Whistling afterwards, slogans, demonstrations of power: a petition wants to create a criminal offense of its own for so-called catcalling. Does that bring anything?
Women defend themselves against catcalling with chalk – in New York and now worldwide Photo: Photo: Spencer Platt / afp
“How much?” One of the two men asked me. My friend and I sat on a small wall in downtown Pforzheim and waited for the bus. It was hot, probably July or August. After our visit to the outdoor pool, my bikini was not yet completely dry and had left wet stains on my top. That seemed reason enough for the two men downtown to stare at my breasts.
When one of them asked, I just returned an irritated look. “How much that I can fuck her?” He pushed. Mind you, the question was directed to my friend, not me. When only silence could be heard from both of us, they turned away laughing.
That was a good 13 years ago, I was 16. I didn’t know the term “catcalling” at the time, but it’s the experience with it that I can still remember today.
There is no German equivalent for the term “catcalling”, one could say “verbal sexual harassment”. Whistling after, sayings like “Hey Sexy” or “Come over here, sweetie”, an “invitation” to get into the car, or kissing noises – all these are forms of catcalling. And for many, mostly women, they are part of everyday life in the workplace, on the street and in other public places. According to a study by the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, 44 percent of the women questioned have already experienced sexist attacks in Germany. Half of it took place verbally. In other studies, the number of those affected is significantly higher, up to 85 percent.
A complaint demands resources from those affected. How hard it would be to punish catcalling in Germany also depends on the form of the law
Although several studies have confirmed that catcalling has negative effects on the psyche of those affected, it is not a separate punishment in Germany. Sexual assaults are prohibited under Article 177 of the Criminal Code, but for this punishment there must have been contact. Sexual intrusiveness, however, begins before the person is touched. “Verbal insults” are also prohibited under Article 185, but ultimately difficult to punish and the sexism aspect is not taken into account. Catcalling therefore remains in a legal gray area. The 20-year-old student Antonia Quell now wants to change that and has therefore started the petition “It’s 2020. Catcalling should be a criminal offense.”
Quell started the petition out of personal concern. She herself has often been affected by catcalling. “I’m just shocked every time what some people in our society are doing, and I wanted to do something about it,” she told taz. And she’s not alone: within a month, over 50,000 people signed the petition. Quelle would now like to hand this over to Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht (SPD) and submit it to the Bundestag so that the Petitions Committee has to deal with it. A first step on a possible path to changing the law.
The high number of unreported cases
It is April 2020, the corona pandemic has reached its peak so far. While walking along the Landwehr Canal in Berlin-Neukölln, I meet a young man on a bicycle who comes to a stop next to me and asks: “Hey, sweetie, want to ride a lap on my luggage rack?” I decline with thanks. He gets back on his saddle, drives on and calls out to me: “Was I’m joking, you’re too fat for me anyway. ”I have now lost my horror and the speechlessness of my youth. I consciously ignore such sayings or try to react quickly. Despite everything, catcalling remains annoying and degrading. I would probably only file a complaint in exceptional cases.
Figures from countries in which catcalling is already a separate punishment, such as France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal or the Philippines, show that many of those affected feel this way. Since 2018, people in France have been fined up to 750 euros. If the person concerned is under 15 years old, it can be up to 1,500 euros. According to the State Secretary Marlène Schiappa, who is responsible for gender equality, around 700 fines were due in the first year. But the number of unreported cases will be much higher.
There were even fewer reports in Belgium, where sexist insults have been punished with fines and penalties since 2014. In the first four years there were only 25 charges and only one conviction. In this case, in June 2016, a young man insulted a policewoman as a “dirty whore” and advised her to look for a job that would suit a woman. He was sentenced to pay a fine of 3,000 euros. The main reason for this verdict is that several police officers were witnesses to the incident. But only in the rarest of cases does the police stand by when you find out about catcalling.
Raise awareness in society
The cases from Germany’s neighboring countries show that the introduction of your own penalties is not the ultimate means against catcalling. Because mostly these are fleeting everyday encounters – and it can be difficult to legally prove that whistling afterwards has a sexist component. It looks easier with insults that have a specific sexist reference, but here, too, evidence or stuff is needed: inside to convict. And although it is socially clear that catcalling is not a compliment, it is not that easy to define legally.
In addition, a report demands emotional and time resources from those affected. How hard it would be to punish catcalling in Germany also depends on the form of the law.
Quell sees the problem and, when asked, refers to other sexualized acts of violence: “The conviction rate for rape is also low, but this form of violent assault should of course still be punishable,” she says. For the student, the introduction of the new penalties should also be a sign against victim blaiming. “The fact that you have legal protection is emotionally important for those affected. Because if behavior is illegal, the victims are reassured that it is not their fault what they experience, no matter what they look like or what they are wearing, ”she says.
For Quell, it’s also about raising society’s awareness of catcalling. She’s not the first to try this. In 2014 the video “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman” went online. It shows how the actress Shoshana Roberts walks in different districts of New York equipped with a hidden camera. In the two-minute clip on YouTube, 108 incidents are reported. These range from a simple “hello” to minutes of persecution and sexist slogans. The video has been streamed 49 million times since then, sparking a debate about the safety of women on the streets. The same happened after a few years later a 20-year-old student from Amsterdam posted photos of her catcallers on Instagram.
However, these actions not only sparked debate, they also generated resistance. Because in the minds of many, catcalling is still labeled as a (unsuccessful) attempt at flirtation. Similar negative reactions can also be read in Quell’s petition: “Be happy about the compliments” or “If you don’t like it, then just ignore the sayings”, commented quite a few.
The introduction of its own penalties could ideally lead to society no longer seeing compliments in catcalling, but rather an encroaching display of power. And long-term studies from the countries in question should show whether the introduction of fines also has a deterrent effect on others. But even if only a fraction of those affected are willing to file a complaint, a change in the law would at least be preceded by an important symbolic power. Namely, that sexism has no place on the street.