Photo from http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/trending/Newly-hung-signs-declare-Philadelphia-New-York-no-catcall-zones.html
“I would rather get murdered than raped,” Sarah* declared, as she narrated how unsafe she felt whenever she commutes. She complained how some of her male friends do not seem to grasp how pervasive the fear of sexual assault is. Even the act of getting to work and to her home is an ordeal.
Sarah, 22, just graduated college last June. Aside from dealing a new lifestyle as part of the working force, she now has to deal with commuting from work everyday. She does not complain about the crowded MRT and FX. They are cheaper, and she gets to places more quickly. What truly bother here are the catcalls she encounters.
There are roads and establishments under construction around her home and her office building. The construction workers in those areas have catcalled her in the past, so she tries to take “precautionary measures.” She takes a longer route to avoid them. She tries her best to look inconspicuous. “I don’t wear dresses, skirts or makeup when I commute,” she said. Her boss asked her to put on more makeup when she attends client meetings, so she lugs around a makeup kit in her bag. She still insists on commuting makeup-free.
Unfortunately, this “strategy” did not work. One afternoon, as she was walking from her office to an FX station with an officemate, she noticed a vehicle following them. The car’s pace slowed down as it approached them. The male driver of the vehicle rolled down his window, as if he was about to ask a question.
But that’s not what happened. Sarah noticed his hand moving up and down as he locked eyes with her and her friend. His zipper was open. That was when Sarah and her friend realized—he’s masturbating. At them. In broad daylight. At rush hour.
Sarah and her friend tried to lose the vehicle, but it continued to tail them. In a moment of panic, they ran to the other side of the road—stoplights and pedestrian lanes be damned. They watched from afar as the vehicle tailed another woman, this time someone in a school uniform.
“Do you remember how he looked like?” I asked.
“Like a driver,” she replied. He was driving alone, and he had what looked like a “driver’s uniform.” Of course, he could have been the owner of the car himself—but her response seems indicative of what she admits is a very classed perception of catcallers.
Before that incident, her experiences with catcalls were often with informal settlers, construction workers, or tricycle drivers. She was never catcalled by her professors, classmates, or co-workers. Naturally, she felt safer around them and unintentionally ended up associating catcallers to a certain class.
However, this doesn’t seem to hold true in viral posts about online catcalling. In 2016 and 2017 alone, there have been numerous viral posts about privileged college students sexually harassing women online. Some of these male college students are from what are often considered top universities in the country: the University of the Philippines, University of Sto. Tomas, San Beda University, and Polytechnic University of the Philippines.
On December 27, 2016, Bela Legaspi and Soheil Bidar, both UP students, became friends on Facebook. Their mutual friends and online connections were notified by an automated Facebook story that said, “Soheil Bidar and Bela Legaspi are now friends on Facebook.”
The male friends of Soheil Bidar commented on the post.
“Ayan na siya!”
“IGILING MO BIDAR”
“Kakainin ka niyan”
One commenter, a UP student and a member of the Football Team, even tagged other male friends in the comments section—as if virtually inviting them to witness a spectacle.
All of these comments were visible to the public. And by default Facebook settings, Bela Legapi and Soheil Bidar would have received notifications every time a new comment was made. Clearly, there was no attempt to hide the “locker room talk” from Bela and all of her friends and family.
Different members of the UP community condemned this act. Some even demanded the commenters to be banned from representing the university as part of the UP Men’s Football Team. Eventually, Andres Gonzales, the coach of the UP Men’s Football Team, issued a public apology on behalf of the team. “We admit that our comments and actions were inappropriate. Consequently, the team is implementing measures to educate its members to ensure that such untoward incidents will not be repeated.”
But victims of catcalling are not always met with the same level of support and indignation on their behalf. Yssa Celestino, a UST student, complained about being molested by a fellow UST student while they were both in a UV Express. Her brother, Geo, posted the experience on her behalf. “She fell asleep in the UV Express and felt a hand brushing up her leg. She shook her leg as if to re-position her posture for a more comfortable sleep. The hand was gone. She sighed relief. And then she said she felt him again touch her leg.” Yssa took a photo of the man molesting her and posted this photo on Twitter to warn friends about this man. Netizens later pointed out that the man was a fifth year engineering student from UST.
Geo narrated, “UST’s Student Welfare and Development Board ordered the retraction of the post including the deletion of the picture itself.” A case was even filed against Yssa for ruining the man’s reputation. “Can you imagine how UST is endangering her students with a Board who thinks like this? How many female (and male) students who were molested, asked for help, only to be blamed by the institution who swore to protect them?” Geo wrote.
One of those who Tweeted a reacted about Geo’s post was Twitter user @bedfordmaine. She complained how after two months, UST still did nothing to address the harassment case filed her 16-year old cousin from UST Senior High School.
