A Toronto Transformation

Catcalls are not Compliments

Most people who’ve met me would probably tell you I’m a very upbeat, friendly sort of creature. Even on days when there’s no particular spring in my step, I tend to smile automatically at the people I pass on the street.

Few things wipe that friendly smile off my face like a bad old-fashioned cat call.

I’ve been hissed, barked and howled at, had my body, face and hair appraised and commented on, been propositioned or just told what someone might like to do to me, or have me do to them more times than I would care to count since I was 14 years old. And all of this by complete strangers.

Just last week I was walking down the street at 8:30am, bundled up like a big old toasted marshmallow, when a man winked, licked his vile lips at me and said, “Heyyyy, little girl-” before I drowned him out with my ipod.

Disturbing on multiple levels. “Oh heyyyy…confused pedophile?”

Unfortunately, I am in no way the exception. I have yet to meet a woman who has not experienced some form of this type of harassment.

Some would argue that I should just be flattered, take it as a compliment. But the thing is, I have in fact been complimented by strangers. I’ve had both men and women I didn’t know compliment my smile or my eyes or my dress. They smile an open and friendly smile, look me in the eyes and don’t expect anything in return and it absolutely brightens my day.

The people who leer and jeer and catcall expect something. They want to get a reaction out of the people they harrass. And God help you in trying to figure out what that reaction might be. Say thank you and you’re liable to encourage further or more inappropriate remarks, ignore it and watch how quickly you transform from “Baby!” into “stuck up BITCH,” yell or answer with some colourful language of your own and risk getting deeper into an altercation.

Sometimes, of course, it’s not your reaction they want, but that of the buddies they’re trying to somehow impress or bond with or prove their super-awesome, all-important heterosexuality to.

Either way, it’s tough to walk away from many of these situations without a little stormcloud of annoyance, rage, fear and disappointment trailing along with you.

It’s so disheartening and, depending on the setting, frightening, to encounter that kind of blatant objectification and lack of respect.

There’s this attitude that women’s bodies are public property, that by leaving our houses  dressed in anything but a burqa, we’ve consented to having our bodies commented on and leered at. People who just accept this kind of behaviour as an unchangeable status quo are operating on the assumption that men are beasts, creatures of lust who just can’t be expected to somehow control their special man urges.

It’s a dangerous way of thinking.

It leads to some guys thinking it’s ok to crouch down on the ground on a bar dance floor and reach through the crowd to put their hand up a stranger’s skirt (this actually happened to me. It took me a second to register what was happening and I don’t think I’ve ever been so enraged in my entire life. I grabbed the offending hand and yanked the guy up through the crowd so he was face to face with me and told him quite loudly in no uncertain terms that if he ever did something like that to anyone again he could expect to be murdered. By me, specifically.)

It’s a way of thinking that leads to people being rape apologists. It leads to victim-blaming and slut-shaming.

Also, it’s nonsense.

Last I checked, men had brains and free wills and the capacity to behave with empathy, respect and kindness towards their fellow human beings.

Some of them just have to be reminded to actually use that capacity.

How do you guys feel about this issue? Do catcalls bother you? How do you typically react to them? If it does bother you, do you ever try to educate the perpetrator as to why?

20 Responses to Catcalls are not Compliments

  • Alli says:

    Amen!!! It astounds me that some men actually think women will take catcalls as a compliment. Compliments make me feel good, catcalls make me feel violated. HUGE difference!

      • Alli says:

        My favorite (and by favorite I mean most disturbing) was a guy who passed me on the street and said, “I may not be your type, but I know what I like and I like what I see.” What made it that much creepier than any other catcall? He was pushing a stroller!!!!!

  • Jay says:

    I hate catcalls! Usually I just pretend I can’t hear them. And if a guy reached up my skirt, I wouldn’t have let him off with a threat, I would have punched him in the face.

    • Believe me, I was in a state of utter shock when it happened to me. If I’d been able to remain calmer I might have dragged him over to a bouncer and called the police to press charges.

  • Elly Rarg says:

    Not a huge fan of catcalls, you’re right, they’re definitely not a compliment and usually leave me feeling pretty angry and disgusted. I don’t really understand why guys think that it’s okay to yell random crap at a passing person? So not appropriate.

    • Right? I always want to stop and ask them if they have sisters or wives or mothers or daughters and then ask how they’d feel if some strange man was saying the same thing to them. I did actually stop dead, whip off my sunglasses and ask a group of leering construction workers if I could help them with something. It was actually pretty funny to watch them mumble, “Uh…no.” and suddenly study the ground or their hands or the sky intently.

  • Depending on what’s said to me and the tone it’s said to me in, I’ll either deliver a jokey-but-not-really retort or attempt to shut it down with, ‘I’m not a piece of meat; sir and it is completely unacceptable to treat me as such’- or some version of that.

