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The Difference Between a Compliment and a Catcall

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at KU chapter.

What girl hasn’t been honked at, yelled at, or whistled at when walking down the street? It’s a tale as old as time, and we’ve all probably had at least one run-in with it. It starts sometime around when we begin developing in middle school and pretty much never stops from there. Some women find it as a source of empowerment; other women, like me, can’t help but feel uncomfortable with the unwanted attention. And no, it’s not because I’m insecure or because I can’t take a compliment, but that’s the thing. Catcalling isn’t a compliment.

I think a big problem is that a lot of men don’t really understand the difference between a compliment and a catcall. So many of my guy friends don’t get why catcalls upset me so much, and when they ask me to explain it, even I have trouble articulating it. Maybe that’s because it’s even hard for women to explain what makes attention wanted or unwanted. And because this is such a big problem in our society, I’m going to try to flesh it out.

1. Compliments are meant to boost a person’s confidence, while catcalls can make women feel insecure or uncomfortable. Compliments are generally things that are said to make someone feel good about themself. “I like your hair” and “that’s a pretty dress” are both good examples of this. Catcalls, on the other hand, usually go something a little more like this: “Hey, babe, I like the way those pants make your butt look.” Maybe it’s not a big deal if it’s coming from your best friend, but some rando on the street? If anything, I’m going to feel violated and slightly sketched out by whoever actually thought it was a good idea to say something like that. I’m also probably going to feel self-conscious for the rest of the day. 

2. Compliments are about the person they’re being given to, while catcalls are about the person giving them. As I mentioned before, compliments are usually just meant to boost someone else’s self-esteem. Sure, maybe it makes you feel better when you compliment someone, but it’s ultimately for the benefit of the other person. But how many times have you reacted awkwardly to a catcall, only to get insulted in return? The fact of the matter is, I probably don’t know how to respond to you if you’re yelling out your car window at me, so don’t start calling me a “tease,” or other unwanted names just because you don’t get the response you were looking for. If you make it about yourself, it obviously isn’t going to feel like you were sincerely complimenting me. You were just fishing for something, but I wasn’t biting

3. Compliments are personalized; catcalls are sexualized and dehumanizing. I don’t know, I guess I’d like to believe that the people who compliment me when I walk by them on campus actually see me as a human being. If you tell me that you like my shoes or my hairstyle, I’m going to assume you like my personal style. However, if you tell me that you like my cleavage, I’m probably just going to assume that you see me as nothing more than a walking pair of boobs.

4. Compliments are harmless, while catcalls have a way of making a person feel unsafe. Women are surrounded by a lot of horror stories about unfamiliar men approaching them on the street, many of them involving rape and violence. If some guy I don’t know makes a sexual comment and then reacts badly when I don’t respond how he wanted me to, how am I supposed to know what else he might do? We’ve all heard stories of catcalling gone wrong.  It’s the kind of thing women are warned about constantly. And for all those guys who complain that women go overboard and shouldn’t feel unsafe because of their “harmless” comments, how about you stop telling victims of violence that they should’ve known better than to put themselves in a bad situation? You can’t be offended when women ignore you and then later tell them it was their fault for not taking the proper precautions when something bad happens to them.

5. Compliments are about spreading positivity, while catcalling is about control and entitlement. If you approach someone who is guilty of catcalling, he’s probably not going to have an answer as to why he did it. Why does he feel the need to yell out the window of his truck at some girl who’s jogging around the block? Why does he feel the need to talk at some girl’s back end when she walks by on her daily commute to school? A lot of the time, it’s because men feel like they have the right to say things like that, and when we challenge this or react in a way that seems to challenge this, they get defensive. Male privilege is still a thing, people, and believe it or not, there are some men who exercise it on a regular basis.

6. Do you get it yet? If you think it’s going to make a woman feel unsafe or uncomfortable, don’t say it. Because the difference between a compliments and a catcall is the difference between whether you decide to treat a woman like a human being or like a sexualized piece of meat. And if it’s the latter, don’t expect good results.