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Some Catcalls Offend Me, Some Don’t (and That’s Okay)
04.28.17
(by Alfred Gescheidt via Getty Images)

Catcalling and harassment are often mentioned in the same breath. That’s because many argue that catcalling is harassment, no matter the intention. A catcall is an unwelcome imposition, a not-very-veiled command: to feel complimented, to smile, to at least say hello or thank you, to “just ignore it if it bothers you” and “don’t dress that way if you don’t want the attention.” It’s an objectification, sexualization and subordination that often prompts fear, intimidation and discomfort. At least, that’s how it’s typically defined. Some, women included, would disagree.

In Milan, a woman walks into a café and orders a coffee and brioche. She notices a group of men sitting nearby. “Ciao, ma come sei bella,” trails her as she walks to her table. She dismisses the comments as part of the Italian culture, where women are often bella, cara, tesoro, and seldom referred to by their actual names. Later, when she leaves the café, the men don’t notice; they’ve moved on. She feels relieved. In DC, a woman walks past a group of men standing by a bar. They try to get her attention with “hello, gorgeous.” She ignores them and walks away uncomfortably. The next week, that woman is robbed. She tells the police that she remembers the men who did it and that before he’d run away with her purse, one of them had said: “you should have said hello.” Both of these stories are true.

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You might say something along the lines of: The latter is just sensationalizing a one-off occurrence. Not every instance of catcalling escalates to assault or robbery. You’d be right — not every instance does, but enough do. More importantly, 68% of women who are harassed on the street fear the possibility that the incident will escalate to something worse. For many, escalation is a reality; 23% of respondents to this survey were sexually touched, 20% were followed and 9% were forced to do something sexual.

The average male is taller, weighs more and is physically stronger and has more muscle mass than the average woman (although there’s been a lot of debate about how to accurately measure strength). In his book, The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker captures how this discrepancy translates to a situation where women perceive threat, writing, “It is understandable that the perspectives of men and women on safety are so different — men and women live in different worlds […] at core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, while at core, women are afraid men will kill them.” When humans perceive threat, there’s so very little room and time to consider the more benign intentions of a larger, more powerful person. De Becker urges women to follow their instincts, to cherish and listen to their gift of fear and to stop letting the pressure to be nice nullify the need to protect oneself.

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The problem with the term “catcalling” is it has become a catchall supposed to arouse feelings of indignation amongst self-respecting women. The debate is strangely categorical — you’re either with us or against us. It doesn’t leave much space for, well, reality. You’re allowed to feel in danger when you do, and flattered when you do. As Christina Cauterucci writes for Slate, “There is absolutely nothing wrong or anti-feminist about wanting to be objectified, whether all the time or in specific situations with specific people. But women aren’t creating drama when they resist their own objectification.”

In an ideal world, women wouldn’t have to worry about how to respond to catcalling. We wouldn’t have to convince others of our reality. We also wouldn’t all feel the need to be a united front on an issue that doesn’t always present the same way. We wouldn’t have to worry about how one particular personal experience does or doesn’t feed into the patriarchy. The onus to remove the threat and discomfort of a catcall would be on those who pose it, and that is overwhelmingly men.

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Until this power balance changes, one option is to, when safe, firmly and negatively respond to situations that make you uncomfortable. Hollaback!, a grassroots movement to end street harassment, suggests naming and denouncing the offensive behavior while maintaining eye contact. Stop Street Harassment publishes success stories from women who confronted their harassers. There’s strength in numbers: If you witness predatory leering, or hear someone being harassed, help them. Public shaming is an effective deterrent of unwanted behavior.

Catcalling is often really scary. It makes the receiver assess her surroundings, look for exit strategies, grasp her keys defensively — it makes her feel that she might be attacked. As women existing in public, we’re sensitive to our surroundings; living in a world where street harassment is a constant serves to heighten this. But not all catcalls are preludes to harassment, just like not all attention is unwanted. Is it wrong to acknowledge that nuance? Where do you stand on catcalling? Where do we disagree? How do you respond when it happens to you?

Helena Bala is a writer, former lawyer and the genius behind Craigslist Confessional. Follow her on Twitter @Clistconfession. Photo by Alfred Gescheidt via Getty Images; illustrations by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.

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  • IzzyW

    I am slightly confused by the title of this article. It might be my low blood sugar levels but I feel I missed the part that describes the catcalling/objectification that doesn’t offend you?

    If it is “in specific situations with specific people” which situations are these? I appreciate this is a personal question and I don’t need an intimate response. But I can’t say I’ve ever personally been catcalled in the street by a group and/or individual men who are strangers to me and I’ve appreciated it or been made to feel more comfortable or more safe. Instead I feel the exact reactions you described. I would be interested to hear the situations when catcalling doesn’t offend some people.

