Catcalling Is Not a Compliment

Writer’s Note: This post is based on my own personal experiences as a white, able-bodied, cisgender woman. Please keep in mind that people with bodies and backgrounds different from mine might experience harassment in different forms and at different frequencies and levels of severity. My intention is not to generalize and make assumptions about the ways in which other people experience harassment, but rather to argue with the belief that harassment is always or usually flattering.

When a woman complains about catcalling or one of the many other forms of harassment she most likely deals with, she is often met with the same old rebuttals from men (and sometimes even women). “Why didn’t you just say you weren’t interested?” “Just ignore it.” “It’s a compliment.”

What exactly is a compliment? Normally, I roll my eyes at the people who cite dictionary definitions in conversations about social justice issues. In this case, however, it might be useful to refer to one. According to Oxford, a compliment is both “a polite expression of praise or admiration” and “an act or circumstance that implies praise or respect” (emphasis added).

It’s true that some women feel flattered by unwarranted comments from men, and positive reactions are perfectly valid and acceptable. But according to studies done on the emotional responses to street harassment, these women are the minority. The majority of women do not find instances of sexual harassment to be polite or respectful. In fact, we often find them terrifying.

“Source?” My first impulse is often to use my own experiences with harassment as a source. I can tell you about the first time I was harassed, when I was 13 and at the mall with my best friend waiting for a Jamba Juice, and a man who must have been 30-something came up to us and asked us to get a coffee. I can explain how even though I rarely go outside alone without headphones and actively avoid eye contact with strange men, I still get harassed. I can try to estimate the number of times a man I don’t know has said or done something that made me wildly uncomfortable–but it’s really happened too many times to count.

Image from LA Weekly
Image from LA Weekly

I can tell you about all the harassment I’ve dealt with, but a woman’s personal experiences often aren’t a strong enough argument for those who adamantly insist that catcalls are complimentary.

Hollaback! and Cornell University have recently released the findings of their international study on street harassment. The results make it quite clear that not only is catcalling a pervasive problem around the globe, but also that it is most certainly not a compliment.

Most women in the United States reported feelings of anger, fear, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem after being harassed. The general assumption about compliments is that they make you feel happy and confident; the emotions reported in responses to this survey show that street harassment, in fact, makes women feel quite the opposite. Not all women feel this way, but as Hollaback! says in their report, it’s important to distinguish between the trend (having a negative reaction to harassment) and the outliers (the women who have a positive reaction).

Are catcalls still compliments if the majority of women find them upsetting?

Ignoring harassment or saying we aren’t interested isn’t so easy. About half of the women surveyed were first harassed between the ages of 11 and 14, but a significant number were much younger. Women of color often reported being even younger the first time they were harassed, and the ages in the #FirstHarassed stories shared on Twitter are as young as eight or nine. (Women of color also reported more harassment incidents annually than white women.)

Most people might assume that harassment starts when you’re a teenager, but the truth is it often starts when you’re a child. As children–especially as girls–we’re often taught to not talk back, especially to people who are older than us (and our first harassers usually are). We’re socialized to stay quiet and polite, even in situations where we’re incredibly uncomfortable.

It’s hard to unlearn this even as an adult. On the off chance you get up the nerve to tell someone who’s harassing you to stop, you’ll still most likely have to face the negative (and sometimes dangerous) consequences. Best case scenario: He calls you a bitch and leaves. But there’s always a chance that the harasser’s reaction will be more violent.

Men responding to women’s “rejection” with violence isn’t rare. In his “manifesto” and the videos leading up to his killing spree, Elliot Rodger made it clear that girls’ lack of interest in him was the main source of his anger. Many people also heard the story last year of a high school student named Christopher Plaskon who stabbed a girl after she said she didn’t want to go to prom with him. There are many more stories just like these, and the threat of violence and even possibly death is usually enough to keep women silent in potentially dangerous situations.

