Every day, women with the temerity to go out onto our streets are subject to catcalling, harassment and abuse – and women who run have it especially bad, writes Megan Hunt.
The worst case of catcalling I’ve experienced was more of a chase. I was out for a run in Ōhope, a small coastal community in the Eastern Bay of Plenty. There’s a main road from Whakatāne to Ōpōtiki which dissects the town. The route is always busy with commuters but over summer it becomes a highway of holiday makers.
That Sunday afternoon I was completing my usual circuit along the road when a carload of guys drove past. The group, all in their early twenties, cheered at me. Up ahead I saw the boxy old Corolla turn and circle back towards me. I stopped, a lump beginning to rise in my throat as they came closer. I was scared. I didn’t know who they were or what they wanted.
The car pulled over and one boy jumped out from the back seat. He jogged towards me with a goofy grin on his face and asked for my number.
When I said no his expression changed. He sulked back to the car, hurling insults as he went; I was a slut and a bitch who didn’t know what she was missing.
It’s pretty rare for me to go for a hassle free run. This is not because I’m supremely attractive or even run that fast; I’m pretty average in every way, plus a bit on the short side with fair skin that turns pink with exercise. But I’ve been videoed by men driving past, had my photo taken, been whistled and cheered at.
Before I began travelling earlier this year I mentally prepared myself for street harassment, assuming my progressive home nation had shielded me from the worst.
Turns out New Zealand was worse than I realised.
Recently I was in Moscow, Russia. If New York is the city that never sleeps Moscow is the city that’s never finished. There are construction sites everywhere; walking down some streets can be a minefield of men in hi-vis gear laying paving stones and painting buildings.
I’ve found building sites some of the worst back home and would brace myself for the dirty feeling that came along with unwanted stares, but in Moscow, nothing. I watched to see how people reacted to particularly stunning woman. No one even looked up.
There was a point when I considered ending my regular runs. Around a year ago a number of women out exercising alone near my home in Hawke’s Bay were grabbed or followed by men. Police issued statements which occupied the uncomfortable space between fulfilling a duty to inform and victim blaming.
Personally I don’t like to run with others, but I was considering joining a group and changing my behaviour due to the behaviour of men.
When I think back I had already made changes. I would avoid certain routes or times of day when I knew the chances of hassle were higher. When it was really hot I would run in a sports bra, but always tuck a shirt into the waistband of my shorts. I would often pull it on despite the heat because it was better than feeling stray eyes burning their invisible holes into my skin.
Men didn’t seem to understand I was not trying to impress anyone or garner attention, I was just a woman exercising.
If my experiences are any guide, India might be one of the world’s catcalling capitals. When I visited, men were constantly yelling and running after me.
While I was there, I posted a number of pictures on Instagram. Within two weeks I received 15 message requests from local men asking to meet. In all my five years of using Instagram I had never received one of these messages.
I met an Indian woman at a hostel who described downloading Tinder for a short time. Men she did not match with would often find her on social media and try to establish contact that way, despite her turning them down in the dating app. She received 60 friend requests through Facebook before deleting Tinder.
To me this unwanted cyber attention is something that would rarely happen in New Zealand. My male friends would consider this behaviour weird and creepy, but some of these men are the same ones who would toot or yell unwanted remarks at women from passing cars.
Is there any difference between these two kinds of unwanted attention? Just because one is digital and another is on the street does it make either better?
I asked around some female friends and all had stories of street harassment. New Zealand streets didn’t compare to the catcalling in big urban centres like New York, but everyone had experienced it regularly at home.
One friend based in Christchurch said the most yelling she received was walking down the city’s main streets in the early evening. “I don’t like it,” she said firmly.
She described feeling caught off guard and uncomfortable; she would look around to see if she knew the person, but it was always a stranger.
The men who tooted or yelled were the same ones who would never approach her in person, she noted. She didn’t know if they were scared, but for some reason they thought yelling sexually aggressive comments from a moving vehicle was a better option.
What I don’t understand is why. Women don’t like it and what do men expect to gain?
In all my 26 years I am yet to met a happy couple who attribute their meeting to a story like, “he yelled ‘suck my dick bitch’ from a passing car and I just HAD to wave him down for a chat”.
When I asked male friends the saddest and most common driver of their catcalling was “just a bit of fun”. This bit of fun is at the expense of women like me who are made to feel vulnerable and uncomfortable.
We are made to question what we wear, where we go and our right to use public spaces as we choose because of creepy, sexually aggressive behaviour from men.
Come on boys. Just let us run in peace.
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