    • dietcokehead

      I think that because of an onslaught of catcalls and because of our collectivized recognition of the issue, we might sometimes perceive a comment from a (typically male) stranger as more demanding/threatening than it is. While every woman/person is free to object to every comment from a stranger for any reason they like, sometimes hearing a stranger say, “Wow, sorry, but you’re gorgeous,” or complimenting your shoes or whatever … isn’t awful? I mean, I think it’s truly about the specifics of how you perceive the person, what they say, how it’s delivered, and how you feel that particular day. If I am feeling meh, I’m much more likely to default to “nope, fuck off, not today,” but if you already have a spring in your step, it’s possible you might take something as a compliment or a person being friendly. Again, not that there’s anything wrong with it if that’s never the case for you.

    • Alicia Meichtry

      I live in Argentina and here you can get a lot of agressive catcalling, even our president told in a radio interview that he didn´t believed that a woman wouldn´t like to be told what a nice ass she had, no matter what she could say about it – so you can figure what you can expect in the streets when the top authority publicly express in such a way. But I´ve also heard funny or witty sayings, that made me laugh, or even poetic ones. I can remember once being dressed all in red and a homeless man making a joke about the wolfes having to be carefull of this Little Red Riding Hood. It was funny and not expressesed in a threatening way.

    • Anni

      I like genuine compliments – I’m ok with a general outfit compliment especially if I’m walking by so I’m able to leave the situation “I like that dress girl, etc” and also if it’s not done in a creeping, longing stare followed by following me. It’s not offensive for someone to tell me that my hair looks nice, or for an older man to tell me jokingly that if he was 50 years younger, etc. I’m honestly OK with a quick up-and-down and a outfit compliment – I’ve done to the same to other women and other men and as these usually happen as I am walking by or they are passing by, they are not forced to interact with me and I with them. Sometimes I am attracted to these people who I compliment, but more often than not I just love their outfit.

      When I was single and I was “going out on town” in cities, I was more forgiving of wolf whistles. I wasn’t dressing for men necessarily, but I was feeling myself and as long as people kept their distance it was a satisfactory ego boost as long as the people doing it did not seem to be coming from a person who appeared to be crazy. Things to note: I have never been sexually or regularly assaulted by a stranger or someone I know, I am sexually forward, physically able to flee from danger and not really a shy person who might feel intimidated by attention. I didn’t *personally* find it intimidating, more immature and silly but I 100% understand that many more women do find it imposing and although I know that not all women do like myself, I generally find myself on the “as we can’t know for sure if a woman is going to feel safe or appreciated if she is catcalled instead of terrified and objectified, we should generally not do it.”

      If the form of catcalling is, paying someone a nice compliment, giving them a wave and a smile and not pushing it further if they just smile back…honestly, that brightens my day. I suspect it brightens the days of most people – the problem is usually when the “nice compliment” turns into a man yelling at you from across the street or following you in their car as you jog around a park. Eventually when enough of these “nice compliments” turn into these situations where women are put at risk, you kind of build up a wall to even innocent compliments though because your knee-jerk instinct is just that this is ploy for a man about to get nasty.

      • Liv

        Someone saying “I like that dress” as they pass by is not a catcall though.

        • Anni

          But many women, especially women who have been harrassed by a man before might take it as a catcall. “I like that dress” coupled with a look up /look down from a man who seems intimidating or creepy could definitely be taken as a catcall by someone who doesn’t feel safe in area or has had very negative experiences before.

          I’m saying that I don’t feel threatened by these kinds of catcalls – that I am ok with the outfit route of compliment even if it comes with a appraising “I find you attractive” look because frankly I don’t think a quick look is the worst thing in the world and even though it may have secondary connotations I’m willing to take it at face value and take it as compliment.

    • snakehissken

      This one time as I stepped out the doors of a salon after getting a haircut, a guy walking past yelled, “You look beautiful!”

      Technically it was catcalling… but I really couldn’t be upset.

  • Abby

    All catcalling directed towards me is met with a forceful “FUCK YOU!” while maintaining eye contact. Full stop.

  • kay

    i don’t like any anonymous catcalls- at best it’s public announcement that my body is being assessed, at worst its a request for me to fuck a stranger, or a veiled threat. to me, men’s sexual or assessing thoughts about women are *their private business* to manage, and by directing it at me it’s like announcing they want me to wipe their ass- soooo not my problem.

