8 Reasons A Catcall Is Not A Compliment

No, actually, that wolf whistle isn’t “just the teeniest bit flattering.”

When a smile or nod to a stranger is again and again interpreted as an invitation for a crude remark about the tightness of your jeans, it begins to seem that even this most basic gesture of humanity isn’t extended to you.

See: any time a person is insulted within 30 seconds of being called beautiful, just because that person didn’t respond to the initial “compliment” in a way that satisfied the catcaller.

Catcalls are directives — Turn around! Come talk to me! Let me see that smile!— which assume at their most basic level an ownership of the woman being catcalled. These aren’t innocuous or playful requests; they are symptoms of entitlement, and messages that women don’t deserve control over their own bodies.

In a sample study of 223 reported incidents of street harassment, analyzed by HollaBack! and Worker Institute at Cornell University, 19% occurred with bystanders present. But while witnesses can aggravate a feeling of shame — nothing quite ruins a night like being whistled at while walking with your partner — they aren’t necessary factors. The imposition of explicit comments can make the person receiving them feel shame for simply existing.

It is inevitable that men and women will find other men and women attractive, and often in the absence of any real interaction. What shifts a catcall from innocent and fleeting attraction to objectification in its purest form is the decision to act on it. A catcall reveals a disregard for the woman’s humanity, the possibility of her discomfort or irritation or fear, and signals that a woman is nothing more than her body or the ways in which she chooses to dress it.

By catcalling, harassers insert themselves into the personal space of the harassed: during her commute, her daily jog, her walk to brunch. This puts unwilling women on the defensive on a daily basis, where ignoring the comments isn’t seen as an absence of a reaction but instead a transgression, or justification for more verbal assaults.

In September 2013, a 21-year-old man pulled his car up to a 14-year-old girl in Florida and offered her $200 to have sex with him. When she refused, she was grabbed, choked, tossed aside, and then run over multiple times. Luckily, she survived.

This is not an isolated incident. Throughout the country women have been stabbed, shot, and sexually assaulted for ignoring catcalls with alarming regularity, as Soraya Chemaly at Huffington Post pointed out, and this fact colors every incident of street harassment.

There’s still a good chunk of people who, unfortunately and surprisingly, don’t see the distinction between a compliment and harassment. A catcall is disempowering enough in itself — for making the person targeted feel violated, uncomfortable, or threatened — but it is doubly so when complaints about the catcall are silenced.

According to research by HollaBack, a majority of women report feeling angry, annoyed, disgusted, nervous, and scared when catcalled. If these comments are intended as compliments, they’re missing the mark.

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