I Don’t Like Catcalls. Why Do You Care?

by | August 22, 2014
filed under Feminism

Screen capture of Doree Lewak's story in the New York PostIn a piece for the always classy New York Post, Doree Lewak wants all of us to know that “Hey Ladies – Catcalls are Flattering! Deal With It”. But as Natalie DiBlasio of USA Today points out, catcalls can actually be pretty frightening.

I’m with DiBlasio on this one. If you’re familiar with my writing you’ll know I talk quite a bit about street harassment, whether in the form of men interrupting me while I read, people assuming I’m pregnant, or boys catcalling me from a school bus. Hollaback! Boston has even published two of my personal accounts of street harassment, and I agree that whenever I’m catcalled, my primary emotion is anxiety.

For this reason it might surprise you to know that my issue with Lewak’s article is not that she claims catcalls are flattering. On the contrary. If Lewak finds validation in being “that objectified sex thing” for construction workers, it’s not really any of my business. No, my issue is her claim that we, “ladies,” should “deal with it.” One wonders, if Lewak really finds street harassment to be so validating and empowering, why should it matter to her if other women don’t like it? What does Lewak stand to lose? These are the things I ponder in the dark abyss of my soul before I fall asleep at night.

Before I go any further I would like to point out that I have never been rude to a catcaller. It’s not because I enjoy being harassed or I’m concerned about their feelings. It’s because I’m afraid of confrontation and physical violence. Ever since I read a news story about a man punching a woman in the face for refusing his advances on a train in my city, I’ve been especially wary of male hostility. So when I talk about the kinds of responses I get, it’s never from a jilted “admirer.” It’s from my community. It’s from all of you.

Repeatedly women are told, on this and many other subjects, to shut up and take a compliment.

Any time I share an anecdote about street harassment, about feeling gross or anxious or enraged, people rush in to tell me, as if this had never occurred to me, that perhaps I should take this as a compliment. Like Ms. Lewak, you, my community, are very invested in the idea that I should be flattered by things men say to me on the street. You rush to defend men you have never met, men who are long gone by the time I open up about my experience, men who will never hear how upset their actions made me feel.

The root of this problem seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of how compliments work. I can take a compliment. (I can also take a joke, another thing feminists are often told to “shut up and take,” but that’s another article). Compliments are extremely subjective. Once the intended compliment leaves your mouth, you have no idea how the recipient is going to react. Your intentions, however kind or playful, are irrelevant.

If I don’t just shut up and take your compliment, it’s because I don’t find it to be a compliment. Thus you, the complementor, have failed. If I am not complemented by what you say, it is, by definition, not a compliment.

Example: I have zero time for anything men have to say about my clothing or appearance, especially strangers, especially on the street (with the exception of my Wonder Woman sneakers, which are objectively awesome). So even the most sincere, un-creepy, well-intentioned compliment is going to annoy me. It causes me anxiety, because I have no idea if or when it’s going to turn skeezy or threatening, and it makes me hyper aware that I am being observed, which adds to my anxiety. Who’s fault is it if something meant to be nice is actually a huge inconvenience? Nobody is to blame. But I’m still anxious and annoyed.

Let’s try another hypothetical example with a different subject. Suppose someone approached me on the train and handed me a jar of cashews, saying: “Here is a delicious snack.” This person doesn’t know me very well, because otherwise he would know that two times in college, I became violently ill after eating cashews, and have since developed a strong aversion. To me, this is not a delicious snack or a kind gesture. With something as simple as food, I could explain how I feel, and the other party would probably be very understanding. He probably wouldn’t, for example, tell me to shut up and take the snack or call me an ungrateful bitch, which tends to happen when women speak up about street harassment.

The difference of course is that “compliments” from strangers aren’t really about the person being complemented. They’re about male entitlement and power. Otherwise, these men and Ms. Lewak and you, my community, would not be so upset when women don’t blush and smile and shut up and take these compliments.

Why are so many people invested in whether or not women feel flattered by street harassment? Why are Ms. Lewak and so many of my acquaintances so deeply bothered when I voice an objection? Why do people rush in to defend men they have never met despite the fact that I confess to feeling anxious and humiliated after incidents of street harassment?

The answer to this is, unfortunately, very simple. We live in a society that places men’s ego, men’s feelings, men’s opinions, in a position of greater importance than women’s desire to feel respected or safe.

Ms. Lewak, various aunts, annoying older woman at the laundromat: you are of course free to feel complimented by anything you like. Empowerment, confidence, blah, blah, blah. But the next time you find yourself about to tell a woman (or anyone, for that matter) to shut up and take a compliment, ask yourself why it matters to you. I hope the answer to that question sincerely disturbs you, because I’ve been losing sleep over it for quite a while.


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  • Katherine Nobles

    I am past the age when men cat-call, and it is a great relief. I agree with you Jessica. It never made me feel complimented. It made me anxious, and gave me a stomach ache every time it happened. Even years of martial arts training didn’t take away that feeling, and the feeling that someone was coming up from behind, no matter how fast I walked.

  • Colorgarden

    “The difference of course is that “compliments” from strangers aren’t really about the person being complimented. They’re about male entitlement and power.” This really is the key. I’m actually getting kind of tired of so many people (of all genders) saying, “Do they honestly think the women they catcall will want to have sex with them?” because it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the above.

    For once and for all, NO, they do not think it’s going to make you want to have sex with them. Men who catcall are terrified when you approach them because actually having sex with you is not the point. The point is to convince you and themselves that they are in power and you are not, that you exist for and at their pleasure.

    Thanks for this great article!

    • Agreed. When I get catcalled how I feel is totally disempowered. It feels like a lose-lose – either you’re sucking it up and smiling to get it over with, which reinforces to them it’s acceptable, or you call them out and risk being a “bitch” or “cold” – someone who can’t take a joke or a compliment. Even now that I feel calling out is usually the better response (unless it feels unsafe to do so), I don’t always realize until after I’ve passed the guy that I didn’t stop and try to call him out and tell him the catcalling wasn’t cool. It feels like it was trained into me from a very young age to just smile and take it as a compliment, even when I really didn’t want it.

  • Christopher Mei

    Yeah, it’s always what baffles me in cases like these, not just with catcalls, that the discussion itself is just stupid to have, trying to convince other people what the “rational” feeling is to have in a situation, basically a complete oxymoron. Then there’s the “male” perspective of wanting to be fre to do whatever the fuck you want in the streets. Obviously only children and idiots think freedom is an absolute concept and in reality freedom is a delicate balance between what you want to do and what the impact of that thing is on another person. The extreme case is homicde, it’s illegal cause no personal freedom of yours can possibly be worth the entirety of another person’s existence. So basically, the final question I always put in cases like these is, “do you REALLY think, that your “freedom” to catcall someone is worth the consistent, tangible possibility that that person is made extremely unconfortable and unsafe? You want, in your own words, to “compliment” a person SO MUCH that is doesn’t matter how that person, that you say you’re just complimenting, feels?”
    That really destroys any possible ridiculous excuse that it’s meant as a compliment. Yeah, I wanna compliment you so much I don’t care how you feel about it. That makes sense.

  • Lisa

    I am so grateful that this article hasn’t been taken seriously. Women who want the world to change because of their own feelings have no respect for anyone with a different viewpoint. This is commonly referred to as bigotry.