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The truth about catcalling is more complicated than the Internet thinks

There's a difference between a poorly delivered compliment and the threat of bodily harm.


EJ Dickson

Internet Culture

Posted on Aug 20, 2014   Updated on May 30, 2021, 6:03 pm CDT

A few weeks ago, my boyfriend, Alex, told me a story I’d never heard before. He was at a bar with his friends, and he went up to go to the bathroom when this older man, who was drunk and had apparently been cruising him for a few minutes, forcibly grabbed him by the wrist and said, “Where the hell do you think you’re going?” He then tried to engage Alex in a few seconds of conversation before he excused himself and walked away.

“Wow,” I said. “I can’t believe you never told me about that. Were you scared?”

“Not scared, exactly,” he said. “I was a lot bigger than he was, so I didn’t think he’d cause me any harm. But there was a moment where I did feel threatened. Like, he grabbed me by the wrist, so his intention wasn’t to talk to me, but to make sure I didn’t get away. Mostly I just realized that this is probably what it feels like for you and women when they get catcalled and harassed on the street every day.”

I bring up this anecdote not to demonstrate how sensitive and enlightened and progressive my feminist boyfriend is (although he is all of those things), but because while I understood and sympathized with how he felt, and certainly would’ve felt the same way in his position, I ultimately disagree with the lack of distinction he and others have drawn between what that inebriated middle-aged man did—which was physical, bodily harassment—and catcalling.

I feel threatened by harassment. I do not feel threatened by catcalls. Grossed out, sure; bemused, yeah, OK; flattered, very, very rarely, and only if I’m in a really good mood. But never threatened. I think some women agree with me and some don’t, because catcalling means different things to different people. But if we’re going to have a conversation about catcalling, feminism, and street harassment, we should acknowledge that there are women who don’t think they are one and the same.

Today, we are forced to have this conversation, thanks to a New York Post op-ed in defense of catcalling that made the Internet rounds yesterday. Written by Doree Lewak, the piece essentially argued that women should stop complaining about men catcalling them on the street. Catcalls, Lewak writes, shouldn’t make you feel threatened, but empowered:

The mystique and machismo of manly construction workers have always made my heart beat a little faster—and made my sashay a little saucier. It’s as primal as it gets, ladies! They either grunt in recognition or they go back to their coffee break. It’s not brain science—when a total stranger notices you, it’s validating.

Oh, don’t go rolling those sanctimonious eyes at me, young women of Vassar: I may court catcalls, but I hold my head high. Enjoying male attention doesn’t make you a traitor to your gender.

Since its publication, Lewak’s piece has been roundly and dutifully torn apart by various feminist-leaning news outlets from Slate to Jezebel and Salon—and rightfully so. It’s a dumb, poorly written, unfunny piece that makes light of the very real threat of violence that women face on the street every day, and it is certainly not Lewak’s place—or anyone else’s, for that matter—to tell women how they should or shouldn’t feel when a stranger shouts out that he wants to put his tongue in your vagina.

But just because Lewak’s piece is dumb does not mean that it doesn’t raise a few valid points. The first is that there is a difference between someone telling you that you look pretty today and someone being sexually aggressive and actively wishing you bodily harm. The second, and I think the one that made so many women uncomfortable with the piece, is that there are clearly some women who do, on some level, enjoy being catcalled; to invalidate their own experiences is just as silly and stupid as invalidating the experiences of women who don’t enjoy it.

I fall somewhere in between these two camps, in part because to be perfectly honest, I don’t get catcalled nearly as often as my female friends say they do; in fact, it’s a pretty freaking rare occurrence. I think this is the case for two reasons: 1) I have a visage that one of my friends once said “should be next to Resting Bitch Face in the DSM VI,” so men on the street generally don’t fuck with me and 2) I grew up in New York, which forced me to develop an anti-catcalling defense fairly early on in life.

But on the rare occasion that I have been catcalled, I would not, for the most part, say that I felt threatened by it, or even conflated it with street harassment, as many feminist activists have in various anti-street harassment campaigns. While I agree with the general crux of these campaigns, and agree that men who think it’s OK to catcall women should be called the fuck out on it, I just think there’s a dividing line between catcalling and harassment.

This is not to invalidate the experiences of women who don’t see a difference between the two. I simply feel there’s a distinction to be made between an interaction with a stranger that is merely annoying and sexist, and one that crosses the line into becoming a threat to your personal safety. Being told to smile falls in the former category. Being told to choke on someone’s dick falls into the latter.

My female friends get catcalled a lot more often than I do, and I know this because they talk about it all the time. If I polled them about this subject, I suspect most would feel pretty much the same way I do. Catcalling is annoying. It’s perplexing. (“Why do they even bother? It’s not like I’m gonna turn around and be like, ‘OK, you’ve persuaded me, good sir,’ and wave my puss at him,” one of my friends told me following such an incident.) But it’s not getting followed down the street, or being sexually assaulted at a party, or even having your wrist grabbed by a drunk stranger who wants to know where the hell you’re going.

That is harassment, and that is another animal entirely; a more vicious, sharper-toothed animal, like a bull or a bear. Catcalling is a rat or a raccoon: Something that could prove dangerous, especially in large numbers, but will likely amount to little more than a nuisance.

Occasionally, for some women, catcalling can even be validating. It’s a difficult pill to swallow, and one of the main aspects of Lewak’s piece that critics took issue with—but that doesn’t make it untrue. I’m on a group text with my best friend, who regularly regales us with anecdotes of her being catcalled; ninety percent of the time, she sees it as validation of her outfit choice for the day. “I mean, he was right,” she once said about a homeless man who screamed “Nice tits!” at her. “I do have really nice tits. It was probably the smartest thing anyone said to me all day.”

There are probably many men and women who would say that if you secretly derive some form of pleasure at being cat-called, you’re probably suffering from incredibly low self-esteem, or you rely on the sexual attentions of men to validate your self-worth; in short, enjoying being cat-called “make[s] you a traitor to your gender,” as Lewak writes, or perpetuates the idea that women are soliciting attention from strangers on the street by intentionally dressing provocatively.

To which I would respond: Well, screw you, and so what? Screw you, and so what if some women like to dress provocatively for attention? Screw you, and so what if some women like being told by strangers they have nice tits? No one is saying that all women fit in this category; no one is saying that men should keep catcalling women, on the off chance that they’ll come across one who likes it. No one is even saying that catcalling is even remotely OK. But what I am saying is that women’s feelings about it are a lot more complex than either Lewak’s op-ed, or the various scathing responses to it, would lead you to believe.  

I don’t think there is any excuse for what that drunk stranger did to Alex, nor do I think that the flash of shock and panic my six-foot-tall, 190-pound boyfriend felt at having his wrist grabbed by another man is even remotely comparable to the vague, inexorable sense of fear that hangs over most women’s heads on a daily basis. But I just do not think it is the same as a dude on the street telling me I have nice tits.

The fact that he would say such a thing to a total stranger might make him a sexist, loud-mouthed idiot, and the fact that I don’t consider him a threat to my well-being and the well-being of women everywhere might might make me a bad feminist. But you know what? He wouldn’t be wrong. I do have nice tits. And all things considered, it might be the smartest thing anyone says to me all day.

Photo via Hello Turkey Toe/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Aug 20, 2014, 8:00 am CDT