What is catcalling

Women in the fight against verbal sexual harassment

"Ey, Blondie", "Snail, come over here" - many men still regard such sayings on the street as a compliment to women. But women often feel annoyed by kissing and whistling noises or suggestive gestures. On Instagram they give examples of catcalling and with colorful chalk campaigns they are now drawing attention to the problem in many cities. Women write their worst experiences in chalk on the street.

Catcalling, in German for "Katzengeschrei", describes sexually suggestive and inappropriate comments, calling after and whistling by men towards women. This type of harassment by strangers occurs both in public and on the Internet in the form of undesirable statements made to people who are perceived as objects of desire.

So far, lewd sexual remarks by men towards women in Germany have not had any consequences. But the 20-year-old student Antonia Quell from Fulda wants to change that. In August 2020, she started an online petition addressed to the Federal Ministries of Justice and Family and the Federal Government in general. More than 65,000 people have already signed it.

No separate criminal offense in Germany

"Not every man does it, but every woman knows it. Catcalling, this is verbal sexual harassment called. Catcalls should not be confused with compliments. Catcalling is rather the exploitation of dominance and power," says the petition.

Antonia Quell has initiated a petition against catcalling

Verbal sexual harassment is not a separate criminal offense in Germany. Sexual physical contact is a prerequisite for sexual harassment. The petition therefore calls for verbal sexual harassment to have its own place in the law.

The German penal code provides penalties for insulting: a fine or, in special cases, a prison sentence of up to two years. In some cases, this article of the law also applies to verbal sexual harassment on the street. "That is the case if the statement is expressly disparaging," says Anja Schmidt from the University of Halle-Wittenberg - for example, if a woman or a transsexual person is degraded to a sexual object.

But sayings like "You have a beautiful figure!" do not fall under this article. They cannot be classified as sexual harassment, as, according to the current definition, only physical contact is a criminal offense. The situation would be clearer if catcalling were viewed as a separate criminal offense, says the lawyer, whose research focus includes sexual criminal law.

The activist Antonia Quell suggests punishing catcalling cases with fines, as in France, where this type of verbal harassment has been punishable since 2018 and is punishable by fines of up to 750 euros. Catcalling is also illegal in Portugal, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Don't confuse harassment with flirtation

According to a survey by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS), two thirds of women in Germany have been confronted with whistles on the street at least once in the past two years, over 40 percent with sayings, jokes, sexist insults or sexual gestures. A third of them are women under the age of 25.

"There are different cases. Of course you are happy about some forms of attention. If a woman is happy about it, that's her right," stressed Antonia Quell in an interview with DW. But people who feel uncomfortable about it and who have had stressful experiences should be listened to. "Over the years you have noticed such incidents and what is also being told in the circle of friends. I believe that most of the women who live in the city are familiar with this phenomenon," said the activist.

Antonia herself also heard harassing sayings more than once. One evening she was riding her bike home. A car with two men caught up with them. One of them handed a bottle out the window and offered a drink. But Antonia advised both of them to run away. Then she heard insults. Such harassment is often accompanied by aggression.

Debate about the comprehensibility of the evidence

Antonia Quell wants to change the view of catcalling in Germany. Above all, recognizing that such behavior is illegal is, in their opinion, crucial. In the comments below Antonia's petition, many people show solidarity with her.

But there are also critics. Some people doubt that German society is ready for it. Others think the problem is a matter of interpretation, since annoyance is a subjective perception. In addition, such a criminal offense would leave room for suspicion, threats and revenge. Others fear harassment against men who have nothing to do with catcalling. The correct definition of verbal sexual harassment is also discussed. Many also doubt that street harassment can be proven and that perpetrators can be brought in.

Chalk action against catcalling in New York

Antonia Quell thinks that the problem of the traceability of the evidence exists in almost every crime, especially insulting or sexual harassment. That is not a counter-argument. "It's not my job to figure out how to pursue this. It's a job for the government, for the legislature," she says.

According to the lawyer Anja Schmidt, it depends on the situation and the form of the statement. If it is only given orally, testimony from witnesses or records are helpful. If social media is used for the utterances, it is easier to document them.

"In addition, the investigative authorities and courts need to be made aware of these forms of gender-specific non-physical violence," she emphasizes.

Petition already clears the first hurdle

Schmidt finds that beyond effective legal sanctions, social positioning such as the petition against catcalling or the chalk campaigns that are documented on Instagram are important in order to create awareness of this form of gender-specific disregard.

The petition has already been signed by a sufficient number of people. Now a petitions committee in the German Bundestag will deal with the issue. Should he come to the conclusion that the current catcalling laws are insufficient, he can initiate a debate in parliament.

A similar campaign recently had success. In July, upskirting, i.e. taking photos and filming under the skirt, was classified as a criminal offense by the Bundestag. For this there is now either a fine or up to two years in prison. Here, too, it all started with an online petition from two women from southern Germany.

Adaptation: Markian Ostaptschuk