We’ve long known that it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing or what you’re doing — for many, street harassment is a dark cloud that always looms. Claiming your own space in public can feel difficult with this constant threat, whether it manifests as a person whistling, yelling from their window, asking for your number, following you home, or, in some cases, assaulting you. Many have become so used to anticipating harassment that a stranger's voice, muffled by headphones, can evoke fear, even if they're simply asking for directions. The potential for harm — and escalation — is nearly always top of mind.
As COVID-19 cases rise across the nation and people mask up and cover up to prevent the spread, you might think catcalling would dwindle. Plenty of people seemed to think so. After all, much of our appearances are hidden behind cloth, and don’t these harassers have more pressing concerns, anyway?
But many now believe that it was a misguided hope to assume wearing cloth face coverings would quell catcalling and other forms of street harassment. After all, this unwanted attention has never been about looks in the first place: more often than not, it’s about intimidation and power. Not only do some experts think street harassment may actually increase during the pandemic due to some of the specific stresses it has created, but anecdotally, some of the people Allure talked to say they have experienced more frequent catcalling lately, as well.
Harassment increases when people feel a loss of power
Karla Altmeyer, the co-director of Healing to Action, says harassers often act out because they feel the need to claim ownership, power, or masculinity, especially when the world at large is out of their control (due to unemployment or other hardships caused by something like a pandemic, for example).
The ongoing street harassment that Olivia Zayas Ryan, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, has experienced, has solidified something she already firmly believed about catcalling. “Catcalling is primarily about wielding power,” she tells Allure. She adds “It has also felt ironic at times. I’ve spent much of quarantine missing being seen and witnessed, and though being catcalled is someone literally saying that they see you, in those instances I don’t feel seen at all.”
A number of catcallers have appeared to make light of the pandemic, like men who have told Britni de la Cretaz to smile with her mask on, “thinking they were funny.” She says, “I’ve been shocked to be street harassed while in a mask, and then I’m shocked that I’m shocked.”
Writer and activist LySaundra Campbell, who is based in Harlem, echoes this: “We're experiencing a collective, global crisis, so it's perplexing when someone has the audacity to verbally harass another person.”
Those who are most vulnerable are most likely to be harassed
Though not all harassers identify as men, catcalling is often tied to masculine ideals. “For many men or male-identified folks who are grappling with unemployment or job instability or insecurity, they are really in a crisis of their identity, and that ultimately plays out as violence against mostly female-identified folks or LGBTQIA+ folks,” Altmeyer says.
Historically, women, LGBTQIA+ people, people who earn a lower income, and people of color are disproportionately affected by such abuses. In a 2019 survey, Stop Street Harassment found 71 percent of female respondents experienced sexual harassment in public spaces, with the most frequently reported harassment reported by 64 percent of female respondents being “Someone whistling, honking, making kissy noises, “Pssst” sounds, or leering/staring aggressively at you.” The National Center for Transgender Equality conducted a 2015 survey where 48 percent of respondents reported “being denied equal treatment, verbally harassed, and/or physically attacked in the past year because of being transgender.”
The increased anonymity of wearing a mask
Astra Parrillo, who lives in Florida, believes her mask may have lessened harassment that’s specifically related to her identity as a transgender woman. While she’s still facing harassment — anything from a person driving alongside her to another seeking her number at a gas station — she believes that with her face covered, she’s less prone to transphobic harassment. “Masks help me not only protect myself but also can help relieve some issues trans women have,” Parrillo says.
Some also feel it’s dangerous that wearing masks increase anonymity, which can dehumanize potential targets of harassment. Lacey*, from Kentucky, who works in the service industry, has dealt with repeated in-person harassment at her workplace. She recalls one incident when a man repeatedly entered her workplace, making crude comments and trying to convince her to go on a date, despite her saying she was in a relationship.
“Something gave me the feeling that in part perhaps he felt so bold because I was wearing a mask, in the same way people feel emboldened to say things across a computer screen because they don't have to see the person,” she says. She believes it’s possible that if someone can’t see the whole of your face, they may form less of a connection, and thus more readily take out aggression through catcalling.
Parker*, who tells Allure that he was once followed home in Pittsburgh after a driver honked at him, also feels harassers are emboldened because their own faces are covered. “If I wanted to say something or report it, I really couldn’t. I feel like people really think they can say something and not get in trouble for it,” he says.
Putting others down to regain control
In a time where people may feel belittled or inadequate due to job loss or even purported loss of liberties (having to wear a mask), acting out via harassment is one way to assert their power, albeit one that puts others in an unsafe situation. It rarely has anything to do with the target.
“There's one catcall that I can't stand,” says Colleen Cass, a resident of Long Island City, New York. “It's when harassers say ‘You stay safe now.’ It usually comes after a ‘Hey beautiful/sexy/baby.’ I always want to turn around and ask them, ‘What should I stay safe from? You?’ It's reinforcing the idea that there is something out there that is going to hurt me because of my body.”
“Like other forms of sexual harassment, street harassment is about power and intimidation, so while we can’t speak to any one individual’s motivation, it does make sense that people who feel that their lives or personal situation is out of control might look to act out in some way to regain that control and power,” says Heather Drevna, Vice President of Communications at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). She also notes that RAINN has experienced increased call volumes in May.
“At the end of the day, no piece of garment can really protect someone from experiencing violence,” Altmeyer says. “It’s all about power and it’s all about a person asserting their identity; it has nothing to do with how the person looks, how they dress, or how they behave.”
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, free, confidential 24/7 support is available through RAINN's National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) and online at RAINN's online chat.
*Requested to be identified by only their first names
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Originally Appeared on Allure