Hey beautiful

Why are catcalls so upsetting? Why indeed, The Gloss.

This morning, some man on the street turned to me and yelled “damn girl, you looking fine!” And I responded pretty much the same way I always respond. I said “thank you!” And then the guy gave me a thumbs up, and I walked on, glad that soup-stained cat-ladies like us still do it for someone, thinking to myself “I am still hot to strangers and I haven’t even brushed my hair. I can eliminate 2 to 3 minutes from my morning routine. Score!

Now, look, I completely understand why people are offended by strangers telling them that they should perform sexual acts. That’s creepy and gross. This would be a different story if the stranger had said “girl, you should suck my dick.” But the generic “you looking, fine, girl?” cat calls? They’ve never really bothered me. And honestly, I’ve never really understood why so many women are offended by people telling them they look pretty on the street.

It isn’t really a good start when the “it never bothered me, so I can’t understand why it bothers other people” point is made. But, I’ve never been discriminated against/been slut-shamed/been expected to look a certain way, so I don’t get it. I appreciate that this post on The Gloss is apparently a genuine question about why women find it upsetting, not a denial, but the possible reasons brought up by the author are so quickly dismissed, when really they are pretty legit points.

Is it because it seems offensive that people want to pass judgement on your appearance without your consent? Eh, they’re allowed to have an opinion. You are too. Want to hang out on a street corner with me yelling at men about their bad haircuts and poor facial hair choices? We’re allowed to do that. It would be weird, but we could. I can bring vodka. It will be a party. An open-air judgement party.

Yes, people are allowed to have an opinion. But part of the rules of social conduct isn’t that you get to shout it to a stranger on the street. Want to think that chick is hot/ugly/wearing a dumb outfit/would be a great fuck? I can’t actually stop that. But it is offensive that people think they can comment on you/your appearance without your consent. Would you yell at someone on the street and ask “hey, what are your views on the 90 day trial period?”, or shout “are you going to U2?”. Social convention dictates that you don’t actually call out to strangers on the street and ask questions/comment/state an opinion. I know a lot of people will go on about how people are so isolated from each other, and we should just be like one big community, but honestly I have no problem with convention as it stands. I have no need to comment on people on the street, positively or negatively, because I don’t know them and they aren’t any of my business. The solution isn’t to get a bunch of women together to comment on the facial hair of men on the street, it’s to stop assuming we have the right to make a comment in the first place. Why do we feel so privileged, so entitled to the right to comment on other people that we don’t even know? I do not believe that we are entitled to that.

Is it because they’re treating you like a piece of meat and only remarking on your physical appearance? Dude, we’re all made of meat. Would it be better if they shouted “you look like someone who reads a lot of Chaucer, which is to say, my kind of woman!”? Well, maybe, but only insofar as it would be more creative. I think most guys who feel that way aren’t the guys who cat-call women.

My above comment stands: no need to comment on anyone, appearance or otherwise, so move along. So it isn’t really because it’s like being treated like meat, although that is a pretty sucktastic part of it. Who wants to feel like they’re up for scrutiny just walking down the street minding their business? But that’s the thing: being catcalled, or commented on, means that people think that you are fair game, that you are public property and their business. So even if it isn’t an objectifying “I’d fuck that” comment, you are still being treated like a piece of public meat, because “you look beautiful” puts you in a place where you are available to be critiqued, commented on, approved of, and your wishes aren’t relevant. So, a piece of meat for other people’s consumption.

Is it because there’s always a sexual implication, and this man would probably like to have sex with you if given the opportunity? Please. If you’re not… actually, just period, most men would probably like to have sex with you if given the opportunity. I’m not trying to demean men here, but yeah, the possibility of having sex with you has probably at least crossed the mind of most single men you interact with. Cat-calling actually seems sort of sad, because the minute men do that, they must know that there’s no chance whatsoever of actually having sex with you. I mean, hey, maybe if you’d been standing next to them waiting for the train and they’d struck up some sort of meaningful conversation about bands you both liked or something maybe it could lead to something. It will never, ever lead to anything with the guy who yells “you’re looking pretty, today!” at you from across the street. It doesn’t work. And men must know it doesn’t work.

The thing about this is that yeah, there is often is a sexual implication. But more importantly, is is about power. Just like rape is about power, splattering your opinion all over a strange woman on the street is about power too. Because it is an acceptable thing to do, shout at a woman on the street. This idea is embedded in our rape culture, and a man being able to say what he likes to a woman on the street (sexual or ‘harmless’) is indicative of the balance of power that exists, and puts women in their place, which is to be silent, receptive, looked at and talked about. Catcalling a woman isn’t about telling her you want to fuck her, because as the author states above, men probably know that catcalling wont get them anywhere. Men catcall because they can; they do it because it’s acceptable to talk about a woman you don’t know, to judge her and say whatever you want because you can. Catcalling is about power and dominance, and showing someone who’s boss. Catcalling is about making someone feel uneasy and uncomfortable and unsettled.

