“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that any woman that you speak with will have had some experience of being catcalled.”
The above is in quotes because I edited the first sentence of Jane Austen’s iconic novel, Pride and Prejudice. Though mine is not as eloquently stated as Ms. Austen’s, I have never spoken with any woman that has told me she’s never been catcalled before. In the past years, many women writers have been coming out to share their experiences with catcalling. Then there was the video experiment performed by a woman that walked around NYC and counted how many catcalls she received. Back in the Jon Stewart days, Jessica Williams came out with her segment on avoiding catcalling on the Daily Show, which made a powerful comedic statement about something that women experience daily. Finally, there was that reporter on Fox News that said catcalling wasn’t that big a deal and used our favorite, “Let men be men” excuse we’ve all come to hate. So, let’s just say that catcalling is having a critical moment right now and has been for the past years.
And it should be…Stop Street Harassment is an organization trying to raise awareness about this surprisingly under reported topic. In 2014, they commandeered a 2000-person study and discovered that 65% of women had reported street harassment. Unfortunately, it’s hard to define because there are so many different types, ranging from a wolf whistle to being followed to literally being forced to do something sexual. Urban Dictionary, in fact, has a variety of definitions on both street harassment and catcalling (ultimately, a form of street harassment).
The first time I vividly remember being catcalled was my freshman year of college. Always the cute, sweet girl growing up, I remember a lot of curfews and a lot of comments about what I should and shouldn’t wear from my parents who thought that looking out for my wellbeing meant I should be home at a certain time and not be caught in an outfit that might give boys “the wrong idea.” While I did date, the guys I went out with in middle and high school were the nice, sweet, safe boyfriends who asked permission to hold my hand, kiss me, or have sex for the first time. (This was actually a good thing – consent is sexy, after all).
For a girl that had never felt like guys were into her, being catcalled the first time was a mixed bag of emotions. For one, it was the first time that I felt like I held sexual appeal and that felt good. What I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time was that there was a sinking, kind of disgusted feeling that went with that recognition of being a sexual human being. Looking back on it, I realized I felt disgusted by it. But when one grows up in a culture in which women are seemingly made to be looked at, it doesn’t dawn on you that it’s okay to feel disgusted by that type of attention until you hear other women with the same experience. Furthermore, every woman experiences being catcalled differently. This is because we’re all individuals with our own needs and thoughts and perspectives brought about by our various upbringings.
Some women I’ve spoken with, and a narrative I believed when I was younger – see the Fox News narrative – is that when men catcall women it should just be taken as a compliment. This argument would lead us all to believe that you’ve succeeded as a woman because a man driving or walking by you whistled and suggested that maybe later you should meet up and get it on. Never mind that a woman might not be attracted to the man wolf whistling her. Never mind that women do actually exist for more reasons than to just be walking eye candy to men… Nope, if you get catcalled or followed or anything of the sort it’s not “harassment,” it’s a compliment.
For the record, getting catcalled the other day while I was walking back to work didn’t exactly make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
I particularly like this specific definition of catcalling from Urban Dictionary: “An insulting and usually sexist remark made in public towards a woman by a man. Not to be confused with compliments.” The bolded part is especially important because here’s the dictionary definition of compliments: “A polite expression of praise or admiration.” I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t consider those wolf whistles or hollers out the front seat of a car going by polite, necessarily. They certainly don’t make me feel good.
So, what’s the difference between getting catcalled and getting complimented?
I’d say the primary difference is how it makes you feel. If, in an exchange, you feel good, you don’t feel uncomfortable, and you feel complimented then it probably was a compliment. Generally, when one goes about complimenting another, they may apologize for interrupting them or say something friendly to indicate it was meant as a polite gesture. If anything that is said makes you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, then it probably was not a compliment.
But what exactly can one do if one is faced with catcalling or harassment? It’s hard to give a definitive answer because men actually catcall for a variety of reasons, but a woman is unlikely to know the reason behind it unless she speaks to him further. Oftentimes, women who are harassed on the street feel unsafe and feel very vulnerable when men make rude and suggestive comments.
My learned instinct is to just ignore them. My thinking behind this is that the catcaller is trying to get attention. By not giving attention to them, a negative impact loop is created which hopefully will make them think twice in the future.
However, you’ve got to do what feels right to you. That being said, here are a few different types of responses you can give:
- Ignore Them:Seriously. Just walk right past them with your head held high like the queen you are. Silently repeat a mantra that makes you feel better and just don’t give those peasants the time of day. If you need help with this, feel free to pull out your phone and either jump on a fake convo or pretend you’re texting.
- Call Them Out On It: Like Cosmopolitan’s Molly Oswaks, tell them straight up that no one likes that.
- Respond Obnoxiously: Say something like “Thanks!” but in a really obnoxious, sarcastic tone so they know you heard them but that you don’t appreciate it.
- Own Your Confidence: You do look good, but you don’t look good for them, you look good for YOU. If you’re really feeling confident, then yell back at them and say, “Yeah, I do!” in a way that tells them you have no time for them.
Whatever your response, it’s got to work for you and your wellbeing. While it sucks that we still live in a day and age that catcalling and street harassment still exists, just remember that you’re not alone and that people are actively working to end it. It should feel safe to be a woman out in the world, but since it’s not always, having tools for handling the roadblocks of womanhood always come in handy.