When someone catcalls you, what are they saying? Ostensibly, it’s a compliment. “It’s worse when it doesn’t happen,” one older woman told me when I complained about being hollered at when running. I suppose the implication was that she thought I should feel flattered, not threatened.
The shouted comment across the street, the bibbing of a car horn, the wooping in the park: it’s all just an involuntary salute to your hotness. Those men can’t resist the incitements of female beauty, and you were irresistibly beautiful. Suck it up, sister.
But the message of catcalling isn’t, “You’re hot.” It’s, “I am looking at you and judging you, and deciding whether you’re hot and what I’m going to do about it.” Most defences of wolf-whistling cast it a reflex of appreciation which the jealous buzzkill feminists want to squash, but it’s part of a whole vocabulary of rating women: there are the ironic whistles, and straight-up insults, like the pizza delivery boy who circled the park twice, barking as he passed me to let me know he really considered me a dog.
The catcaller sees himself as sufficiently authoritative to make these judgements, and you as something to be judged: he’s king of the street, and your presence there is contingent on his assessment of your hotness. Even if the comment is complimentary, the fact that it’s been made at all puts you in your place, and it’s a menacing place to be.
In How To Be A Woman, Caitlin Moran makes a crack about the rubbishness of high heels: “If I’m going to spunk away £500 on a pair of designer shoes, it’s going to be a pair that I can a) dance to Bad Romance in, and b) will allow me to run away from a murderer, should one suddenly decide to give chase.” It’s a good point and funny, but there’s one big flaw in it: I run a lot, and even in my trainers, plenty of men can outrun me.
Probably I could run for longer than most, and I’m pretty sure I could outsprint the drunk at the bus stop who’s telling me what he thinks of my bottom – but at night, in the dark, that catcall leaves me weighing up my chances in a race with an attacker. And as soon as I’m doing that, I don’t feel safe.
It’s not accidental, that feeling of insecurity: it’s a deliberate, desired outcome for the catcaller. The taxi driver who beeped his horn as he passed me, stealing a look to see if he’d put me off my stride? He didn’t want to tell me I looked sexy, he wanted to see me stumble. That is what catcalling means.