As a 12-year-old, Sophia Marshall stepped out of the house feeling confident in the outfit she had picked out that morning. As she waited for a friend by the local high school, she heard a sharp whistle from out of the window of a passing car — her first experience with catcalling.
Marshall, now a junior business administration major at Pitt, recalled feeling conflicted at the time — a mix of validation and violation.
It wasn’t until she came to college that the instances of catcalling became more frequent for Marshall — happening on the bus, her nightly walk home in Central Oakland and during her summer abroad in Paris — causing her to feel fed up.
“I’m not your baby, I’m not your honey,” Marshall said. “You don’t know me.”
According to a Cornell study, 85 percent of women experience street harassment before age 17 — and some women in Oakland are in that majority. Walking in groups of three or more, carrying pepper spray at all times and knowing a few self-defense techniques are all tips in the back of the minds of some women who have experienced street harassment at Pitt.
Marie Skoczylas, a visiting instructor in the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Program, offers a definition of catcalling and its effects.
“Catcalling is singling out a target for sexual objectification and commenting publicly on that person’s appearance,” Skoczylas said. “It requires a sense of entitlement to pull a stranger into that kind of situation, knowing the advance may well be unwelcome and insulting.”
Catcalling is part of the larger issue of street harassment. According to “Stop Street Harassment” — a nonprofit organization focusing on ending gender-based street harassment — street harassment can range from unwanted whistling to sexual assault. As Skoczylas explains, there’s a fine line between a pleasant interaction with compliments and harassing words that are disrespectful in nature.
“Rather than taking the route of trying to criminalize behavior, I think we need to focus on a cultural shift, changing attitudes so that we see each other as individuals to be respected rather than objects to harass,” Skoczylas said.
Sophomore finance major Casey Maher experienced catcalling in Oakland one night in August. She walked to upper campus to meet with friends to watch a movie, but a friend made a last-minute cancellation. Maher found herself alone in an unfamiliar place.
“Some guys pulled up next to me in a car and started yelling things out the window, like, ‘hey girl, get in the car, let us give you a ride,’” Maher said. “It made me feel really uncomfortable and I had my hand on my phone to call the police.”
Carolyn Helenski, a sophomore communication science and disorders major, has experienced catcalling in multiple cities. She recalls an instance with her mom in Philadelphia that was particularly memorable, saying it was very degrading.
“One time I was in Philly with my mom for the afternoon, and a young guy was with his friends on the street,” Helenski said. “When my mom and I walked by he said, ‘look at that nice, tight pussy in those pants.’’’
In this uncomfortable position, Helenski had an urge to stand up to the man, but her mom told her to act as if nothing had happened and just continue walking.
“Catcalling isn’t pretty when someone is trying to embarrass or harass you,” Helenski said. “I went to say something, but [my mom] told me to just keep walking — which frustrated me because a woman I look up to more than anyone didn’t feel comfortable standing up for herself or me.”
Other women in Oakland have experienced harassment from older men, not just fellow college students.
Morgan, a junior who asked her last name be omitted for privacy, was walking back from her class in the Chevron Science Center when she stumbled into one such case as she passed a few construction workers on the sidewalk.
“As I got closer to them, I noticed that the one guy was staring at me,” she said. “Right as I walked by, the guy who had been looking at me a little too long turned his head and said ‘hey beautiful,’ and watched me as I kept walking down the street.”
Morgan said she didn’t think much of the situation — she just smiled and continued walking down O’Hara Street to Fifth Avenue, enjoying the compliment she was given.
“What was initially nice became super creepy when I was stopped at the crosswalk by Thackeray,” Morgan said. “The same man popped his head out of the passenger side of a white pickup truck and said, for the second time, ‘hey beautiful’ as his buddy kept driving.”
To avoid another encounter with the man, Morgan ended up taking the longest route possible to get to her destination — an inconvenience for her to feel safe.
While Marshall continues to take her chances striking up conversations with strangers, she said she draws the line between friendliness and street harassment at a stranger’s ability to read context clues on a situation.
“I’m not trying to say that no one should talk to anybody else,” Marshall said. “I am saying that you need to respect my privacy, and that includes no shouting, no name calling.”