusses multiple forms of trauma including graphic descriptions of street harassment and sexual harassment. If activated, TILA recommends incorporating healing practices such as moving, walking, running, pushing against a wall, connecting with people who are supportive and empathetic, and taking a break at any time.

As we recognize Sexual Assault Awareness Month this month, April 16-22 is also marked the International Anti-Street Harassment Week this year. It is a global annual campaign to create awareness about the troubling prevalence of physical, verbal and sexual forms of street harassment in public spaces across the world, and how we can prevent this from happening.
Organized by different organizations such as Safe City India, Stop Street Harassment, L’Oreal Paris Stand Up Against Street Harassment, and others in the past decade, this annual event highlights the short and long-term traumatizing impact of day-to-day street harassment on individuals in public spaces.

Why is this week of Anti-Street Harassment Week and the movement to end this underdocumented and trivialized form of sexual violence important to me?

I remember that day so vividly. I was possibly 7-8 years old. I had to run an errand to the nearby store which was 5 mins away near my home in Mumbai, India. That’s where I was born and raised.

From afar, I saw a group of college boys in the lane near the store. I did not pay attention.

Two of the guys from the group of 5-6 boys started heading towards me. In Hindi, they said to me,

“Hey why don’t you be my girlfriend and come for a ride with me?” and then started giggling.

I was about 7 years old.

I was shaken up and suddenly felt self-conscious. I walked so fast to the store looking back over my shoulder wondering if they were following me. What did I do wrong to get their attention?

I remember rushing home and when I reluctantly shared what happened with an uncle, he said:

“Oh take that as a compliment.”

I felt confused and ashamed like me being harassed was my fault. Most Bollywood movies in India showed being harassed by a guy was romantic and fun. But it wasn’t. I was traumatized.

It wasn’t the first time I was harassed on the street. And sadly, it wasn’t the last time.

Additionally, street and sexual harassment does not happen only in India or “developing countries” as often misrepresented in our narratives.

Unfortunately, street harassment in public spaces occurs in the US, Europe, UK, and other developed westernized colonized countries as well.

The other day, I was walking on the streets of Sacramento when I was accosted by a man who kept calling at me: “How did I get so lucky to see you walking in that beautiful brown skin?”

That really creeped me out—his tone, gestures, and the fact that I could see him looking at me walking from behind.

You see, I was already hypervigilant when walking in public spaces, no matter what time of the day or where I am. I have already figured out my exit routes if I feel someone is approaching me. I also used to decide what clothes I wanted to wear to avoid harassment or being noticed. It can be so exhausting!

Alas, I know I am not alone. Marginalized groups, especially women, non-binary or LGBTQI individuals, etc. are likely to experience a higher rate of sexual harassment in public spaces.

Isn’t that troubling that those affected and at risk of being harassed, stalked and assaulted in public spaces are the ones shouldering the responsibility of “how not to get harassed”? This pervasive rape culture and victim-blaming sounds familiar to us who have experienced some form of gender violence while there is no community accountability for those who harmed us.

According to a 2023 study, “the poll of 2,000 US adults found 72% have either experienced harassment firsthand or have witnessed someone getting harassed. Half (52%) of them have been harassed in the past, while 37% have witnessed it happen to others in public.”

Yes, statistics are critical to document the sexual harassment in our culture. Thanks to organizations like Stop Street Harassment who spearheaded groundbreaking research and policy changes.

Also, let’s not forget each of these statistics is a human being who is traumatized, dismissed by others, and possibly struggling with “what could they have done on their end to prevent being harassed.”

Healing from street harassment for some folks may look different for everyone. For me, it’s an ongoing uphill struggle and journey. It has taken me a long time to acknowledge that being sexually harassed on the streets is not my fault and will never be my fault. That’s why I have been an outspoken advocate against street harassment!

Nobody deserves to be harassed.
Preventing street harassment is possible.
Intervening as a bystander when witnessing someone getting harassed without risking one’s safety is possible.

CALL TO ACTION: What steps can we take to prevent harassment and support those who have experienced this?

  1. Educate and inform ourselves about the prevalence of street and sexual harassment in public spaces.
  2. Take a bystander intervention training on how to safely intervene at organizations like Right to Be or Stand Up Against Street Harassment.
  3. Learn how to respond to and show up for survivors of any form of gender violence in a compassionate non-judgemental way by volunteering at the local rape crisis center, domestic violence agency or campus advocacy centers.
  4. Take part in the Anti-Street Harassment Week in April: Use art, storytelling, murals, and other creative ways to create visibility about sexual harassment on marginalized people.
  5. Be gentle to ourselves and take care

Acknowledgment: I express my heartfelt gratitude to Holly Kearl, the founder of Stop Street Harassment for the learning opportunities and letting me write blogs in the past.

Resources: (2020 Blog written by Meghna) (MeToo Movement Resource Sheet) (Here’s How Street Harassment Affects Women’s Mental Health — and How We Heal)