Her cousin was added thrice to a Facebook group chat called “Redhorse.” In that group chat, male college students from UST, San Beda, and PUP exchanged lewd comments about her cousin. One of them even drew a penis on her selfie.
“Sarap siguro ng utong niyan noh.”
“Pink yan tol”
“Nahubaran ko na sa tingin palang”
“GAGO AMOY KALDERETA PEPE NIYAN”
One of them eventually said,“Add natin para alam niyang siya pinaguusapan natin…”
And so they did.
This group of college students added an underage senior high school student in that group chat. The intent was clear: they wanted her to know they were talking about her.
Twitter user @bedfordmaine posted these screenshots in her public Twitter account and tagged the men who harassed her cousin. Some netizens sided with her. They were outraged by the way the men talked about her—a minor—and how they even had the audacity to add her thrice to the group chat. However, there were some netizens—both male and female—who attacked the victim and her cousin. They excused the men for their locker room talk, claiming “boys will be boys.” They accused about the women for seeking attention. Both women eventually deactivated their social media accounts.
These examples all have similarities: the man in the car tailing the women while masturbating, the UP students making suggestive comments in a public Facebook post, and the college students adding a senior high school student in a group chat. For all examples, the women were not only objectified. The offenders made sure their victims knew that they were being objectified. The masturbator in the vehicle rolled down his window and let the women see what he was doing. The UP students tagged each other in the public comment section instead of simply chatting with each other privately. The college students in the Redhorse group chat added the female senior high school in the group chat. Thrice. They were explicit about the purpose behind this move: so she knows they are talking about her.
This distinction may seem inconsequential, but it reaffirms catcalling as a form of sexual harassment, not as a form of compliment—as some people have argued. It also shows how more than lust or sexual desire, catcalling is about dominance and power. Catcalls do not just objectify women; they subordinate women. The victims are made to feel uncomfortable, unsafe, and ashamed.
It is easier said than done to fight back and retaliate at the catcallers, especially when fighting back comes with a cost. Yssa was forced by UST to take down her post on Twitter and apologize to her abuser. The teenager and her cousin involved in the Redhorse group chat were slut-shamed and cyberbullied until they took down the posts and deactivated their accounts. Sarah still shudders when she thinks about what could have happened if the vehicle got close enough to her and her colleague.
The encounter happened almost right in front of her office, and we spoke the same evening it happened. I was concerned about how walking in that street again the following day would be a trauma trigger. “How will you get to work tomorrow?” I asked. “Will you carpool with your mom? Will you take an Uber?”
She immediately struck Uber off her choices. “At least with commuting, I’ll be in public with other people. If I use Uber, I’ll be in a car alone with a man I don’t know.” And then, in a whisper, she said, “What if that guy was an Uber driver?”
There was nothing about the man or the vehicle that would suggest he was an Uber driver. But it was a possibility. We were silent for a while.
“What if you bring your own car?” I asked. Sarah had a car at home and knew how to drive, a privilege that most victims may not even have.
“There’s no parking lot in front of the office,” she said. “The closest parking is across the street. I’d be going through the same road even if I bring a car. It wouldn’t make a difference.”
After that, I ran out of suggestions. To this day, she continues to walk at the same street.
There was no quick solution to Sarah’s problem. She can’t bring her own car to work. She’s scared of taking an Uber. People catcall her as she takes the public transportation. And most people won’t even have access to private transportation in the first place, which gives them even lesser options than Sarah. Perhaps there was no quick solution to Sarah’s problem because catcalling is more pervasive than most people give it credit for.
People can be victims of catcalling whether they take public and private transportation. Even at the comfort of their own home, they can be victims of online sexual harassment: Photoshopped photos and lewd comments about them splayed out and immortalized in the Internet for the whole world to see. Let’s say they stay off social media and busy themselves with work.
But catcalling happens in the workplace as well, something Sarah had to learn the hard way. She watched in disgust as her female colleague at work got catcalled. Sarah and her colleague were in a meeting with clients, who happened to be executives at a finance company. These executives, well educated, sharply dressed, and at least twice or thrice their age, asked Sarah’s female colleague to sit on their laps. “Halika dito, iha,” they said as they chuckled and leered.
That was a turning point for Sarah. It made her realize that catcalling and sexual harassment happens everywhere. We can’t run away from it. Yet we can’t ignore it, either—because of how perverted and terrifying it is.
And there’s no quick solution to it, because catcalling is only the indication of a problem. It’s not the problem itself. It stems from deeper roots that go beyond what both men and women say or do in public and virtual spaces.
Peter*, 22, recalled how it was like to grow up in a Christian school. One summer, his class was required to go to an “immersion trip.” There were no electric fans or air conditioners in the area, so his female classmate wore shorts. The men in the area catcalled her and openly took photos of her. Instead of reprimanding the men, the teachers reprimanded Peter’s classmate for being a “stumbling block.” The “stumbling block” argument is common in many religious groups and schools. Victim blaming and slut shaming are perpetuated by seemingly innocuous rules like dress codes and “inspiring” stories that compare women to the fishes or pearls or fruits.