The post ends by discussing that maybe the problem with it isn’t the people on the street harassing you, but the societal attitudes that women should like it. I think that is the word harassment is used when describing the behaviour, then there is definitely a big problem with the behaviour and not just that idea we should like it. Harassment=bad, ok? Yes, of course the idea that we should be flattered is bad, because nobody should be flattered by catcalling (and most women probably aren’t), but the actual catcalling is terrible too. Both things – the behaviour and how we are expected to receive it- are terrible, and are indicative of attitudes towards women that reinforce the major power balance, and encourage the idea the women have their place, and it’s ok to put them in it.


  1. Katherine says:

    “…splattering your opinion all over a strange woman on the street is about power too.” Brilliant.

    I used to take it as a compliment (secretly in my mind), because I figured that was the attitude that would best allow me to go about my day in peace without feeling threatened or harassed (not that I thought about it exactly that way), so I can see why other people would too. There’s absolutely no need for the person you’re quoting to dismiss other people’s genuine feelings about, you know, being harassed though. Or to encourage harassers by thanking them for harassing her. One point she seems to have missed is that it’s not once or twice in a lifetime or even once a year – for some people it’s several times a day. And if people want to politely express an opinion or give a compliment there are better ways to do it than hollering it out on the street.

    • steph says:

      Yes, exactly, it’s not a single instance or two, it’s a climate. That’s what I was attempting to wrap my words around; the idea that this can be a pretty much ongoing state of being, and the acceptability of doing this to women certainly is an overall climate, so discussing single instances is almost not the point. The point is why does this climate exist? Why is it socially acceptable for men to do this? I was going to say why is there no problem with them crossing boundaries, but the thing is the boundary doesn’t really exist when it is a man talking at/about a woman.

  2. Katherine says:

    Oh, and she makes the false distinction between a “Hey baby, you look nice today” and “Hey baby, you look nice today. Why won’t you answer me? I’m gonna follow you til you do” and “Hey baby, you look nice today. Why won’t you answer me, bitch! *insert super threatening behaviour here*” She probably gets less of the latter two because of her responses, but that does help condition harassers to use the latter two more often when the recipient doesn’t share her enthusiasm.

    • steph says:

      Yes to this too. It’s hard as well, because ignoring the comment provokes hostility/escalation of comments, but saying thanks also reinforces the idea that it’s ok, because it is essentially positive reinforcement for that behaviour. Also it sets men up to expect a thank you which might make them more likely to get angry and hostile if some woman at some future point doesn’t respond with a thank you. Conditioning and expectations FTW!

  3. Boganette says:

    “Dude, we’re all made of meat.”

    *rolls eyes* seriously? Great post Steph. I totally agree. And well said Katherine. She certainly skipped over the whole threatening behaviour thing. The last time I got cat-called it was something along the lines of some asshole wanting to “bite my booty” whatever the fuck that means. I said Get Fucked or something along those lines and immediately regretted it as he stood up and started towards me. It’s actually frightening and I felt violated. Of course I should have just sucked it up and thought about how I am “still hot to strangers”. As everyone knows it is incredibly important to be hot for strangers when you’re a woman.

  4. ScubaNurse says:

    A very contentous topic, and I love how you have approached it.
    Ive never been bothered by people whistling or cat calling here (mostly cause it doesnt seem to happen in NZ as often as other places). When in Italy I did find it frightening because I didnt know how to respond to the level of intensity. Being used to walking into a bar and having guys pretend (not usually very subltle) they werent checking me out was more familiar than them openly leering at me.
    The majority of both groups would not go any further, but it was my familiarlarity with the steps of the dance and what was “appropriate” that made it scary.
    The feeling of unease that someone was making what felt like an un-invited advance was freaky. I reacted with prickly temper and skittish behaviour, and acting like a potential victim and feeling like a potential victim seemed very closely linked.
    What I should have done was what the italian girls did.
    Look them back straight in the eye. Look them up and down as if considering, curl the lip into a sneer, roll eyes and walk away.

    Before anyone gets pissy about me making this about the womans response, not a mans initial intereaction; this is not about women, its about me, and how I cope as an individual with my baggage, history, life story.
    This is not about attackers, this is about the average Joe on the street’s response to most women who walk by.

  5. Magpie says:

    The same man who shouts ‘you look beautiful’ to you, also shouts ‘woof woof you dog’ to me. He’s doing the same thing both times, splattering his opinion. That’s why it feels threatening no matter if the words are complimentary.

    • steph says:

      That’s an excellent point. If a guy thinks it’s ok to yell his opinion at one women, it’s likely he will feel ok to yell it at another woman; and just because what he said to one is ‘complimentary’, doesn’t mean that his comments to every women are. They could be obscene or threatening, or be more than one comment. I think this is part of the reason I feel it isn’t ok at all to catcall, because even positive comments have a negative downside, and are representative of a real power imbalance.

      Thank you for your insightful comment!