Social media’s new form of ‘cat-calling’

Katie Smith, Editor-in-Chief

When Catherine Ferrill, a senior psychology major, saw that an anonymous person put a post online saying they wanted to make children with her, she was not sure what would warrant an appropriate reaction.

The post described in detail the outfit Ferrill was wearing and her exact location in the student recreation center. She subsequently found herself wondering if the person next to her in class or on the other side of the crosswalk had posted the comment. For a while she even felt weary about going to the gym knowing someone might be posting about her.

Although the days of street harassment, colloquially known as “cat-calling, or wolf-whistling,” may feel outdated, the emergence of social media platforms like YikYak, EIU Secret Admirers and EIU Panther Crushes may be introducing a new form of offense.

These pages allow people to post anonymously about people they are “crushing on.” Posts sometimes include students’ full names or a description of their identity and comments like, “(name omitted) can I ride your face?” “(name omitted) wrap those legs around me,” and “(name omitted) . . . can I feel your butt?”

The results of a 2006 study performed by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) reported that college students experience sexual harassment in as many as 15 separately categorized manners.

72 percent of women and 59 percent of men said they had experienced someone posting sexual messages about them on the Internet, or emailed, instant messaged, or text messaged sexual messages about them.

The study also reported the number one reaction from both men and women who have experienced sexual harassment is a feeling of self-consciousness or embarrassment, followed by feeling angry, less confident, and afraid or scared.

Although Ferrill was apprehensive about the post mentioning her at first, she said it did not take her long to brush it off.

“I don’t really think about it anymore,” she said. “I thought it was a joke.”

Jeannie Ludlow, an English professor and the director of Women’s Studies, said the online platforms’ anonymity does not mean sexually suggestive posts should be taken any less seriously.

She said that if some of the sites’ comments were said out loud and in person, they would be considered catcalling and perhaps even harassment.

“We tell ourselves, ‘If only the jerks use these sites and use these kinds of things we can pretend it’s not real. We can pretend like it doesn’t count’ and in fact that’s how catcalling happened for years,” she said. “That’s kind of how we got to a point in our society where people got away with it for so long.”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlaws sexual harassment in the workplace, and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states the harassment can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex.

David Chambers, deputy chief with the Charleston Police Department said to his knowledge no one in his jurisdiction has filed a complaint of sexually based street harassment in the manner of verbal abuse.

“Usually there is some degree of toleration for minimally inappropriate calling, but where do people put a flag on the field?” he said.

Despite the sites’ anonymous nature, Chambers said officers are able to trace the origin of posts.

“You can hide behind the cloud of the Internet to an extent but it’s certainly not impossible to find out where stuff’s coming from,” he said.

Ferrill, who said she has been whistled at and yelled to by strangers, has her limits as to when a line of innocence is crossed.

“If I didn’t respond and they got mad that’s when I would say it’s crossing the line. If they said something inappropriate about my body or something like that then I’d say that’s crossing the line,” she said. “If they asked for my number and I refused to give it to them and they keep asking over and over that’s crossing the line I’d say.”

Chambers said when his office has received harassment complaints they usually pertain to a situation that has escalated to something more aggressive.

“I think when we’ve had harassment-type complaints in that vain it would be because it went above and beyond,” he said. “Next thing you know you see them around campus everywhere and they continue to make comments even though they’re unwanted.”

Ferrill said she does sometimes take these comments as a compliment. Ludlow, however, said there is nothing complimentary about making sexually explicit comments to strangers.

“There are many times when I was younger when I wish I had turned around and pointed my index finger at them and said ‘Shut that mouth. You do not get to talk about me that way. This is not yours to discuss,’” she said motioning to her body.

The AAUW study reported students were less likely to be at least upset by verbal and other noncontact types of sexual harassment. However, having sexual comments posted about them on the Internet was one of the exceptions to the organization’s findings.

According to the report, most students said having sexual rumors spread, being spied on and having sexual messaged posted about them on the Internet would be more upsetting than being touched, grabbed or pinched in a sexual way.

There are ways to combat street harassment. Hollaback! an organization dedicated to ending street harassment, released a mobile version of their website, which was later updated and is now available as an application. With this technology, women are able to report and map areas where they have experienced some form of street harassment, and can even request to have their report viewable by city council members and stored in a database.

Ludlow said technology may be an appropriate response to sexually-charged comments made on online as well.

“I think that’s a good flip on this,” she said. “I think that there would be a strategy in (online harassment) to post it on – I don’t know – Instagram – and have all your friends rewrite it until it’s a compliment.”

According the AAUW report, the top three reasons given by people who said they had sexually harassed another student in some manner were: thinking it was funny, thinking the person liked it, or believing it was just a part of school life that many people participate in but is not a “big deal.”

Ludlow said she believes there is a large social and peer pressure felt by people who verbally sexually harass others, but she likes to think that specific pressure is relieved with maturity.

“Stop and think about what you’re doing,” she said. “That doesn’t make anybody happy. I don’t think that guys are happy when they’re doing that either.”


Katie Smith can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected].