Content warning: discussion of sexual harassment.

The first time I got wolf-whistled at I was eleven years old. I was walking down a hill in a small town near mine, in a fairly short skirt, tights, and t-shirt when I caught the attention of a load of men on some scaffolding on the other side of the road. I don’t remember them saying anything threatening, and I have to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they thought that I was older than I was – I’ve always been tall. But that doesn’t change that fact that they were sexualising someone who wasn’t even in secondary school yet. The worst thing is, this isn’t a particularly uncommon story.

Flash forward eight years. The gym that I use at home is about fifteen minutes’ walk from the bus stop. You cut through the retail park, along a busy double carriage way for about five minutes, and finally through a quiet council estate. On average, I get cat-called, honked at, or looked up and down by a creepy man (usually over sixty), one in three times I make that journey. I’m fully desensitised to it now. Most of the time they’re in a car, and I’m on the pavement, and by the time I’ve registered what’s happened they’ve gone, and I can shake off the feeling of self-consciousness by ramping up the music through my headphones and pulling my jacket a little tighter around myself.

But not all the time. And for a lot of people this is not the case. It’s a sad fact that almost everyone knows someone who has been seriously threatened or even hurt after an escalation of a situation like this. And this is why we need to take a stand, regardless of gender, against not just the people who do this, but the whole culture of thinking that it’s acceptable.

There’s vaguely the idea floating around that having a group of random men shouting at you is complimentary or that it’s a way of flirting or showing interest. And havingsomeone showing interest in you is a nice thing, surely? And how different is it to having a cheeky, subtle flirt with a bartender, or shop assistant? In short, the answer is very. Flirting assumes some kind of relationship and a sense of safety and equality. Both individuals (crucially, no men flirt in packs, do they) get involved and enjoy it. While both catcalling and flirting 9 times out of 10 give rise to nothing, one leaves a woman feeling empowered (if a bit giggly) and another makes her feel objectified, scared and ashamed.

As for the idea that it is somehow a compliment, why do they ultimately always lead to a woman being sexualised? Sometimes it’s nice to be sexualised, and sometimes women want to be. But not all the time by gangs of random (usually far older) men. It may sound ridiculously naïve, but what’s stopping a man saying “nice shoes”, or “lovely smile” rather than “nice tits” or “the things I’d do to you” etc ad nauseum. Plan International reported that two out of three girls in the U.K. had experienced public harassment — including more than one in three while wearing school uniforms. Which begs the question, do these men in their 20s, 30s, 40s or even 50s actually want to shag a child, or indeed any of the women they catcall? Do they actually expect said cat they are calling to hop in their car, climb up onto the scaffolding they’re on and just get at it right there are then?

No, they don’t. What they want to is make women feel small, while making themselves feel big, particularly in front of their mates. Strangely enough catcalling seems most of all to be about male-male realtionships rather than male-female ones. In a study by UN Women, one self-proclaimed catcaller told the interviewer that “I’m bored. I’m bonding with my male friends. We’re having fun and we aren’t thinking how the woman is feeling.” A tale as old as time, really.

I was in the back of a friend’s car in the summer when I realised just how much of an issue this is, at least in my area. The three boys, all absolutely lovely, respectful, non- sexist (I hope) humans, started reminiscing about a previous journey, where they’d honked at a load of girls in school uniforms, because apparently startling them was funny. To them it was a joke. They knew that they would never harm the girls, and thus they failed to realise that what they were doing was wrong, and that they could cause significant distress and fear of much scarier actions.

Although this is down to their ignorance and they were at fault, it does highlight that a lot of catcalling occurs because it’s ingrained in the heads of many young men that this is okay, and in many young women, including me for the first seventeen or so year of my life, that we just have to put up with it. The simple fact is that we don’t. It isn’t right that there are many places where a woman can’t go out in a short skirt without facing something between minor harassment to full on assault. We need to educate our friends, family, and loved ones that it is not okay to do this, even if the conversation is uncomfortable.

That’s the main point – cat-callers aren’t random, creepy robots, they’re actual people. And the majority of them are not awful, evil humans, they’re subscribing to values of the society that they were raised in. This isn’t to say that they are blameless, we’re all responsible for our own actions, and the way they are acting is completely wrong. However, rather than just condemning them and moving on (I do see the irony in that this is exactly what I’m doing), we need to make a conscious effort, whatever our gender, to make it clear that this kind of behaviour, and in fact casual sexism in general is not acceptable.

As a woman I feel incredibly lucky to live in a society where we are accorded significantly more agency and protection than in many countries, but we all have a responsibility to keep making improvements to society. It’s up to us to effect the positive changes we want to see in society, and this is just one example. So, educate the people around you, help those who are suffering, and as a final point: don’t fucking cat-call.