The catcall, translated

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.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2012; vintage advert showing tiny woman being knocked over by the sound of a novelty wolf-whistle car horn uploaded by lucyfrench123, used under Creative Commons

10 thoughts on “The catcall, translated

  1. Catcalling is doubtless grim behaviour, but I disagree with this line:

    “It’s not accidental, that feeling of insecurity: it’s a deliberate, desired outcome for the catcaller.”

    This may on occasion be true, but, I think, rarely. Catcalling is mostly a thoughtless act, more about a man’s insecurities in his male peer group than any real judgement on the victim (and I think ‘victim’ is the word). It is near-automatic. A man will do it alone, because he considers it to be the ‘right’ behaviour in that stituation, just like putting his cutlery together when he finishes eating. He will do it much more when there is an audience, however. Perhaps some catcallers want a response from the victim – whether thats amour, amusement or fear – but not many.

  2. I don’t think so, Samuel. That pizza delivery kid on his moped, the taxi driver in his car – they were alone. The only audience they had was me, the only reaction they were seeking was my one, and the only likely reaction to a round of barking or a horn going off in my ear is dismay.

  3. I read about this yesterday in the Guardian and was thinking about how much we as women take this kind of catcalling for granted. I don’t get it so much now (I used to hate it and cross the road as I was approaching builders as I was sure to get a wolf-whistle just for being young female and blond), but recently one of the security in the British Library kept commenting on me as I passed him at the entrance to the reading room. He was friendly enough, saying: are you having a nice day? Work going well? But I was deep in thought and didn’t want to be disturbed. I thought about it: was he simply trying to make light of an otherwise dull job? But then he started making comments like, you look much nicer with your glasses on, and I was feeling more and more uncomfortable every time I passed. The reason I felt uncomfortable was because, as you say, he was judging me, which made me feel self-conscious in an environment where I should have felt safe. I wondered what kind of reaction I would have got if I’d complained. There are many words that can be used for a woman who complains about these kinds of things.

  4. It’s the ambiguity of it that is problematic: the questioning, am I being over sensitive? Over reacting? We seem to feel this a lot as women.

  5. These aren’t nice behaviours you’re talking about. That should be pretty obvious to anyone reading this. Though I think there might be something in Samuel’s comment – the behaviour and it’s effect is the same, the vile pizza boy making a concerted effort to isolate you is a rarer sight than a pack of braying idiots up a scaffolding, and I can’t square them so cleanly with each other.

    I think where your post is a stronger one than most is that too often when women write about this, they get tangled up in the sexualisation of it or… a percentage of their argument becomes about their right to wear whatever they want, and about the Male Gaze. While what they say through this defensiveness is usually entirely fair and right, it’s almost besides the point and brings a lot of other baggage to the issue that is easier to argue with, which you’ve cut through here somehow by keeping it simple, in a way that allows me as a man to access it.

    Because, and correct me if I’m wrong, what you’re talking about is basically bullying? Unmediated, street-unpredictable bullying.
    Once you remove the sexualising component of it, you’re perfectly describing that instant full-body anxiety one gets when walking home from work through a group of pissed and aggressively rowdy blokes, and drawing a little too much attention from them, but in a way that will happen at any time, in any location, and with the greater intensity that comes from being a woman in that situation with men.

    By talking about the imposing of judgment in this way, you’ve framed this in a way that I can totally relate to. I’ve been on the receiving end of this sort of aggressive public judgment, though now it happens rarely enough it’s more of a novelty – a kind of “really? It’s 2012 and we’re still shouting abuse at guys for having long hair?” sort of thing, rather than the ongoing existential creepiness that you have to deal with.

    Really, you know, I just kind of think we should all stay the hell out of each other’s way unless invited, and do it with a (non creepy) smile for the niceness of it.

    Great post, Sarah. I don’t think I’ve done a great job of putting my response to it into words.