  • Imaiya Ravichandran

    my personal understanding of catcalling is that the man’s intention is rarely, if ever, to provide a woman with a genuine, meaningful compliment. so on the off chance that i am flattered by a catcall (who knows, maybe i was feeling particularly shitty that day and needed validation, even of the unsolicited variety) a small part of me knows that my catcaller was not actually trying to make me feel good. he said those things because he felt like it, and he knew there would be little to no consequences. it’s hubris, full stop. regardless of *my* interpretation of his words– whether i was flattered or turned off or whatever– I think it is *his* underpinning motivation that makes the whole thing, quite frankly, dirty and gross.

  • For many years I didn’t realize the “you should smile” comment was a thing. Just a lame way to get you to notice a guy on the street. It wasn’t until I read all these articles about catcalling that I found out it happens to all women! My experience with catcalls has been mostly harmless, however I find that I’m rarely alone on the street these days.

    Sophomore year of college I once was walking home from a party with a friend at a late hour (I think 2am) and we came across a rowdy group of older teenage boys. One of them said something like, “how you doing ladies,” and my friend put her head down and kept walking. I loudly said, “we’re fine, thanks! Have a good night,” and we all went on our way. My friend later asked why I had responded to them and I told her I knew better than to create an ego situation with a group of boys late at night on a dark street.

    http://www.shessobright.com

    • Heather Chambers

      I often respond to those particular catcalls that way, pretending to take the interaction at extreme face value and keep moving. It has rarely ended poorly. If only they were all so easy…
      I have been flattered by a small handful, though. My favorite (not so much because it was an all great experience, but it was definitely a surprising one) is still the time a tall, muscular man hiding in the shadow of a door called out “MA’AM!!” so loud and suddenly that I stopped in my tracks a couple of feet beyond him, startled. He continued “That skirt is beautiful!” I laughed, out of leftover adrenaline and surprise at the catcall-turned-compliment, said thank you, and moved on.

  • BarbieBush

    I have never been flattered when being catcalled because it has never felt personal to me. I have been catcalled in like a hat and parka about having nice legs and to me it is always about having power or dominating the street or whatever. I am possibly a terrible grinch but it is very very rare that I want to talk to a stranger even if they are nice.

    My response changes based on my mental strength that day and how terrible it is. I get a lot of “How you doins” I usually yell back a real answer that goes against what they want but is actually how I’m feeling..like..”I am so hungry. It’s terrible and I’m very unhappy”. Nobody wants a real response or even a response most of the time.

    If I am not feeling like engaging I just say something loudly like WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME I JUST WANT TO WALK HOME and keep walking. If I really CANNOT then I just make a terrible face and moan while turning my away.

    • Abby

      “Nobody wants a real response or even a response most of the time.”

      SO TRUE! I once answered a cat caller and he said to me “You’re not supposed to reply!!! Why are you answering me???” like he had never been more confused in his life.

      • BarbieBush

        omg how infuriating

      • I’ve had the opposite reaction. I didn’t answer a man after he asked me how I was doing and he screamed “you a fucking bitch!!!”

        • Abby

          Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

  • Chloe Katsaros

    Catcalling/harassment is the reason I dislike and rarely go out by myself in the city I live in.

  • Zooey P

    Catcaller: “Hey baby, let me take you out, etc. etc.”
    Me: *hard pass*
    Catcaller: “Fine then, go to the gym, fatso”

    Explain to me how one second you want my attention, then the next my body is a disgrace? This is my catcall fear – that a man will make a pass at me, feel rejected, then describe my flaws at the top of his voice in public. I fear this, because it happens.

    • kay

      yes! all the time. its so hard to confront them bc you have to be ready for the thing they say after!

    • 100% agree–and same fear is mentioned in that de Becker quote: men fear rejection, and when faced with rejection often attack.

    • Hellbetty666

      “Hey gorgeous”
      “No”
      “Who do you think you are, ugly bitch?”

  • Aydan

    the smile piece is just so so unacceptable to me. You don’t know me, you don’t know what happened to me. I got broken up with in the past 24 hours. I was told this morning on my walk to work by smile by some man arranging plants outside of the plant shop. No I will not smile, I am sad and angry and have every right to portray that emotion!

    • BarbieBush

      Seriously it made me feel much better when I started hearing other women complain about that. It makes me madder than anything..like more mad than a sexual comment.

    • Cordelia

      Agree. I used to get “smile, love” while walking to the bus stop in London during the commute, sometimes even ruder comments. It’s like, no thanks, I’d rather not! Also, did they not think, why would I walk along the street randomly smiling? It was usually cold and/or raining.

