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 Altmayer, 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.”