  6. Excellent blog and fabulous illustration!

    My thoughts:

    In addition to what you’ve said, I think some catcalls are acts of power and of claiming territory (the term is very telling – cats are creatures of territory). The catcaller feels empowered and cowardly free of accountability by their position (eg in a moving vehicle or up a scaffolding). Perhaps there’s something about the ‘gaze’ from a car/van window or from a scaffolding platform that turns human beings – pedestrians – into non-human passing entertainment, like people on TV. See also the back seat of a bus. And indeed, comments on blogs…!

    I too have to disagree with Samuel above, regarding catcallers not wanting a response.

    Recently, I was shouted at from a car in slow moving traffic on the Archway Road. Some unkind comment on my appearance. I just ignored it, didn’t even look, carried on walking straight ahead. This in fact made it worse. They were SCREAMING at me to make me look at them, give them eye contact. “OY! OY! I’M TALKING TO YOU!” As if it was me being the rude one…

    It was frightening and upsetting, to be honest. Never gets easier. But I’m very good at not giving them the eye contact they want.

    I think they regarded my popping up within their vision – within their territorial space – as a form of ‘attack’ that needed a response. And I refused to reciprocate.

  7. I detest Street Harassers and I detest they way it makes me feel when they do it.
    I hated it when the white teenage boy hissed “suck me off” at me as I walked past him.
    I hated it when the 2 Asian schoolboys I walked past said “you’re beautiful”.
    I hate that though they are children and I at 26/27 am adult they still see fit to degrade me by rating me in that way.
    I hated it when I sat on the bench in the sunlight minding my own business ten minutes after the schoolboys when 2 separate asian car drivers tried to get me to get in their cars.
    I hated it when I rode my bike round the park and the gang of youths made a smutty remark “you can beep my horn anytime”. I hated the humiliation and powerlessness it made me feel.
    I especially hated it when the elderly black gentleman at the busstop asked me “how much for the batty?”
    I hated it when the mediterrean guy down my street said to my boyfriend “very nice woman” as though I was a new fucking car.
    I hate it every time a work van goes past and a lad leers at me and beeps the horn.
    I hate that no matter what age or what ethnicity the harasser, no matter what part of town I’m in, what time of day it is, no matter what I’m doing some fucking arsehole sees fit to offer up some unwanted, unsolicited comment on my physical appearance.
    I want to wait for my bus, ride my bike, walk down my street in peace. Mind your own fucking business sleazy repugnant men.

    Why don’t they ever think about how it makes women feel when they do it, ignorant cretins. Do you know what’s just as bad as the ignorant cretins who do it? The sort of person who jumps to their defence by saying “it’s not every man, stop talking about this” because it makes them feel uncomfortable. Stop being a nagging prick and join women and say yes this is not right, I agree with you NOT “it’s not right BUT..” Because no matter how uncomfortable it makes you hear how some of your gender behave consider how much more uncomfortable it makes us having to fight 2 battles, 1 against the Street Harassers and another against their apologists. It makes us feel powerless, humiliated, and furiously angry.

  8. Now I beat them to it. When I see a van or a car with a male driver I immediately stare first. The second I see it on the horizon I fix my stare directly at them and you know what……it creeps them out, if you don’t blink and fixed-stare them out, they look away. Since I adopted this tactic not a single van or car driver has said anything or beeped, they have just looked away.

    I am an advocate of pre-emptive aggressive eye contact. Clearly the cowards need you to be trying to ignore them first so that they can surprise you.

    Toptip – make sure you’re not about to walk into a lamp post.

  9. Great Post! Historian/Feminist Icon Estelle Freedman is currently working on a book about cat-calling or “Mashers” in the Progressive Era and the responses from First-Wave Feminists, including training the first urban police women to quell the cat callers.

  10. Hi. I am 20 years old and I do have a good figure. I live in dorms on campus and walk to and from my work. Often I work till 10pm. On my way home I often get called out at in a suggestive manner. It makes me uncomfortable, but the worse is when one guy got out of his car! I know I can run for a long time but I am not fast. Being 5’1” and petite, means most men could easily overpower me. I took self-defense classes for years but I am still weaker and slower than men. Do you have any advise for me? How to react?

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