Not a Compliment: What Men Don’t Understand About Catcalling

Content warning: This article contains discussion on sexual harassment. 


We live in a world with infinite freedoms. We can read whatever we want, spend our money on what we desire, call for change where we see propriety lacking. We can voice our opinions without fear, publish what we want to be read, wear what makes us feel our best.

For women, no matter our age, preference, or appearance, there is an invisible obstacle to our freedom every time we step outside. It can’t be always be seen, but it can be heard, and our reaction to it can jeopardize, at gravest, our physical safety.

When women are subjected to catcalling (also called street harassment), it creates not only temporary self-consciousness and humiliation but long-term fear and insecurity. Out of 28 members of the Her Campus Kenyon staff, 26 have experienced street harassment. Eight were thirteen or younger the first time they were catcalled, and zero took it as a compliment.

Despite what perpetrators, overwhelmingly male, want to believe, catcalling is always unwelcome. It is offensive at best and terrifying at worst, and it always has consequences that reach far beyond the incident.

One of the most distressing threats of catcalling is its effect on victims. I’ve decided against leaving the house for fear of being harassed. I’ve changed my clothes from something I really liked to wear to something I considered “safer.” I’ve been disgusted with myself because, somehow, I believed I must’ve done something to elicit these comments about my body. For many, these problems can escalate to intense anxiety and complete changes in routine, all to accommodate catcallers.

A disturbingly unavoidable aspect of catcalling is its omnipresence. Street harassment is literally inescapable. Moving to Gambier in August from a relatively big city, I expected that I would finally see the end of catcalling. Instead, it began to manifest itself in different ways. Instead of being yelled at and followed down city blocks, I was catcalled on Middle Path at night walking back to my dorm more than once (and I’m sure the most recent time won’t be the last). Kenyon students have even been harassed by campus construction workers, which begs the question, “Where can we be safe?” This question becomes even more urgent in the face of Kenyon’s recently announced Title IX investigation.

Before we even begin to find an answer, still more questions arise: “Where can I be comfortable? Where can I feel secure? Where can I walk down the street without being harassed (or worse)?”

Often, these questions are pushed to the back of our minds because we become accustomed to what we see as normal. Last summer, when I worked in downtown Indianapolis, I would be catcalled daily, something that becomes just another part of the experience for working women. As for retail, Erica Rabito says, “One day a man came up to me while I was working outside and leaned in way too closely to ‘read the name tag’ pinned above my left breast, then repeatedly told me how hot I was, how I looked cute in my glasses, and that he would come back to see me after I got out of work later…”

Why do male perpetrators harass women on the street? The underlying cause stems from centuries of the male delusion that they have authority over women’s bodies. For as long as there have been women, we have been objectified. The belief that men are entitled to our bodies has historically overcome the female voice advocating ownership, confidence, and bodily autonomy. When a woman passes a man on the street and hears herself being subjected to his whims, it’s because he doesn’t see her as a person. He sees her only as a body.

Rape culture thrives when virtually every shared space is occupied by the possibility of harassment. Public opinion often places blame on the victims, telling them to dress differently, act differently, take a different route home. The perpetrators are left untouched, oblivious to the scrutiny and shame directed at their victims. Much of this victim blaming can be attributed to the sexism inherent in our culture. Traditionally, men have made the decisions—is their dominant voice going to cry for the elimination of a practice with which they seem to find no issue?

This is what leads to the catcalling epidemic of large cities and small towns alike: the collective ideation of perpetrators that preying on others is not only acceptable but that it will even get them something in return.

And what happens if you respond? What happens if you don’t? Either way, you could be followed, on foot or by a car. You could be cursed at in the most vulgar way possible, only ending when you run into a crowded restaurant or hotel lobby to escape. You could be shamed for your lack of response or your “bitchy” reply. You could be questioned about your motives—did you really not want to go home with him?

It seems that men don’t understand what their victims think of catcalling. On behalf of those of us who have been harassed where we never would be, let me spell it out:

My name isn’t “Baby” or “Sexy” or “Bitch.”

Women do not want to be yelled at, or whistled, or looked up and down, grabbed, or groped.

We don’t want to hear your belligerent judgments, your so-called compliments, or your sexual fantasies.

We want a shared space where we don’t have to constantly ask ourselves whether the length of our skirt is going to make us targets.

We want to walk down the streets of our hometowns without the threat of harassment, stalking, and worse.

We want to live without fear, and until that happens, we will never have total freedom.


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