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Unpacking Catcalling, Wolf-Whistling, and More

Disclaimer: This article contains certain opinions that might be offensive and contradictory to some. 

When one searches catcall on Google, big heavy words appear – “sexual harassment”, “street harassment”, and so on. According to American publishing company Merriam-Webster, catcalling has 2 definitions: 1:  ‘the act of shouting, harassing and often sexually suggestive, threatening, or derisive comments at someone publicly’ and 2: ‘the act or an instance of loudly or raucously expressing disapproval (as at a sports event)’  Strikingly different, aren’t they?

Universally, catcalling is considered to be both negative and demeaning to women. Oftentimes happening on the streets, men would let out a shrill whistle to alert a passing lady that he finds her attractive or sensual, much to her discomfort. This discomfort of being catcalled in public translates to women being hyper-conscious of their surroundings when in a male dominated environment: they walk a little faster and stay more alert. An article by the Global Citizen held a study involving 4,830 men to find out why men catcall. In Egypt alone, 90% of men said that they catcall “for fun”. This was the study’s conclusion: 

“Younger men, men with more education, and men who experienced violence as children are more likely to engage in street sexual harassment.”

Global Citizen Report

Why men? The BBC notes that catcalling may not necessarily be about women, but men performing masculine acts in front of each other to “establish a pecking order among themselves”. Men put themselves in a position of authority. The result? Women feel insulted and objectified, even unsafe. 

So how do we go about discussing the issue of catcalling? I talked this over with a friend group over Telegram – we had an interesting discussion. To give you a quick overview, this discussion involved university students, both male and female. We spent some time figuring out what was considered catcalling in Singapore. Here are some examples:

  • *kissing noises* chiobu (a Hokkien phrase describing an attractive girl)!
  • Oi! Oi!
  • Ehhh, chiobu!
  • The classic wolf whistle

We then discussed if calling a girl pretty or going up to a girl in public was considered catcalling, to which we concluded that it’s a very grey area. Comparing this to catcalling, approaching a girl respectfully in public, although weird to some, would seem that a guy puts in a little more effort in expressing his interest in a girl. Sometimes, it could be out of a dare, and others, a truly sincere effort. ‘Catcalling hotspots’ as we called it, included Clarke Quay, Robertson Quay, and the Dhoby Ghaut area. 

Trigger warning: These opinions reflected are the result of an open-minded discussion and are by no means supporting the notion of catcalling. 

Do all girls view catcalling negatively? My answer would have been a resounding yes. But during the discussion, I realised that I couldn’t speak for all girls as far as catcalling was concerned. Some girls see it as a positive affirmation and take catcalls as a compliment to their looks, boosting their confidence in their features. All in all, how catcalling is viewed depends on the individual; some shrug the catcall off as a harmless encounter, while others consider the intentions of said catcall a lot differently. 

All forms of shouting at a lady on the street come under the catcall umbrella, but which sounds are some we could possibly overlook? Now, different sounds would convey different meanings. Compare “*kissing noises* Nice legs” to “chiobu!”, the former would be considered more suggestive to most. Having someone refer only to your legs would make it seem that they view you as an object rather than a person. Chiobu, on the other hand, may just be their way of expressing that they find you attractive. 

How a guy looks would also be a factor if the girl takes it as a compliment or as an offensive remark. Picture someone you would consider good looking vs. someone you consider unattractive. If the two both made a pass at you, would you react differently? 

I would argue that, contrary to the discussion, compliments and catcalls are two separate things that could never be put together. Be that as it may, catcalls have a way of making someone uncomfortable and sexualised. Compliments, on the other hand, are usually given to boost a person’s self-esteem. Compliments are about the person they’re being given to, while catcalls are about the person giving them — men who have been indoctrinated by the notion of catcalling as a display of coolness to their guy friends, or an attempt at fitting in. But from the perspective of women, a decent and respectful male would never walk around objectifying women and throwing these casual, suggestive, or upsetting remarks at them.

Gabrielle Chua

Nanyang Tech '24

With a stash of Roald Dahl novels in her possession from childhood, Gabrielle seldom has a tight grip on reality. In her spare time, she enjoys printmaking and writing for her local animal shelter.
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