    While I consider ‘catcalling’ (what a terrible name for what it is) forms of harassment, someone actually crossing the verbal line into physical contact is one that doesn’t have many grey areas for me. I would have more than had words with the person (and have done) It’s a violation of my body and a reflection of a codified patriarchal concept of women’s bodies as part of the public space.

    I will object to this line in your post though, ‘that by leaving our houses dressed in anything but a burqa, we’ve consented to having our bodies commented on and leered at.’ It doesn’t matter what we wear- burqa or not- a woman’s body isn’t seen as her own- it’s seen as part of the public domain. I am particularly uncomfortable with bringing up the burqa because a lot of the discussions around burqas and women who wear burqas or the shaila (the scarf) tend to continue to dictate to women what they can and cannot wear under the guise of empowerment. That assumption is something that needs unpacking too.

    • That’s a good point re: the burqa. I was not commenting on whether or not women should choose to wear one. The point I was trying to illustrate is that people seem to think any part of a woman that is at all visible is open for commentary and that one defence people often use for catcalling is that we women shouldn’t wear short skirts or tight pants or low cut tops or anything that might hint at the shape of our bodies if we don’t want people to leer or comment.

      I completely agree that wearing a burqa or a nun’s habit or a snowsuit or any other all-encompassing garment does not actually stop inappropriate comments or stop people from, as you say, viewing women’s bodies as public domain.

      • cantaloupe says:

        I was going to object to the burqa comment as well. Because you’re right, it totally doesn’t stop it. I’m glad you see that too. I’m not glad it’s true. Le sigh.

  • Emma says:

    I tend toward bellowing expletives at a deafening pitch when someone upsets me in this way. I almost always get called a bitch. But I couldn’t care less! I have to express how very angry it makes me, or I’ll get a stomach ache from internalized rage 🙂

    • hahaha. It’s true. Internalized rage is a terrible thing. Sometimes I have the urge to just start screeching wordlessly like I’m completely insane, just to make ’em think twice. haha.

  • erinstefan says:

    Catcalls definitely bother me.

    In the summer of 2008 I was running quite a bit. Approximately, three times per week. It seemed that every time I went for a jog I was being harassed. With each catcall I suppressed anger, annoyance and fear. Once I actually thought to myself, for a split second, that my shorts were too short and attracting the unwanted attention, but then I snapped out of it, partly because I had experienced this in pants and a jacket.

    One day I had enough when a man yelled, “Hey there pretty lady, lookin’ good,” followed by a whistle. I stopped dead in my tracks directly in front of his car and yelled, “How would you like it if someone said that to your mother and your sisters?” He was completely stunned. I think he learned his lesson, or at least I hope so.

    Now I am not afraid to speak up when men feel the need to harass me when I am walking, running, riding public transit etc., etc., etc. However, it took being harassed almost daily for me to work up the courage to say something.

    Metamorphocity I commend you for standing up to that guy in the bar. It isn’t easy. Especially, when there is this well oiled machine that tells us it is our fault in the first place. Thanks for sharing your story (though I sincerely wish we didn’t live in a world where women are viewed/treated as property).

  • mandy says:

    Ohh yes. It bothers me a lot because there is no good outcome. Too mean? You’re an awful bitch. Too nice? You’re askin’ for it. I would love to be able to ride my bike through downtown by myself and not have to think about avoiding eye contact with every smarmy looking guy nearby because I worry about the vile things they will say if I look in their direction. It sucks, and also sucks that I feel weird talking about this because I worry it makes me sound like a narcissist.

    • Yeah, the narcissist thing did occur to me before I wrote this post too, but after chatting with a few of my friends I realized this is definitely something most women can relate to. And you’re right, it’s rare that you can find a response to catcalling that makes you feel like you’ve come out equal or on top.

  • Alaina says:

    It’s definitely the worst. I hate being cat-called. It makes me feel like i’m on display and that I should be embarrassed or ashamed. I mean, there are those that would say “own it” and to take it positively, but at what point do we turn around and stand up for how we feel? It’s absolutely horrible that if after working out someplace, I have to be scared to walk down the street in yoga pants because someone will undoubtedly comment (happened after Barreworks in the summer time). And it happens continuously regardless of what we’re wearing. One time it happened while I was walking at school wearing a baggy t-shirt with a picture of a transformer on it. Just goes to show that it doesn’t matter what we look like, these comments happen because it gives them a sense of power and authority. I mean come on, transformers aren’t even hot anyway 😛

    With all these occurrences happening though, it’s almost comforting to know that other women out there feel similarly. It’s a terrible thing that this kind of behaviour happens all the time but knowing that there are women who want to say something about it – that means we’re winning right there.

  • Marriam S says:

    I love this post! I wonder how many cat-callers have actually managed to pick up a woman with their jeering (could we get the stats on that? Just kidding). Good for you for telling that stranger off, that kind of behavior is horrific.

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