      • Nikka Duarte

        I’ll be going to London for a while in July, is the catcalling very bad, to the point where you feel unsafe? I’m from Colombia so catcalling is pretty common for me but I’ve lived in the U. S. for a few years now and I rarely walk (lol thanks Atlanta) so I haven’t had to deal with catcalling in a while!

        • Cordelia

          I never felt unsafe per se but I was living in one of nicer areas of London (Surrey) and was mainly in zones 4-6 in the southwest. When I went into the downtown for shopping, etc., I was in the very public areas like Covent Garden and Oxford. There can be some dodgy aspects as with all major cities, but you just have to use common sense and stay in public, well-lit areas, keep your phone and bag on you and go with friends when you have to go somewhere new. Public transit seemed safe enough to me… I just didn’t loiter in “high street” type areas after closing hours (depending on place) as shops close do close early in England and the streets get deserted.

          • Nikka Duarte

            Thank you! These tips are super helpful tips, I’m looking forward to my stay!

        • Nawal

          Hi Nikka,
          To be honest there is not much catcalling in London. In 4 years of me living in this city, it happened to me three times:
          1st time : “hey, you look gorgeous!” While I actually had made an extra effort with my outfit, it was a genuine compliment
          2nd time : some men whistled while they drove past me, waiting to cross the street. A gentleman next to me apologised for these men’s behaviour and hoped it was not giving me a bad image of British men.
          3rd time : “smile, love” indeed on a day I was not feeling like smiling, especially not at a stranger’s request.
          Never it moved to something aggressive or physical, and I have to (sadly) say that every time I go back to France (where I’m from) I realise that London is a much safer place for a woman to walk in the street alone.
          Hope you enjoy your stay in London!

          • Nikka Duarte

            Thank you so much! This puts my mind at ease a bit!

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=35KqGNa1FGA
    I love when the guy says: “You wanna get married?” and she’s like, “YES.”

    • Olivia AP

      Yesterday a taxi driver called me mami and like after half and hour I remember this video and regret not calling him son 🙁

    • Hannak

      Wow I actually had no idea how extreme catcalling is in the US! I read a lot about it and it has happened to me, too, but in Europe it definitely happens less and it’s less intense. Here, (most) men are not as forward and not as crude. That guy who just walked behind her for 20 minutes… so creepy. I would have freaked out.

    • Melissa Campello

      Just as context for anyone watching this video is scripted

    • That girl is my hero, scripted or not. I usually can’t be that witty on the spot and just walk on while trying to control the uncomfortable expression on my face.

  • maria luisa

    this article is full of shit sorry

  • Elizabeth F.

    I’m still in college and from my experience college guys (in my school at least) are only brave enough to catcall while in groups, usually while feeling boisterous or are slightly tipsy. Usually it is just things like, “YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL!” or just yelling “HELLOOO!” and general amusing hullaballoo as they drive by. Back in my metropolitan hometown cat calls are not always so tame/politely phrased though.

  • Emma

    Strongly disagree with this article.

    ” (…) not all attention is unwanted.”.

    No. But all comments thrown at me from strange men when walking on the street, a public space where i too have the right to feel safe, is unquestionably unwanted. This is not rocket science. Come on.

  • Natalia

    In Italy it’s really quite traditional to pay attention to women in public and it’s mostly not dangerous at all as men are attentive but quite calm here. I live in Milan about a year already and most of the time I feel safe and don’t get offended by such catcalls – sometimes it can be even pleasing if you like the guy))

  • Haya

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mgw6y3cH7tA
    By including a link to this video I’m not saying that women are the ones at fault or responsible in any way for being harassed. I found this video very interesting from an anthropological standpoint.

  • Lil

    Catcalling sucks because just as men are quick to compliment on the curvaceousness of a women’s ass, they’re also quick to comment on cellulite. It’s like every man feels he has the right to judge every woman.

    • Kiks

      I will never forget the time a friend and I were catcalled by a group of men and, when we ignored them, they turned back to “insult” my friend by saying that her bra strap was showing. Sick burn, bro.

  • Marissa

    I’ve thought about this before because I have felt validated by gentler catcalling in the past (you’re beautiful, hey gorgeous etc.) – BUT only because we’re conditioned to feel like worth is dependent on whether or not we’re measuring up to the prescribed beauty standard! I was also called a linebacker for physically putting myself between my friend and the creep who had been following her around the entirety of Union Square. And after a random invasive groping on a busy public street, receiving even a small amount of attention can be scary. It is NEVER okay that women’s bodies are seen as available to public scrutiny either way, so yea, I actually do think we need to be a united front on that.

