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A few weeks ago, #NoWomanEver started trending on Twitter. The hashtag was used to raise awareness of street harassment, with women basically saying, no, yelling what you think about a woman’s ass is not the way to her heart.
In response, some men started tweeting with #NoManEver. Tweets ranged from men arguing that #NotAllMen are catcallers to men saying women are sexist. But a thread emerged from within those posts—the defense of a man’s right to catcall.
Catcalling—or what many define as street harassment—is the act of making a comment of sexual nature about a stranger in public. Typically, it’s men who do this to women, and the comments can range from “nice legs” to “let me fuck you later.” Sometimes, it’s even striking up what would, in another context, be normal conversation, but with a tone and persistence that makes a woman feel unsafe.
Women have repeatedly said they don’t like this behavior. It makes them feel like they’re under constant surveillance, like men are entitled to their attention even if they don’t want to give it. And, no matter how many men insist “nice tits” barked from across the street is a compliment, it certainly does not feel like a compliment.
So why do men keep doing it?
It has more to do with power than with sexual attraction, according to academics. “They think that their opinion and need to express themselves so publicly is more important and acceptable than offending others,” Yvonne K. Fulbright, Ph.D., a sexuality educator, told Men’s Health. “These lines of thinking are bolstered when important other men in their lives hold the same beliefs.”
In other words, men don’t catcall to earnestly get a woman’s number, but to signify to whoever is listening that they are powerful, virile, and that public spaces belong to them.
Sex and the City perfectly showed what happens when you call a lot of these men on their bluff.
And yet men are willing to defend catcalling, not just as their right to comment on whatever they see, but as a tactic for pursuing romantic and sexual relationships with women. A quick scroll through #NoManEver shows men defending their right to engage in what women see as street harassment, or joking that it’s not that big of a deal.
Samson B. was one of the first men to start tweeting under #NoManEver. He told the Daily Dot that he believes women are sabotaging their chances at good relationships by rejecting street advances. “If men are not allowed to even approach a woman, or smile at them… there would be no way that a man and woman could get together.”
Samson B. mentions that internet dating is complicated and doesn’t play to everyone’s strong suits in terms of promoting themselves. But he, and other men, seem to cling to the idea that public yelling and online swiping are the only two options.
He also says that “to take away the ability for men to say to a woman, ‘Nice smile,’ ‘You’re beautiful,’ ‘I like your eyes,’ or even as little as saying ‘hi,’ is like trying to take away a man’s sexuality… and identity.”
Men’s identities tend to get wrapped up in the idea of sexuality, especially heterosexuality, at a young age. One’s masculinity is often defined by one’s ability to attract women. Writer Carvell Wallace grew up with catcalling, saying that starting in middle school he and his friends would go to the mall to meet girls and get phone numbers. “It provided a framework, because it’s this thing everyone wants to do,” he told the Daily Dot.
“You have this question, ‘What is catcalling versus what is talking to a stranger on the street?’ And a lot of guys are freaked out because they hear about catcalling, and they’re like, ‘What, I can’t talk to anyone now?’”
But the line between flirtation and harassment is rarely explicitly defined at that age. “You have this question, ‘What is catcalling versus what is talking to a stranger on the street?’ And a lot of guys are freaked out because they hear about catcalling, and they’re like, ‘What, I can’t talk to anyone now?’”
Because such defined boundaries are lacking, men begin conflating courtship with other, aggressive behaviors. “The courtship ritual says one of the ways to meet a female partner is you like the way she looks visually and you begin a conversation,” he said, but what people aren’t taught is how to value a woman’s response, whether it’s positive or negative.
Wallace says he had to figure that out on his own.
The only reason he recognized there was a problem, he says, is because he grew up with and was friends with women. He also had an extreme fear of rejection. But instead of learning what women positively respond do, many men mask that fear of rejection with aggression. It either comes in the form of a preemptive attack—such as yelling “nice tits!” from across the street—or in a reaction. Most women have had the experience of having a catcall turn into accusations of being a “bitch” because they didn’t respond in a positive way.
However, Wallace specifies, it’s not a matter of not knowing how to read a woman’s reaction. “I think they choose to ignore it, and then they do that for so long they don’t know they’re ignoring it.”
When men defend catcalling, that is what we see—a chosen-turned-ritualistic ignoring of women’s needs. Samson B. mentioned not seeing anything wrong with saying “hi” and “nice smile,” but later he spoke of the benefits of making bolder statements.
“The more bold the compliment is—example, ‘You have fantastic tits!’—the better, because it shows the man has enough confidence to bluntly state his opinion to her face.”
But it could be argued that it is when this desire to display confidence becomes so powerful, that the initial attempt at flirtation crosses a line.
