Like most second year students, I have flown the nest, left campus and now live in Lancaster city centre. It has several perks, close proximity to shops and amenities, great transport links and the stagger home after a messy night out is far easier now. For a city geared towards students and one of the safest cities in the country, I presumed that catcalling wouldn’t be much of an issue.
On my first night here I was proven wrong, not just with a whistle or the beep of a car, but with a man who thought pulling over to shout out to me about how much he loves “the shape of my arse” was a lovely way of complimenting me. I was disgusted and annoyed. This first case of catcalling was nothing compared to what I experienced on a Saturday night around the start of Welcome Week. I had left a house party early and was walking home at around 11pm and as I was turning onto my street in a residential area I could hear loud voices from around the street corner. I already felt nerves as I was rounding the corner, feelings that were completely justified.
A group of eight men were stood in the middle of the street outside my house, vulgarly discussing women’s bodies, comparing past partners like they were a collection of body parts, and as I walked past to get inside my house their attention turned from the conversation to me. They in unison started asking me about my genitalia and if they could “fuck my brains out”. I continued to walk around the block for an extra 10 minutes so that they wouldn’t know where I lived.
This is what street harassment does to women, or those who are often mistaken for women as in my case. You begin to mentally prepare for what happens next, for how you handle this situation. Do you run? Can you shout back and defend yourself? Do you call someone? What if they approach you? What if they try to touch you? What if they try to hurt you? A majority of the time the catcall remains just that, a catcall, but catcalling is part of normalised behaviours that build a foundation for more severe cases of sexual violence.
This is a real issue, here in Lancaster, where we call home. It’s important to note that the two experiences above are two distinct moments in a sea of several beeps, whistles and comments over the course of not even a full month of living in the city.
Alcohol is not an excuse for this behaviour, anonymity is not an excuse, what you are wearing is not an invitation, there is no excuse for harassing people as they try to go about their daily life. No matter what they’re wearing, how attractive you think they are, or what state they seem to be in. Sexually or otherwise motivated, catcalling and street harassment is not okay.
My main sense of shock however is not that catcalling happens and many of us must deal with it daily, it is that it is so prevalent here in Lancaster. It leads me to question if Lancaster has a larger issue with street harassment. Could it be the case that even in our safe little bubble of a city we have an underlying presence of sexism, a culture of disrespecting women and looking the other way as it happens? A large number of the population of the city are students so could it be students who are partially adding to the problem? What can the university do to combat this issue?
I would argue that the consent talks for freshers need to cover a much wider range of issues such as catcalling and extend those talks to all returning students, not just freshers. The university could also ask us about our experiences, the response rate might not be monumental mirroring the national trends of sexual assault report (only about 4% of rape victims contact police), but every bit of progress to get the ball rolling is a step in the right direction.
So maybe the university itself can do more to make Lancaster a safer place for people, but what can we do at the grassroots of the problem? From my own experiences, I have developed a few solutions to make us feel safer and less threatened in these situations.
There’s the old trick of holding your house keys between your fingers as a potential weapon should the situation escalate and traveling in groups as much as you can and there are even self-defense classes which are actually available here at Lancaster.
But one of the best solutions I have found actually came from a friend as we talked about this problem over drinks. She told me about an app called ‘Companion’ that works to notify a selected group of people close to you about when you are travelling from point A to point B. There is an option to notify these selected people that you’re feeling nervous and they can then call you or text you to check you’re okay. There is also an option to immediately call the police via the app if the catcall turns into something more sinister.
I also implore the men reading this article to be mindful that for any progress to be made, simply not participating in catcalling yourself is not enough. When you see it, call it out. To really make a change in our city we need to have an open dialogue between all genders to work towards ending street harassment and the further violations that it can facilitate down the line.
Lancaster holds a ‘Reclaim the Night’ march, dedicated to raising awareness about street harassment. It is organised by the Women+ Forum and takes place every February. Events like this are our way of taking a stand against this commonplace form of sexism and uniting against harassment on our streets.
Catcalling isn’t going away anytime soon so what we can do is be proactive in keeping ourselves safe, and talking about it. Sharing experiences is one of the most important things we can do, because normalising or hiding catcalling only serves to make our city an unsafe place for everyone. To quote the Egyptian Feminist Mona Eltahawy, “The most revolutionary thing a woman can do is talk about her life like it matters, because it does”.