With almost daily allegations of sexual harassment, rape, and unwanted attention, I can’t help but think these behaviours don’t just happen out of nowhere. I truly believe that something that might seem innocent and small—like pulling a girl’s pigtails in elementary school—is what grows into bigger, more damaging issues.
Thinking of my own catcalling and sexual harassment stories, I wanted to hear from other people who experienced similar encounters. Over a period of seven days, I gathered a number of anonymous responses from people who wanted to share their experiences through an online form. While some stories have been edited for an easier read, explicit language and descriptions have not been altered.
“I have been catcalled multiple times but this was probably the worst of it: I was getting off a bus from home and started walking towards the subway. I was approached by a man near a Starbucks and he proceeded to walk towards me saying, ‘I want to bend you over and fuck you from behind.’ I shook my head and kept walking and he proceeded to follow me as I ignored him. Luckily, I managed to hurry to the subway but it is very upsetting to feel so objectified.”
“I was with my mom. Two guys yelled out from across the street, “Hey cutie, how old are you!?” As a joke my mom yelled back, “46!” and they angrily shouted back, “Not you!” She talked about it for weeks.”
“Had a guy tell me I should smile more and another in the same area made an unwanted sexual remark about my body.”
“I was going for a run around my neighbourhood, wearing regular shorts and a long sleeve top. I was several kilometres in and I was sweaty and focused. Not once, but twice on that same run, older men in their cars honked at me as they drove by. Not only did that break my focus but I found it really threatening. As a person in a vehicle, you hold all the power over me. Almost every time I go for a run in Toronto a similar thing happens.”
“I was walking home one night in my very safe and quiet residential neighbourhood and this man, probably aged around 30-40, followed me home shouting things at me like, ‘Hey talk to me, you’re so fine, I just want to talk,’ and wouldn’t leave me alone. I looked down and didn’t engage until he ran up behind me and touched me on the shoulder. I told him to fuck off and he reluctantly started walking away while shouting that I was a dumb bitch and he didn’t want to talk to me anyway. I ran home because I was scared he would come back and do something worse and I cried all night. I haven’t been the same since, honestly.”
“I want to preface this by saying I am male so I am not used to the world of catcalls or assault on the street, and for that I am extremely privileged. This was a small opening to a world many women, trans folks, and other minorities face—sometimes even daily—and was a huge eye opener for me. My boyfriend and I were walking down the road of the Rideau Canal on our way to the Ottawa Art Gallery, when we passed by the Rideau shopping centre and a man who I did not see, aggressively slapped the bottom of my backpack and yelled, ‘Get out of here faggot.’ I was, in an instant, petrified.”
“I was on my way downtown to meet a friend for lunch. I had on a cute polka dot dress from Urban Outfitters and some sneakers. As I was walking, I passed by these two men—who must have been in their 40s. I was 21, and I looked very young for my age (most people guess 16). As I passed these men, one whistled and the other said to me, ‘Sit on my face please.’ I was mortified. I kept walking but I could hear them still screaming and talking to me. It made me so uncomfortable. I just could not believe that two adults—grown-ass men—would say this to a girl.”
“I was walking home from work, some time between 10:30-11:00 pm. I had my music in, my shit-kickers on, leather jacket... Then I heard, ‘Hey baby! Where ya going?’ I ignored them. ‘Hey girl!’ I kept walking. ‘Hey, dyke!’ I passed right by them, head up, eyes forward. I turned my music up a bit louder, but not before: ‘Whatever, whore.’ And I'm wondering what they thought was going to happen after I ignored them the first two times. They thought ‘dyke’ and ‘whore’ were going to get my attention?”
“I was crossing a road at a green light. Two guys stuck their heads out of the car windows and made whistling and hooting sounds. I didn't realize they were directed at me right away, but after seeing them stick out and move their tongues at me it became pretty clear it was. I was so uncomfortable and completely dumb struck.”
“It was late and I was in a neighbourhood I wasn’t familiar with. The bus was running late. My friends and I started to feel uneasy and were debating what to do if the bus never came. At that moment, a huge, obnoxious truck drove by, music blaring. The truck was full of 20-something-year-old men. After the noise of their partying faded as they drove off, we all voiced our relief that they were gone. However, some minutes later, we could hear a loud car come back up the street. It was the same group of guys. Driving by more slowly this time, they hooted and called out their windows to us. We did our best to ignore them, rooted at our bus stop. The traffic light turned red and the truck slowed to a stop, but the catcalling kept on. In that moment I remember thinking of all of the possible outcomes of the situation. One or more of the guys could get out of the car and approach us. In that case, do I stick with my friends? Do I fend for myself? Do I walk away and hope to find my way around streets I’d never navigated in the day, much less the night, before? I was far from home, in a situation I didn’t know how to control, where I feared for my safety. I remember just wishing the light would change and the bus would come pick us up, and eventually that did happened. The guys drove off and we got on our bus, but the feeling of fear for myself and my friends stuck with me into the night.”
