Despite the fact that most women spend much of their lives being subjected to lewd comments and behavior from the men they encounter in the world, catcalling only entered the larger national and worldwide conversation fairly recently. Thanks in large part to viral videos and social media’s power to create a collective voice, we’re at least now openly arguing with those who still think catcalling is a “compliment” or the fault of women (as if our clothes or facial expressions have any bearing on the way men talk to us), rather than assuming our experiences are only our own individual collection of isolated incidents.
Yet as most women will attest, street harassment is still an ever-present part of public existence. And while the women I know have had strangers yelling at them, leering, making kissing noises, and being all manner of creep for longer than they can remember, it can still be hard to know what to do when it happens. I’m a look-straight-ahead-and don’t-acknowledge-their-pathetic-existence kind of person, but a lot of my friends opt for yelling expletives back or offering a simple middle finger. It’s a tightrope of standing up for ourselves vs. offering too much attention to these cretins (factoring in the possibility of escalation or violence)–just another exhausting way women are made to bear responsibility for navigating men’s behavior.
Noa Jansma is a 20-year old student from Amsterdam who found another way to respond. She spent a month taking selfies with the men who catcalled her and documented it on Instagram with her account DearCatCallers.
The project is meant to shine a light on the prevalence of street harassment since, as she wrote in her inaugural post, “many people still don’t know how often and in whatever context ‘catcalling’ happens.” Jansma posted 24 pictures in one month, and that’s not even all the men who harassed her. She says there were other men who either got away too fast or made her feel too unsafe to ask for a selfie.
Selfies have a bad reputation for being the epitome of vanity–especially young, female vanity. But defenders of the medium call it empowering, because why should we apologize for presenting our face to the world. Jansma has taken a situation that too often makes women feel self-conscious, and documents it with herself positioned in front of the men, with her own face close-up, staring into the lens, owning her image and reclaiming her power.
Maybe the most disturbing thing about this, though, is how happy so many of the men look to be in the pictures. Most are smiling or waving, some are leering or using the opportunity to put an arm around her.
Jansma told Dutch outlet Het Parool (translated by The Independent) “They’re not at all suspicious because they find what they do completely normal.” They don’t realize they’re part of a public shaming, because they don’t think they’re doing anything to be ashamed of.
Starting in January, catcalling will be punishable by a 190€ (about $220) in Amsterdam. As Jansma notes, that law will likely be difficult to enforce, but it’s “symbolic,” and that’s important. Clearly, we still have a long way to go before these men aren’t allowed to hide their demeaning, objectifying behavior behind a shield of “but it’s a compliment.”
Jansma’s month of catcaller selfies is over, but she wants to keep the account going, passing the account to women around the world “to show that it’s a global phenomenon,” not just something that happens to her, or to any one person.
(H/T Vice, image: Shutterstock)
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