”What really annoys me is cat calling and when guys are like [– –] learn to take a compliment and I’m like hey yo nice tits isn’t a compliment because I didn’t ask for your opinion.”
– Interview, June 2016
This is how one 16-year-old young person explains their frustration over getting sexist comments when travelling alone in the Helsinki metro. In the excerpt they refer to cat calling, a concept that means insulting and sexist name-calling and remarks in public spaces.
During our fieldwork in June 2016, this was not the only interview where young people talked about their experiences of gendered or sexist harassment in the Helsinki metro, tram, local train or public spaces. While most of our informants felt rather safe and sound in public transport and urban spaces, there were also narratives of being name-called, insulted or physically harassed. Young people talked a lot about their spatial and digital strategies of coping with unwanted social interaction in the metro, such as choosing to stand instead of sitting down, choosing a specific seat, listening to music or flipping through their smartphone to avoid any contact.
Practicing social power in urban space
In the quotation, the reference to cat calling echoes of the newest feminist movement of the 2010s. Originally, a cat call or cat calling refers to the mid-17th century, originally denoting a whistle or squeaking instrument used as an expression of disapproval at the theatre. In the 2010s, the concept has become frequently used especially in feminist blogs, social media platforms and political initiatives to tackle gendered and sexist harassment in public spaces.
While several young people mentioned unwanted gendered or sexist attention in public transport, cat calling as a concept was directly referred to only once in our interviews. This young person was, perhaps not surprisingly, an active follower of Anglophone feminist and LGBT social media profiles in, for example, Twitter, Tumblr and YouTube.
Cat calling can be understood as a form of social power used in public spaces: it occurs through gaze and actions and actualizes in concrete and forced encounters between people. While cat calling is most often used in terms of male commentary on females, street harassment occurs in many different forms.
During recent years, cat calling and other forms of street harassment have become a target of digital feminist activism and initiatives, including, for example, Hollaback!, a feminist non-profit movement with a goal to end street harassment. Originating from the US, Hollaback! is a transnational, young feminist movement that bases it actions simultaneously in urban and digital spaces.
Hollaback! defines street harassment as follows:
“Street harassment can be sexist, racist, transphobic, homophobic, ableist, sizeist and/or classist. It is an expression of the interlocking and overlapping oppressions we face and it functions as a means to silence our voices and “keep us in our place” (http://www.ihollaback.org/street-harassment/)
Precisely as the young person interviewed describes in the quotation, cat calling is often reduced to not being able to see sexist remarks as compliments. Thus, negative reactions by those who become cat called are often seen as petty and humorless. This tells about gendered power relations: the one who cat calls also has power to define “appropriate” reactions to it.
Breaking the norm of silence
In June, I was in the metro, traveling home after a long workday. It was a nice, warm afternoon, and it was quite packed and hot in the metro car. I was listening to music and flipping through my mobile phone. Suddenly an elderly person, who appeared to be drunk, confronted a young person sitting opposite to me and said: “Why did you leave your trousers home? Go back home and put on some clothes.” After saying this, the elderly person walked away to the other end of the metro car.
We perhaps rarely think about the metro as a gendered and gendering space because of its mundane nature and internalized, silent codes for social interaction. However, it is precisely these everyday places and spaces where gender is done, challenged, played with and forced upon.
One of our interviewees saw gendering practices in the metro and urban spaces as especially annoying and disturbing because these actions violated their gender identity. In the metro space, they were approached as a girl, however, they identified as being gender fluid: one day a boy, the other a girl. Thus, the metro space became, for them, a place of forced gender identity.
Another young person pondered upon the social code in Helsinki metro, naming it ‘norm of silence’ – you are not supposed to talk to strangers, you ought to keep to yourself and not initiate contact or intervene.
In this context of norm of silence, cat calling becomes even more disturbing. Firstly, as a form of gendered and sexist harassment, it breaks the norm of not talking to strangers in the metro. Secondly, the norm of silence makes it difficult for people to act and intervene – and, also, too easy to sit back and look away. One of our interviewees described it as follows:
“And when people, like, although they see that something like that happens they don’t do nothing, they don’t come and say anything to that person.”
– Interview, June 2016
The incident in June still haunts me. It was so sudden that I couldn’t get one word out of my mouth. After the elderly person had walked away, I smiled at the young person sitting opposite to me, tried to look as annoyed as possible and said something small and encouraging.
This internalized norm of silence needs to be challenged and broken.
Finnish Youth Research Society
Keller, Jessalynn, Mendes, Kaitlynn & Ringrose, Jessica (2016) Speaking ‘unspeakable things:’ documenting digital feminist responses to rape culture, Journal of Gender Studies, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09589236.2016.1211511
Picture: Screenshot from article “‘No Catcalling’ Street Signs Popping Up in New York to be Taken Down” http://abcnews.go.com/US/catcalling-street-signs-pop-york-philadelphia/story?id=30361679