One example of this story is a now viral post about what Muhammad Ali supposedly told his daughter. The source of the quote is unverified. However, this hasn’t stopped thousands of people from sharing it and tagging their friends and daughters in the comments.
Ali supposedly to his daughter:
“Hana, everything that God made valuable in the world is covered and hard to get to. Where do you find diamonds? Deep down in the ground, covered and protected. Where do you find pearls? Deep down at the bottom of the ocean, covered up and protected in a beautiful shell. Where do you find gold? Way down in the mine, covered over with layers and layers of rock. You’ve got to work hard to get to them. Your body is sacred. You’re far more precious than diamonds and pearls, and you should be covered too.”
I used to believe and appreciate quotes like that. But later, I learned the problematic nuances behind such quotes. They imprison women. They condition women to behave “modestly” and “decently.” But why is that even necessary in the first place? They tell women to “cover up” as if there’s something so inherently shameful about their bodies. If men have lustful thoughts and act upon those thoughts when he sees a woman, that shouldn’t be the woman’s fault. Men should be taught that they are not entitled to women’s bodies, regardless of how they feel and how women dress up.
These beliefs have a direct impact in how authorities perceive and handle sexual harassment. In September of 2014, the Philippine National Police released a public service announcement entitled, “Rape Prevention Tips.”
“Do not walk by yourself after dark.”
“Take a cab home or call a friend to pick you up.”
“Do not get into an elevator alone with someone you do not know.”
“As a woman, you can always carry pepper spray with you.”
“Rapists generally tend to attack women who appear to be walking along aimlessly or who do not seem very active. Thus, by being confident and walking erect and purposefully, you can deter a rapist.”
The best “tip” was, “You can also use any thing in your hand like pen, pencil, vegetables, mobile phone, hot tea, bag, umbrella, etc. as an emergency self-defense tool to escape from the attacks.”
The “tips” were infuriating for so many reasons. For one, they weren’t helpful at all. The only true rape prevention tip is simply not to rape.
Another reason is because the burden to “prevent” rape fell on the women. They have to imprison themselves: to avoid being out of their homes at night, to avoid taking elevator rides alone, to “walk erect and purposefully,” and to bring pepper spray. This paints a picture of how every waking moment is lived in fear of sexual assault, how every moment feels like imprisonment. Your clothes are policed. Your posture is policed. Your schedule is policed.
The tips from PNP also failed to acknowledge that not all women have the privilege of choosing favorable work hours. Some women have to work at night. Some women can’t afford cabs.
The problem is clearly systemic and cultural, and it perpetuated by even seemingly innocuous words we may hear at home.
“Kababae mong tao, nakabukaka ka umupo.”
“Kababae mong tao, ang lakas mong tumawa.”
“Kababae mong tao, ang kalat ng gamit mo.”
“Kababae mong tao, lagi kang wala sa bahay.”
“Kababae mong tao, hindi ka marunong sa gawaing bahay.”
“Kababae mong tao, kabastos-bastos ‘yung suot mo.”
Ironically, these sexist statements are sometimes spoken by women themselves. They can be our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and even teachers who were also taught and conditioned to behave like “decent women.” They perpetuate sexist beliefs of how women should behave. And if women don’t fit into these molds, they are treated as if they deserve the disrespect. As if they deserve to be catcalled.
But these are social constructs that we don’t have to follow. We can change how we position ourselves in a space and in a community—may it be physical or virtual. We can assert those positions. And we can convince others to do the same.
It’s a long and arduous process that often starts with education—with performing a self-check and acknowledging our own problematic ideologies.
Twitter user Mehreen Kasana (@mehreenkasana) Tweeted, “It’s OK to admit you’re wrong. None of us were born with progressive notions of race, class, gender, etc. Learning is not linear or innate.” This Tweet is powerful, because it reminds us that the people who engage in victim-blaming, slut-shaming, and maybe even catcalling, are not inherently evil people. Some of them are simply victims of problematic ideologies.
Mehreen Kasana’s Tweet emphasizes the importance of examining our own problematic beliefs and speaking out about them.
This is precisely what Sarah has been trying to do. She has spoken to some of her male friends about her encounters with catcallers. Most of her male friends still don’t understand the gravity of the situation, but that doesn’t stop her from trying.
Once, they brushed it off as an inconvenient encounter and brought up the “not all men” argument. She saw a quote online that she thought was fitting for the situation.
“Not all men are rapists and maniacs, but all women have lived in fear of them.”
*Names have been changed.
This essay was refined through the comments of my CW141 classmates and professor, Ma’am Marby Villaceran