Sometimes I get catcalled, and when I say sometimes, I mean pretty regularly. Maybe you’re reading that sentence and thinking “Poor girl, it must be soooo hard to be thought of as attractive and have men compliment you. Let me play a song for you on the world’s smallest violin.” That wouldn’t be the first time I’ve gotten that response: I’ve found that my male friends and acquaintances, even the ones I know would never catcall, are generally pretty forgiving toward men who do catcall, cavalierly waving it away as a compliment that’s simply in poor taste and tsk tsking me for being a humblebragger. But as they forgive I also forgive them, because if they truly understood what it feels like to be catcalled, they would not be so cavalier.
This lack of understanding seems to be a function of the simple reality that historically, humankind has not looked on male bodies and female bodies equally, and as a result, the way that men and women relate to their respective bodies is vastly different. I suspect it’s difficult for men to imagine a world in which their bodies have long been inextricably linked to their value as an individual, and that no matter how encouraging your parents were or how many positive female role models you had or how self-confident you feel, there is an ever-present pressure that creeps in from all sides, whispering in your ear that you are your body and your body defines you. A world where, from the time of pubescence on, you can feel the constant and palpable weight of the male gaze, and not just from your male peers but from teachers and sports coaches and the fathers of the children you baby-sit, people you’re supposed to respect and trust and look up to, and that first realization that you are being looked at in that way is the beginning of a self-consciousness that you will be unable to shake for the rest of your life. Even if they are never verbalized, the rules of bodily conduct for females become clear early on: when school administrators reprimand you for the inch of midriff that shows when you lift your hands straight in the air or youth group leaders tell you that the sight of your unintentional cleavage is what causes godly young men to fall, you learn that your body is dangerous and shameful and that it’s your responsibility to cloister it in a way that is acceptable to everyone else. You learn that your body is a topic of public debate that everyone is entitled to weigh in on, from a male classmate telling you that those jeans make your ass look huge to the male-dominated United States Congress dictating the parameters that rape must fall within to be considered legitimate. To be a woman, and to live life in a woman’s body, is to be held to a set of comically paradoxical standards that make you constantly second-guess yourself and jump through a million hoops in pursuit of an impossible perfection.
Now that a context has been established, imagine walking down the street, to the grocery store or to meet up with a friend, and hearing a car slowing down as it approaches you from behind. You’ve learned to be intuitive to the sounds that precede a catcall: a car decelerating, the sound that air makes as it passes through an open window at low speeds, and the split second of dead silence just before the whistle or whoop or “Damn, girl” or whatever other asinine sentence fragment gets hurtled at you. If you say nothing and keep your eyes on the ground, it’s over in less than a minute, at which point the car and the catcaller drive away and you continue on your way. Pretty innocuous, right?
To begin to understand why this scenario is the opposite of innocuous, one must understand the circumstances surrounding most instances of catcalling. A catcall is not like sexual harassment, an unwelcome encounter that happens in the privacy of an office between a male superior and female subordinate. Catcalls, by and large, come from strangers, and happen in public places that not only lend anonymity to the caller but also make it easy to keep the interaction fleeting. A catcall is something that always seems to happen in passing, whether it be men sticking their heads out of moving cars like dogs to shout at a woman, men calling at a woman as she walks past, or a man calling at a woman as he walks past. If you’re being sexually harassed at your job, you know exactly who the harassment is coming from, and you have the option to ask them to stop and even report them if they don’t, with a decent chance that your complaint will be taken seriously. Because of the inherently transient nature of catcalls, you are not given that same opportunity to air your grievances and draw the caller’s attention to the error of their ways. By the time you’re able to say, “Excuse me, sir, but the way that you’re objectifying me is offensive,” they’re already gone. And even if you could, sometimes you just don’t have it in you to instigate a losing battle when all you wanted was to walk to the grocery store in peace. If you acknowledge your catcaller by speaking to them or engaging them in any way, you’re egging them on and inviting them to continue talking to you and offending you. If you acknowledge them with eye contact, even if no words accompany it, it can be seen as condoning and encouraging. Even for the most outspoken women, catcalls engender a forced passivity that leaves them with no effective means of counteraction except to fix their eyes on the ground and ignore the caller until they’re left alone, which counteracts nothing and leaves women feeling frustrated and silenced. It’s a lose-lose no matter which way you slice it.
