Girls Get Catcalled at a Younger Age Than You Might Think

Using the hashtag #firstharassed, women are taking to Twitter to share how early they began receiving sexually graphic and rude comments.

(Photo: Stop Telling Women to Smile/Facebook)

Jun 1, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

When a woman turns 18, a magic switch doesn’t get flipped that alerts the world that she’s now of legal age to be subjected to street harassment. As the stomach-turning responses to #firstharassed, a Twitter hashtag that went viral over the weekend, reveal, young girls are often on the receiving end of rude, sexually graphic comments and inappropriate touching.

The hashtag was started late last week by Chicago-based activist and author Mikki Kendall. She shared her own experience with harassment by an older man and asked her followers what their experiences have been.

In response, women began tweeting disturbing stories of being bothered as little girls walking to church or to the candy store, stopping at a gas station during a family road trip, or in their homes.

So, Why Should You Care? The stories being shared aren’t unusual, according to the results of a survey released last week by Cornell University and anti–street harassment group Hollaback! According to the findings, the majority of women around the globe first experience street harassment between the ages of 11 and 17. In the United States, a full 85 percent of respondents said they first experienced being harassed—catcalled or physically groped—before they turned 17.

Street harassment can make women feel frightened and unsafe, which has emotional and physical consequences. A full 72 percent of U.S. women who responded to the survey reported taking alternative transportation because of harassment. But young girls who may rely on public transportation or have to walk to and from school have no way of avoiding unwanted attention from men. That can lead to feelings of low self-esteem—girls may begin thinking they’re doing something to cause the harassment.

Hollaback! was behind last fall’s viral video showing a woman’s experience being catcalled 108 times in 10 hours as she walked around New York City. Critics noted that the video seemed to disproportionately portray black and Latino men as harassers, and that it did not reflect the experience of women of color. For this latest survey, however, the researchers received responses from 16,607 women living in 42 cities around the world, making it the largest international, cross-cultural analysis on street harassment ever conducted.

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In a segment on street harassment last fall, The Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams showed that it doesn’t matter whether a woman is running down the street belting out “The Star-Spangled Banner” or wearing a seriously frumpy outfit—it’s likely that she’ll be harassed. Indeed, as Kendall subsequently tweeted, “When I was #firstharassed I learned that going outside in clothes that fit were enough to prompt abuse. Jeans, t-shirt. 10 years old.”