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Participants of SlutWalk 2014 march from Causeway Bay to Chater Garden in Central, to demonstrate against those who explain or excuse sex crimes and abuse by referring to a woman’s appearance, in October that year. Photo: Sam Tsang

Catcalling is sexual harassment, and stopping it is not just a woman’s job

Jenn Kwai Sheung Lo has, like many women, experienced first-hand the destructive power of disrespectful language. But she still believes in a world without sexism, where everyone treats both genders with equal respect

It doesn’t always have to be abuse. Sometimes, a disrespectful statement can be just as destructive. As a woman, I’m often warned against travelling alone. Yet, I have a tendency to believe in the good of people. If I don’t see it at first glance, I must find it in them. It’s about faith.

So, I still travel alone. I like it. I like being in control of my path and the freedom of doing the things I want to. I have hit walls, of course, but what is life without a few detours? Mostly, travelling alone hasn’t disappointed. I’ve seen the wonders of nature, the splendours of our planet, the beauty of people: from those I made a deep connection with, to the strangers who offered me a hand or a smile. I won’t forget the woman who gave me a lift after an exhausting hike, or the photographer who spotted me from metres away. I love meeting new people, they inspire me and fill me with stories. I grow in each encounter and learn from them.

But things aren’t always this peachy. Catcalling is something that I, and numerous other women, have encountered countless times. Some even have to live with it, as society has become strangely tolerant of this “minor”, “harmless” form of sexual harassment. While physical sexual abuse is one of the most traumatising things that could happen to a person, pain is not meant to be compared.

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Not only is catcalling disrespectful, but the fear of what might happen next is haunting. I was stopped near the entrance to an underpass, my shoulder was grabbed and I was made to face a stranger. I wasn’t harmed, yet the incident was frightening enough to make me cautious of strangers and suspicious of their approach. I lost my smile for a short while as I was sceptical of people. I didn’t like it. It turned me into someone I don’t like to be. How do other victims see the world? The more we ignore the problem, the more distrust and distance accumulate every day.

And what about the destructive power of disrespectful language? Once, as I waited near a tram stop for a friend, a man walked up to me, mobile in hand, asking if I was the person he was supposed to meet. We started talking while waiting for our friends. We exchanged numbers, as it’s always nice to have an extra friend in a foreign country. Later that night I got a text, asking if I’d like to go out for a drink. I declined as I had other things to do, and offered to have coffee at a more appropriate time instead, to which he said no. I shrugged and let it go.

Should we tell girls to protect themselves, or should we educate people to behave their best?

Moments later, he shot off another text saying it would be all right to have coffee if we would “do some other things together” before I headed off. Alarm bells rang, so I declined his offer. Things went downhill fast: “You sound like a nun or some really conservative Christian,” he texted. “The way you approached me is like you’re into a one-night stand. Whatever.” I was left speechless, deeply insulted.

I’ve never told these stories before, as I felt it would just prove why I “shouldn’t travel alone”. But I strongly believe the end goal shouldn’t be to teach girls how to protect themselves from sexism.

Surely we all have a responsibility to protect ourselves; it’s a responsibility that shouldn’t lie on the shoulders of others. But imagine a world without sexism, where everyone treated both genders with equal respect: then there would be nothing to be protected from.

So should we tell girls to protect themselves, or should we educate people to behave their best?

I’ve had three men stand up for me when I was being catcalled.

Are you brave enough to stand up against sexual injustice, by not turning a blind eye when things happen in front of you?

Jenn Kwai Sheung Lo is a politics graduate who has studied at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and in China, Australia and Germany. She is starting an MA in human values and global ethics at King’s College London

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Catcalling is sexual abuse, and stopping it is not just a girl’s job