“You better be smiling under that mask love”: Catcalling since lockdown

catcall candid orange

Catcalling is nothing new. But has it become worse since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic? As society opens back up, am I questioning what I have previously seen to be the norm, or has there really been a rise in sexual harassment on the street? 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have noticed an increase in the catcalling that I have received. In between the banana bread and the charity 5ks, a more sinister trend began to emerge. Now that men can’t get away with intimidating women under the cover of darkness (interspersed with the flashing lights of the local nightclub), they’ve taken to the streets, to remind women that they’re never safe. Even in Sainsburys. 

Let me throw in a disclaimer here. Obviously, not all men catcall. Not all men make women uncomfortable in daily life, and not all men are responsible for 71% of women having experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. Nor are all men responsible for this figure leaping to an even more disturbing 86% when talking about women aged 18-24. 

The pandemic introduced new opportunities

If I’d had to play a bizarre guessing game in March 2020 and put money on whether I’d feel more or less safe around men in the coming months, naively, I would have said more. Now that the lacklustre excuse of too many pints in the pub was gone, and you weren’t allowed to get close enough to strangers to try your luck with some handsy flirting, surely there wasn’t the motivation for those kinds of actions, never mind the opportunities. 

Building sites had to shut down during the first lockdown, so contractors on the look out couldn’t get it out of their system during their 9 to 5. Men in white vans no longer had anywhere to drive their white vans to, giving them much more time to think about exactly what to shout out of their wound-down windows once they had a reason to be on the roads again. Teenage boys were locked inside where their mothers could keep a beady eye on them. 

But the streets were quieter, and therefore less safe. With park runs cancelled, and exercise partners limited to households, women found themselves being harassed during their daily walks and runs, ruining their one opportunity to be outside. 

In fact, global children’s charity Plan International found that over a quarter of girls felt less safe outside during the preliminary lockdown period. This is one of the few statistics out there on this subject. Data isn’t being collected on women’s experiences, and that is holding back the conversation. My own experiences are barely the tip of the iceberg; I am not sure any of us could conceive the scale that really lurks beneath the surface. 

When catcalling gets closer to home

Not long into the first lockdown, I was aggressively shouted at out of a speeding car mere metres from my front door. That shook me because of how close I was to home. 

Later that week, there were lewd comments about the length of my skirt. That bothered me because my first instinct was to wish that I had dressed differently. 

I was booed down the street by a group of men when I didn’t respond to their questions about football. That frustrated me because other friends found the story amusing. 

After England lost the Euro 2020 final, my friends and I were yelled at by multiple different men on the way home, obscenities ranging from creepy whispers in my ear to simply yelling the word cunts in our face. That upset me because it was a Sunday evening, and no one else on the crowded street said a word to defend us. 

Last week, before midday, my flatmate was hollered at by men because they could tell that, under her top, she wasn’t wearing a bra. That upset me because it upset her. 

A friend began to get calls from an unknown number, picking up to a stranger that would whisper obscenities and masturbate down the phone. I don’t think I need to list the reasons why that disturbed me.

During the recent heatwave, I went swimming with friends in a local river. When we arrived, I was worried about getting sunburnt, so I covered my shoulders up. When we left, I was worried about getting more cat calls, so I covered everything up. 

The cat callers were not men. They were teenage boys, definitely younger than eighteen, and full of a rage directed towards the opposite sex that they couldn’t possibly understand. I walked past them alone in my swimming costume, with a baggy linen shirt open over the top and they proceeded to loudly comment on what they thought was under my swimsuit, laughing when I hurried past faster, and gleefully shouting that they’d be able to see up my shirt when I went up the nearby steps. 

And even though they were young, and it was broad daylight, and there were plenty of other people around – who, crucially, didn’t say anything – I felt scared. 

My reaction to these incidents is changing

This list of my experiences is not exhaustive. We’d be here for far too long if I tried to describe every encounter. And I have chosen not to include any pre-pandemic tales, like the physical groping in clubs or leering of bouncers that are supposed to make you feel safe. But these kinds of incidents feel like they’re becoming more frequent. That might be because I’m having more active conversations about them with my friends, instead of quietly blocking them out as I used to do. Maybe they just feel more distressing, which I put down to understanding more about my place in society than I did when I was sixteen. 

Everyone’s reaction is different: some choose to laugh it off, some prefer to pretend it didn’t happen at all, and some yell back, risking their own safety. My flatmate raged at this particular point, angry at herself for not calling her personal harassers out. “I feel like I’m playing into their hands,” she said, pacing up and down in her room. “Like I’m letting them win twice.” 

Ironically, I am now worried that she will stand up for herself, exposing herself to even more harm. Personally, I have come to terms with the fact that I cannot retaliate. Instead, it is the underlying message of every incident that really bothers me. It’s the reminder that this is where my place in society is considered to be. That men do not respect me enough as an individual to not yell obscenities at me. That catcalling is so normalised within our society that bystanders do not speak up for me. 

Since the world has begun to open up, I have felt more afraid of men on the street than I did pre-pandemic. I am on edge when I am out past dark, and I am more careful than I have been previously, encouraged in my fear by the visceral media portrayal of Sarah Everard’s abduction. And now with Sabina Nessa’s murder. With every cat call directed at me, every story that friends recount, I get angrier and angrier. So I’m calling time on my anger, before I explode and I’m too far gone for meditation to sort me out. Rather than shying away from talking about these experiences, we need to open up, and be receptive to the conversation even if it hasn’t happened to you personally. Because let’s face it, not all men are the problem, but they can still be part of the solution. As society revives itself, it’s time for a cultural shift in its attitude towards women, so that both pandemics can end.