By: Aileen Pohl
“I would love for you to call me daddy…”
If you are walking through Amsterdam you might just stumble across this quote written on the sidewalk in eye-catching, rainbow-colored chalk. This is not just a random message meant to make passers-by uncomfortable however. Instead, it forms part of a larger initiative called ‘Catcalls of AMS.’
Inspired by the original ‘Catcalls of NYC’, ‘Catcalls of AMS’ is an Instagram account that posts pictures of comments women have received while walking through the city. By writing out these messages all throughout Amsterdam, they want to raise awareness of the uncomfortable interactions with strangers women have experienced in public spaces (Catcallsofams 2021).
But what effect do situations like these actually have on women? And how do they influence their movement through the city?
Who feels insecure in the streets?
People can become victims of street harassment, crime and violence for a variety of reasons. Race, religion, age, size and disability – these are only some of the characteristics that can make someone stand out to an offender (Logan 2015). One of the characteristics with the greatest impact on people’s feelings of security in the city is gender however (Tandogan and Illhan 2016).
Women’s reported fear of gender-based and sexual harassment in public spaces is 3 times higher than men’s, and is expressed through a variety of behavioral and physical adjustments (Tandogan and Illhan 2016). Generally, women fear the experience of violence such as rape or murder the most. Street harassment can include a wide range of unpleasant behaviors from strangers, ranging from whistling and being called sexual names to even being followed or touched. And it is this unpredictability – initially harmless interactions developing into potentially dangerous situations – that motivates women’s fears and subsequently their actions (Logan 2015).
In order to minimize their chance of encountering an offender, women may take a number of precautionary measures (Tandogan and Illhan 2016). Most drastically, women may choose to limit the streets they walk or the places they visit out of fear of sexual harassment (UN Women 2020). A large-scale survey of 42.000 women in Europe found for example that almost half of the respondents would regularly ‘self-restrict’ their freedom of movement (Vera-Gray and Kelly 2020). Such self-restriction is also called avoidance behavior, and can include limitations surrounding time of day, route and ways of travelling (Vera-Gray and Kelly 2020; Miranda and van Nes 2020).
So where and when do women travel through public spaces? Taking a closer look at the routes they take reveals a number of environmental criteria that influence their perceptions of safety and their decisions on how to best reach their destination.
First, women prefer walking in busy areas with fellow pedestrians as this leaves little opportunity for harassment without bystanders noticing and stepping in. Especially at night, women will often limit their movement to busy parts of the city even if this means taking a longer detour (Miranda and van Nes 2020).
Second, women will generally avoid areas that offer concealment such as subways, parks and alleyways. Potential offenders can hide in dark corners and behind large trees, so women tend to plan routes through areas that offer them sufficient overview of their surroundings. Here, adequate lighting is especially important for easing discomfort (Boomsma and Linda 2014). Considerations like these demonstrate how feelings of insecurity can make women consciously avoid places and situations, which in turn restrict the way in which they go about their daily lives.
Sometimes dark places and abandoned streets cannot be avoided however. What do women do then?
There are many different self-protective behaviors women may adopt such as adjusting their appearance or demeanor by avoiding wearing red dresses or miniskirts, two items of clothing highly associated with a stereotypically feminine appearance (Vera-Gray and Kelly 2020; Tandogan and Illhan 2016). Instead, wearing sunglasses or headphones is commonly advised to create the appearance of a barrier between the woman’s own personal space and her surroundings and thereby make approaching her more difficult (Vera-Gray and Kelly 2020).
Furthermore, women may equip themselves with different self-defense tools. While carrying pepper spray is illegal in the Netherlands, some advise carrying a flashlight or special self-defensive rings and key chains. Even if they never end up using them, just the act of carrying these tools with them can help increase confidence about safety (Douane Belastingdienst 2021; Defender Ring 2021).
Perceptions of insecurity are more than just a shared feeling; they actually limit freedom of movement. It sheds light on the daily tradeoff women make between their liberty and their comfort and safety, even if sacrificing the former does not guarantee the latter (Taub 2021). Women thus don’t only think about and fear harassment, they also plan for it. Even in its absence (Logan 2015).
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Catcallsofams (2021) Cat Calls of Amsterdam. Retrieved 07 June 2021, from https://instagram.com/catcallsofams?utm_medium=copy_link.
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Tandogan, O. and B. S. Ilhan (2016). “Fear of crime in public spaces: From the view of women living in cities.” Procedia Engineering 161, 2011-2018.
Taub, Amanda (2021). “In Rage Over Sarah Everard Killing, ‘Women’s Bargain’ Is Put on Notice.” New York Times. At https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/14/world/europe/sarah-everard-women-protest.html.
UN WOMEN (2020). “COVID-19 and Ensuring Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces for Women and Girls”. Issue Brief.
Vera-Gray, F. and L. Kelly (2020). “Contested gendered space: public sexual harassment and women’s safety work.” International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice 44(4), 265-275.