“The more bold the compliment is—example, ‘You have fantastic tits!’—the better,” says one catcaller. “Because it shows the man has enough confidence to bluntly state his opinion to her face.”
Jon Nathan Raby, a sports writer from New Orleans, doubts his friend ever thought he’d impress a girl—which exemplifies the flip side of street harassment’s relationship with masculinity: The act wasn’t to impress women, but to impress another man. Raby says in high school, his best friend was a “serial catcaller.” “If I had to guess, I’d say once or twice a week, a situation would happen where he would catcall,” he told the Daily Dot. “We’d be driving around listening to the radio, and he’d see a girl, or group of girls, walking. He’d turn down the radio, look at me with a smile, and roll down the window. As we passed them, he’d say interchangeably lewd things, although the one I remember best is, ‘I have a cock, wanna ride?’ Then he’d peel off and laugh.”
Other men may say there’s a difference between performative behavior like this and just trying to politely talk to a woman on the street, but according to many women’s experiences, there isn’t. It just feels aggressive, verging on various levels of unsafe.
In the most extreme instances, women have been injured or murdered for reacting to a catcall the wrong way, whether it’s because she declined to give a man her number at a funeral, said no to a date in her apartment lobby, or, well, there’s an entire Tumblr set up for these stories.
When reacting—or not reacting—can get you killed, even a friendly “hi” can sound like a threat.
There are also the issues of race and class. In 2014, a video of a white woman being catcalled went viral, and it was heavily criticized for being edited to show mainly men of color doing the catcalling. This, says Wallace, has a lot to do with cultural divides, and whether or not speaking to strangers on the street breaks the social contract in your social circles and community.
“In my experience, if you grow up poor and working class, a lot of your life involves talking to strangers,” he said. “You talk to people on the street, you live in close quarters…The notion of talking to strangers is very woven into your life.” Thus, the mere act of speaking to a stranger is not a problem. The problem is what’s said.
In rich, non-urban spaces—which often correlates to white spaces in America—speaking to any stranger is just not done. So the horror of what a catcaller is saying is coupled with the fact that a stranger is speaking to you in the first place. Wallace noticed this when he began attending a white-majority school, where the boys weren’t learning catcalling. “When I started hanging out with white kids in eighth grade, they were just learning different ways to be sexist and abusive to women.”
Marketing agency Rob Bliss Creative, who made the 2014 video with HollabackNYC, admitted to editing out a lot of white men, explaining that “for whatever reason, a lot of what they said was in passing, or off camera.” It could have been just a fact of what the video picked up, but it also encouraged the idea that it is only men of color who are doing this. (In a segment for the Daily Show, Jessica Williams showed that in fact, men of all colors do this.)
On Twitter, I casually asked any men who cared to respond if they had ever catcalled and, if so, why they did it. Everyone who responded to me was white, and incredulous at the thought of any man doing so. It could be my self-selecting group of liberal softies included a lot of men who think hard about how they treat women.
But it could also be that, on a subconscious level, they associated catcalling as the behavior of “other” people, poorer or uneducated or of another race, and wanted nothing to do with it, while also giving no thought to the other ways they were probably harassing the women in their lives.
“It’s important to stress that misogyny and toxic masculinity is evenly distributed among all men,” says Wallace. “When the focus became entirely on catcalling, in a society that is always finding a way to take issue with black people, it felt like another way of doing that.”
Ultimately, the issue is not as much catcalling as what it represents. Catcalling is a low-level manifestation of rape culture, a “harmless” interaction that can and does escalate into more aggressive forms of harassment. It is certainly not the only manifestation of rape culture, or even the worst one, but that’s why women don’t like it. If men never learn the difference between “hello” and “nice tits,” or never think to see if the woman is responding positively, that escalation will continue. And, as one study shows, it will strengthen the divide between women and men, making women more sympathetic to each other and less likely to want to engage with men.
Despite saying catcalling is about meeting women, Samson B. later clarified, “It’s not about the sex, it’s about getting what you want in life (without hurting the person you’re with or get with).”
But catcalling, and everything it leads to, often hurts. When I asked him why he continued to defend catcalling after countless women say it is either actively offensive or just doesn’t work, he said, “If there are other ways to get a women’s [sic] attention other than actually talking to them… I’d love to hear it.”
Talking to women is fine. Men just aren’t listening.
Jaya Saxena is a lifestyle writer and editor whose work focuses primarily on women's issues and web culture. Her writing has appeared in GQ, ELLE, the Toast, the New Yorker, Tthe Hairpin, BuzzFeed, Racked, Eater, Catapult, and others. She is the co-author of 'Dad Magazine,' the author of 'The Book Of Lost Recipes,' and the co-author of 'Basic Witches.'