When a woman realizes that there is nothing she can do after the fact to correct this wrong done to her, she, as women have been socialized to do, starts analyzing herself and tries to figure out what it is that she’s doing that attracts this unwanted attention, so that she can alter her appearance or her behavior and prevent it from continuing to happen. Maybe if I stop wearing dresses? she will ask herself. Or if I move out of the city? Or maybe if I shave my head, I’ll stop being catcalled? This is futile, of course, because catcalls happen regardless of the lengths women go to in order to avoid them and regardless of circumstantial details. I’ve been catcalled as a blonde and as a brunette, with long hair and short hair, in the city and in the country, while wearing dresses and while wearing baggy pants, when I was fifteen pounds heavier and fifteen pounds lighter than I am now, made-up and makeup-less, in the presence of friends (both male and female) and by myself, in the daytime and at night, and while running on the side of the road, my face beet-red and my entire body covered in sweat. This is no humblebrag; this is an embarrassing and maddening reality for women. None of these variables provides immunity from catcalls, and yet, socially, the onus is on women to do whatever is necessary to avoid being catcalled instead of on men to stop catcalling. Again, it’s a lose-lose.
Furthermore, it’s deeply upsetting that women are made to feel guilty or ungrateful for not accepting catcalls as compliments. I can’t speak for all women everywhere, and I would never condescend to my sex by claiming to know the experiences of women whose reality is foreign to me, but based on my own experience and the experiences of my female friends, family, co-workers and acquaintances, I think I can safely assert that most women don’t feel like they’re being complimented when they’re catcalled. It’s not the sort of thing that you excitedly recall to your girlfriends, or call your mom about, or secretly hope happens again because it made you feel beautiful. It’s more akin to what I imagine animals at the zoo feel like when humans poke their fat fingers against the glass or make crude animal sounds to try to get their attention and encourage them to do something interesting. There is a reason it’s referred to as a catcall and not a humancall: when you’re catcalled, there’s no consideration of your distinct personhood or even of your humanity because you’re being appraised as an object, a body without a person inside of it.
When you want to compliment someone, you approach them as an individual because the point is to make them feel good about being the individual that they are, right? If this is true, then the one-size-fits-all catcall really has nothing to do with being complimentary, and seems to be more about asserting power. When you’re catcalled, you’re caught in a moment of vulnerability: one minute you’re just walking down the street and in complete control of your own life, and the next you’re verbally ambushed by a stranger who forcefully inserts themselves into your life to declare their opinion of your body as if it were definitive, and that feeling of control is gone as quickly as the catcaller. Women are closer than they’ve ever been to living as equals with men in every sphere of life, but when it comes to our bodies, it is still shockingly easy for men to make us feel subjugated, to “put us in our place.” When women are treated as if their bodies don’t serve a functional purpose and are simply on display for the enjoyment and valuation of male eyes, it doesn’t matter how much money you make or what advanced degree you’ve earned or how great a sense of self-worth you hold: you feel powerless. Powerless to prevent it, powerless to counteract it, powerless to transcend your own physiology.
I don’t believe that the majority of men who catcall intend to make women feel this way, but because catcalls have been part of our social landscape for, like, ever, the inheritance of values that condone catcalling and view them as harmless and complimentary continues. We as a culture are in need of a serious re-education on the subject of holistic gender equality and the gravity of catcalling, but that re-education may be a long time coming so here is the Cliff Notes version: Catcalls are not compliments. Catcalls are offensive, and, frankly, obnoxious. Men, women do not appreciate or enjoy being catcalled, and catcalling will do nothing to endear you to the woman you fancy. If your intent is to compliment, there are plenty of ways to do so that aren’t offensive and don’t incorporate a whoop or a whistle… be creative. And most importantly, when in doubt, keep it to yourself.