In a perfect world, catcalling and other forms of harassment simply wouldn’t exist. But the truth is, our world is far from perfect. Not only do fully-grown women face creepy comments and unwanted attention on a regular basis, but young girls—like your daughter—do, too.
Two years ago, a study showed that one in ten American girls had been catcalled before her 11th birthday. That’s right, we’re talking about fourth graders getting wolf-whistled and potentially worse. And now, a 2017 report shows more than one in six girls in elementary and secondary school have dealt with gender-based harassment.
Why is this such a big deal? Let us count the ways. First of all, according to Girl Scouts’ Developmental Psychologist, Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald, “catcalling and other objectifying behaviors can make girls feel their value lies solely in how they look as opposed to what they think or the things they can accomplish. That kicks off a domino effect of girls engaging in self-objectifying—feeling overly concerned about how they look, comparing their bodies to those of other girls and women, and even judging other girls based on their looks.” Catcalling can also make girls feel ashamed of their bodies or threatened like they have to be extra cautious when out in public. None of these are things that anyone should have to spend time and energy thinking about—let alone an 11-year-old girl.
Further, studies have shown that young women perform significantly worse at math after being objectified by a member of the opposite sex. That is, in a controlled study, when females were leered at by a male actor posing as a peer and then took a math test, they got far fewer answers correct compared to women who had not first experienced the objectifying, sexualized stare. Perhaps we should add that to the reason why girls and women are still in the minority in so many STEM fields?
Finally, all these “little” comments about girls’ and women’s bodies contribute to a culture in which the female body is seen as up for grabs—both literally and figuratively. When fast and loose “locker room talk” about girl’s bodies is deemed acceptable or at least harmless, boundaries start to blur farther, putting girls at risk of dealing with aggressive physical behaviors in addition to the verbal taunts. Case in point? A recent study showed that more than one in five girls aged 14-18 have been kissed or touched without their consent.
“Beyond setting the damaging standard that girls and women are worth little more than the physical bodies they have to offer, when we simply dismiss catcalling as “boys being boys” or “men being men,” it actually confuses boys—making them think masculinity and aggression go hand-in-hand—and gives a bad name to all men, many of whom both admire and respect women," says Dr. Bastiani Archibald.
Essentially, catcalling is harmful, scary, and it could be happening to your daughter—or at least one of her friends. That said, the last thing you as a parent should do when it comes to all of this is to pretend it’s not happening. Yes, these may not be the most comfortable topics to think about or discuss, but “sheltering” your girl from these real truths can actually put her at even more risk. So here are 6 things you can (and really should) do to help protect your daughter and fight back against these sexist behaviors:
- Point out pop-culture sexism
One of the easiest ways to broach the topic of catcalling and sexual harassment is to point it out on TV shows, in movies, and in real life. When you witness catcalling or other sexual intimidation (and sadly, you won’t have to look hard to find it), raise the interaction to your daughter and tell her why it was inappropriate and unacceptable. Since sexist remarks and catcalls are often used as a punch-line in pop-culture, make sure to talk about why these behaviors aren’t funny at all. Ask your daughter how she feels about the exchange in question, and whether anything like that has ever happened to her.
- Get talking
Catcalling and sexual harassment may seem like very grown-up topics, but many girls are targeted in this way while they’re still in elementary school—and only two percent of girls ever tell their parents when it’s happened to them. That’s why it’s important to start the conversation early—think, third or fourth grade—to let your daughter know it’s a topic she should feel comfortable bringing to you.
- Let her know it’s never, ever her “fault”
When you talk about catcalling and other gender-based harassment, emphasize that no girl or woman is ever “asking for” or “doing anything to deserve” an objectifying comment or threats. Girls and women should feel free—just as boys and men do!—to go where they want, when they want, wearing what makes them comfortable, without fear of intimidation or abuse. Sadly, many girls and women of all ages blame themselves when they’re harassed, so make sure she knows that unwanted attention in the form of prolonged stares, lewd comments, or touching of any kind without her express consent is never, ever her fault—and not something she should feel ashamed telling you or another adult about.
- Arm her with what to say and do
Knowing how to react to catcalling can be confusing—especially to girls who have been raised to always be polite, especially to adults, and who are surrounded by a society that emphasizes the importance of being pretty and attractive to the opposite sex.
Emphasize that since catcalling itself is the opposite of polite, there’s no need to smile, laugh, or engage in conversation with the harasser. In fact, make sure she knows that smiling, laughing, or chatting with someone who makes lewd comments can unintentionally encourage more of the same kind of behavior and even put her in danger. Help your daughter to follow this rule of thumb: If an adult is making her feel uncomfortable or acting inappropriately, she should get away from that person as soon as possible and immediately tell you or another caring adult about what happened.
Meanwhile, if another kid at school or in an extra-curricular activity is making her feel uncomfortable with catcalls or other forms of sexual harassment, she can either walk away and tell an adult, or, if she feels safe enough to do so, explain to the other child that such actions aren’t okay and that they need to stop. Still, if that behavior continues, your daughter will need to tell a trusted adult—not just to help herself out of a tough situation, but because the harasser could be doing the same or worse to other girls who might not have the strength to speak out about it.
- Talk to boys and young men in your life
If you have sons or other young men in your life, have conversations about catcalling and sexual harassment with them, too. Using pop culture or events in real life or on the news is always a solid way to introduce the topic. Let them know these kinds of behaviors are never OK, and why they’re damaging to people of both genders. Then, ask him why he thinks other boys and men behave this way. Discuss ways that he can help fight back against the catcalling culture—whether it’s standing in solidarity with girls and women when he sees them being targeted in real life, refusing to laugh at sexist jokes, or calling out his friends if he sees them engaging in sexist behavior. We all have to stand together if we want to create a better, safer, and healthier world.
- Take action
If you think this is a big problem in your community—as it is in many communities, sadly—you might want to consider getting more involved. Talk to your daughter’s teachers and other school administrators about planning an assembly or other student (or parent-student) event to address the pressures put on both genders to fit certain stereotypes, and why and how those stereotypes can lead to damaging behaviors like catcalling and other kinds of gender-based harassment.
While we can’t flip a switch and create a harassment-free world for our girls, we do know that ignoring catcalling or laughing it off contributes to a culture where such behavior is seen as normal and even acceptable. Your daughter—and all of us—deserve better than that.