  • Leah

    I experience catcalling somewhat regularly in my city, as I walk/take public transit everywhere. It has NEVER made me feel remotely happy/complimented. I’m usually too distracted with trying to discern whether it’s safe to ignore, or if I feel threatened enough to fake a smile. It always feels potentially dangerous to me, having experienced plenty of verbal (thankfully no physical) repercussions as a result of ignoring or responding back to such remarks. I gladly take compliments from friends or people with whom I’m engaged in conversation! I also carry pepper spray everywhere.

  • jane

    Australians, do you get catcalled in this way? I’m not. Maybe a handful of times in my life. I don’t know if this is cultural or if I’m singled out to not be singled out for some reason? The few times it’s been hostile I’ve been very aggressive back and felt rage rather than fear. The other occasional times I just laugh. I get that everyone finds this stuff really upsetting and I believe you, I’m just grateful I’m not subjected to it. Maybe it’s got to do with the places I go (pretty gentrified) and I also never make eye contact with anyone and I’ve been told that I walk very purposefully and give off don’t f with me vibes. You should be able to go wherever and make eye contact with whoever, but I wonder if that minimises it.

    • lulu A

      sydney kid here, i’m positive it’s a cultural thing! i’ve had the exact same experience as you. i also have a brazilian friend who moved here when she was 16 and the first thing i remember her asking me was “am i ugly here?”- because she wasn’t getting catcalled, whistled at, spoken to etc. she really believed that the standards of beauty were so different that she wasn’t beautiful in AU (she is hot af and ticks all the conventional beauty boxes by the way)

    • Leah

      The first part of this episode of This American Life has a reporter trying to convince a couple guys in King’s Cross to stop catcalling/accosting women. It’s pretty interesting!
      https://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/603/once-more-with-feeling

  • Coralie

    I’m surprised that people are reacting so negatively to this. I grew up in Paris where the catcalling was out of control (it’s much better now by the way). I guess it taught me not to be scared, and I definitely never feel any fear when I get catcalled now.

    I can totally see a difference between gross, lewd catcalls and people (both men and women, by the way) who are giving me a genuine compliment on how I look or my outfit, and just move on afterwards. It has even happened to me a couple of times to tell a guy he looks great, and I wish I didn’t feel so nervous about doing it (I find it easier to say something to a girl, but still feel a bit nervous). I don’t understand why we are so anti talking to strangers on the street now!

    I guess the big question is whether you believe that some catcalling is genuine and disinterested, which I do.

  • lulu alvarez-mon

    hmm, it definitely goes without saying that this is my personal experience, but as a p. “ethnically ambiguous” person the catcalls i may get are often people trying to figure out if we come from the same background. i think it probably gives me a false sense of security against the objectification and potential impure intentions (lol :/ ) of the catcaller, but when the “hey gorgeous” gets sandwiched in “are you from brasil?” or “are you tunisian?”, and is asked by a person from that place, it makes me feel less like a prize cow and more like i might have something to share with the person trying to talk to me. it feels stupidly nice that people are trying to claim me in some way…
    does anyone else feel like this???
    P.S. 90% of the time these interactions unfortunately turn just as sour as your average “hey sexy” on the street and end pretty creepily. i guess you can’t get away from the fact that catcalling is kind of inherently ego-fueled.

  • evie

    I really liked this article. As someone who occasionally does not mind being catcalled, I’ve often wondered if there was something wrong with me because I’m not immediately disgusted by the comments. It may be because I don’t get many compliments from men elsewhere – but I never knew why I did not feel the same way as “all” other women.
    I COMPLETELY agree with the statement that women have the right to ignore and that their feelings of fear are valid, and I do not advocate whatsoever for these men that catcall (especially since they generally understand it is unwanted). That being said, it was nice to hear that I am not the only one to secretly like occasional objectification.

  • emmsy

    Can I just say that being Asian and a woman at the same time, all the catcalls that are thrown at me start with a “Ni Hao” or “Konnichiwa”. Me being neither Chinese or Japanese is one thing, but the racial comments always have me ready to start an argument with a hiss. So all of the catcalls start off being offensive. Do any other Asian women here agree with this?

  • Liv

    Some catcalls don’t offend you and that’s “okay” but it’s also kind of not. They only don’t offend you because you’re seeking male validation. Which is “fine”… but also,why don’t you try reconditioning yourself a little to not crave compliments from men at any cost (‘any cost’ meaning that saying OK to even the slightly non threatening kind of catcalling gives the downright scary kind room to bloom) so the rest of us may someday be able to go about our day in peace.

    Also, “your hair looks pretty,” or whatever, stated at a normal volume, while someone quickly passes by is not a catcall.

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