“I was walking down the street towards the library for an evening of studying, and it was starting to get dark outside. This man was sitting on his porch and called out something similar to, ‘Hey beautiful, nice ass.’ I ignored the comment, as I'm used to doing when being catcalled, but this man took my lack of acknowledgement as a personal affront. He stood up and yelled after me, ‘Didn't you hear me?!’, a comment I once again ignored and kept walking, having quickened my pace and having started to pull out my phone to dial my boyfriend so I could be on the phone with someone in case his behaviour became more aggressive. Having been ignored twice, the man left his porch and started walking after me, yelling at me that I was a bitch and he was just trying to be nice—that it was rude to ignore someone when they gave you a compliment. He followed me for about a block and a half yelling similar comments, until I turned around to see how close he was in case I needed to call the police. Only when he saw me with a phone to my ear did he stop following me, smirk, hold his hands up in defence, and begin making his way back to his porch—as if what he'd just done was no big deal. But it was a big deal, because for the rest of the walk to the library I was walking at three times my normal pace, constantly checking over my shoulder to see if he had changed his mind and had begun following me again, and fighting back tears on the phone with my boyfriend due to the sheer panic and fear I felt in the last five minutes.”
Okay Sofiya, so I’ve read all of these and they don’t sound particularly fun, but what’s your point? Well, I’d like to bring up a kind stranger I once engaged with on the subway in hopes of showing you.
A man sat down right beside me, despite the rest of the car being empty. He waved at me to get my attention (I was wearing headphones), and me being the naive human that I am, I thought he needed directions or some other advice. Nope. He “just wanted to talk to a beautiful girl.” Even after stating I wasn’t interested, he persisted. Fast-forward a few painfully long minutes later to when a young woman came up to me and asked if I wanted to get out of the car with her at the next stop. I agreed, we got off together, and I got back on to the next train in peace.
Those who have never been in a situation like this before might be wondering why I waited to be “rescued” by that kind stranger. The reason is simple: I had to. I couldn’t take a fake call on the subway—there’s no service. I couldn’t move to another seat—he could have moved with me. I couldn’t get off the train myself—he could have followed. I couldn’t say I’m already seeing someone—that’s implying I think he’s romantically interested, which could have lead to a physically aggressive response. I couldn’t pull my keys out—that’s deliberately showing aggression. I couldn’t pull the emergency alarm—the situation did not classify as extreme. Answering his questions would make me seem interested, while ignoring him only would have turned it into a chase.
When you’re in a situation like that, you don’t think clearly. You don’t realize how to defend yourself; you’re just panicking. We are not robots, we do not react in a split second manner and that delay while weighing our options often backfires on us. I’ve been cornered into a revolving door of a closed shop while a man told me everything he wanted to do to me. In a completely separate scenario, after turning a man down I was grabbed and had comments whispered into my ear that made me feel sick for days. I’ve had unwanted fingers almost shoved down my throat in broad daylight. I’ve been followed by cars while the drivers called out inappropriate remarks. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been whistled at, had kissy noises made at me, and been called after. In those moments I had no idea what to do—and I know I’m not alone.
The stories collected in this article speak for themselves. This is not a man-hating piece. The men who attempt to support and stand in solidarity with those who face this harassment on a daily basis understand that these stories are not about them, just as they need to know they hold the power to help. If you witness sexual harassment of any kind say something, whether it’s to the person doing it or to comfort the person it was just done to. To quote another participant—“You never know when harassment can turn into assault… If it can happen in broad daylight on a busy street, it can happen anytime, anywhere, no matter what you do/say.”
Sexual harassment and assault is not something a person can just get over, just as it’s not something we can all ignore. Feeling alone in moments of complete helplessness is the scariest and most defeating feeling, especially in a world where calling out for help is often labeled as being hysterical, emotional, or an overreaction.
To finish off I’ll quote my dearest friend who summed up everything well:
“I guess the moral of my story isn't just that catcalling can be a horrible and traumatizing experience—it's also that good people who don't experience these situations aren't even aware of how hurtful catcalling can be, or how frequently it occurs. Continuing the conversation is so so so important to creating a cycle of awareness and learning so that these types of situations never become an issue for future generations.”
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