Image from Collective Action DC
Image from Collective Action DC

Obviously, harassment is more than just rudeness. In the context of gender,  harassment often ends up being a way for men to exert control over women and their bodies. Shouting a crude comment about a woman’s appearance suggests entitlement to her body. Groping or stalking or simply standing too close without a woman’s permission shows entitlement to her space. Expecting a woman to talk to you while or after you harass her displays entitlement to her time.

And ignoring us when we tell you that harassment is not complimentary shows a total lack of respect for our voices. Despite all of the stories women share about their experiences with harassment, a number of men still seem completely convinced that we love it and want it. Believe us when we tell you: most of us don’t. If we don’t find what you’re saying or doing flattering, it is not a compliment. It’s as simple as that.

“So I can’t even say ‘hi’ to a girl now?” Of course you can! Just remember that harassment is aggressive and intimidating; compliments are supposed to make someone feel good. So how exactly should you do it?

  • Ask permission. No, I don’t mean go up and say, “Excuse me, miss. Can I give you a compliment?” Just politely get her attention–maybe by smiling or saying “hi” while still leaving a safe distance between you–and make sure she’s interested in talking to you first. Harassment often feels violating; make sure you’re respecting her space.
  • Know when to stop. If she barely responds to you or leaves her headphones on, assume she’s not interested and leave her alone..
  • Be polite and genuine. Talking about how my ass looks in the skirt I’m wearing is considered harassment and not at all flattering by many women. And I will know whether or not you’re giving me a genuine compliment or just trying to get in my pants.
  • Don’t expect anything in return. Don’t expect us to keep talking to you–we have places to be. Don’t expect us to sleep with you–we probably won’t. We are people, we deserve basic respect, and we don’t owe you anything for giving that respect to us.
  • Listen to our experiences and accept them as our truth. If we say we aren’t flattered, believe that we aren’t.

Feature Image from HonestlyLibby

4 responses to “Catcalling Is Not a Compliment

  1. In 1980 The Library of Congress hired me and 3 other women to work with 53 men to move collections of all the libraries to a new annex building. This was the beginning of the EEOC for this section of the library. I was the youngest of the four. I won against a sexual harassment complaint and was hired and reinstated in 1983_84. After that I was terminated and black balled for complaining about the harassment by the way of an Amendment. At only 20 years old my life has been a struggle that nobody knows. X out factors all along the way. I know that under the eeoc am the first African American female in congress to have been fired and black balled for complaining about sexual harassment.

  2. I just watched the hollaback! video for the first time. watching it as a spectator, instead of being the woman herself, I start to understand why it angers me when men do this. These men are not shy in speaking to us. yet, none of them really care about how we are doing. the ” how u doing?” is not real. It is almost as if the woman in the video was being mocked by it and how insignificant it is in relation to her condition. He can come up to you and ask you about your feelings… he is not shy about anything. He is capable of trying to listen to you and understand you. but he only wants to know “how you doing” in relation to that which may be the reason why you are not doing so well. They sit around saying, “damnnnnnn”…. but they have nothing good to say. they are not stressed out.. just chilling as if life is great while we are panicking as if our life is slipping out of our hands.. a man who wants to take the title of the “leader of women”, should go up to her and ask how he can make this world a better place. he would say, ” how are you today.. is there anything that we men can do for you?” not—“how u doing… what you wanna do for me? can i get some of you? although i have deprived you of yourself a long time ago” ……and when she does not answer: the comment is “smile” as if it is an order… instead of genuinely wanting her to smile by treating her better—- which makes her feel as if she is the problem for not replying to his insulting behavior.
    do you get what am saying? they took the “how u doing”… which is an important question that is meant to reveal and show interest in another person’s feelings… and they took it and used it to dismiss her feelings instead. These men are just an insult in and of themselves. .am going to stop for now because otherwise i will curse everything under the sun.

  3. Our children, not just the males, are improperly oriented to their roles in society as citizens, neither perpetrator or victim behavior should be encouraged or allowed to be practiced. since parents seem to be too incompetent at, busy, ignorant, uncaring, or unsuccessful in this child development area, It is incumbent on the society, especially a free one, to establish a youth program to identify and clarify and inculcate the attitudes, , behaviors, information/education needed by our youth for our society to live long and prosper.

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