Catcalling and other indignities

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88 Responses

  1. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    Generally I think it’s an expression of the felt powerlessness of knowing, as you say, there’s no chance for them with the women in question, and an attempt to re-establish a different, uglier kind of power. To right what they see as a threatening reversal of the correct power relationship that should exist (them > her). That’s always what catcalling and especially indecent exposure and groping has looked like to me.Report

    • Avatar veronica d says:

      @michael-drew — Right. Exactly. At its root is raw misogyny, and it’s very obvious when you experience it.Report

    • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      Yeah, that’s my feeling. It’s a dominance play from men with big egos & low self-esteem. It’s partly to degrade the woman, but mostly to puff up their image in the minds of their peers.

      It’s the lowest form of bullying.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      @michael-drew I think this is a good explanation for how women perceive cat calling, but a poor one for why the men who cat call do it. The reason for that, I suspect, is far simpler: they assume the woman will enjoy it, because they would. (And in truth, they are sometimes given positive reinforcement for their poor actions.)

      This is not a defense of cat calling, mind, because the only relevant opinion in the discussion of should women have to put up with cat calls is the one of the woman who feels harassed. The counter argument that the way she experiences it is unimportant because it was “all meant in good fun” is utterly and completely beside the point, in the same way it’s beside the point for me to sneak in pork to a dish I serve to my Jewish friends on the basis that “I would have liked pork, so they should get over themselves.” It’s even worse than that, because it can be quite frightening for many of those who are subjected to it.

      But as good as gender studies is at detailing accurate ways to see the world, it oft times is a poor instrument to gauge other people’s motivations.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        I think @tod-kelly nails it.Report

      • I imagine there are multiple reasons why various men participate in catcalling. I’m inclined to believe that both you and Michael are right.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        I’m with Jonathan. I think the “I wouldn’t mind it” is part of it, and certainly why some men seem to have a hard time understanding why women don’t appreciate it, but the power dynamic, as well as a general contempt for women (in the form of objectification), are also a big part of it.

        The one that gets me is strange men asking women where they live, or even more absurdly, asking women walking along if they want a ride. “Hey baby, you want a ride?!” At 11 o’clock at night, on an otherwise deserted street.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:


        I think there is a difference between a cat call & a public compliment. One is crude, the other, not so much.

        I get your point, and yes, I think most men would love it if a group of women loudly went on how good he looks, even if he found the women to not be attractive. But (harkening back to previous discussions) most men don’t worry about one or more women raping or otherwise assaulting them if they got it into their heads to do so. Sure it could happen, but the possibility of it happening doesn’t enter into the male consciousness.Report

      • Avatar veronica d says:

        @tod-kelly — You’re missing a big part of it, which is the separation between the rationalization and the actual motive. Yes, these men will likely say they are complimenting the women. They will insist it’s all in good fun. But then, this form of “compliment” seems to happen in very narrow social contexts, to women alone, when the men are in groups of other men.

        They do not talk this way in front of their mothers, nor in front of their pastor, nor to their boss’s wife. Nor will they accept other men paying similar “compliments” to their own wives/girlfriends/mothers.

        If this was really all about compliments, then this is how they would talk to the women they like and respect. At their brothers wedding, they would compliment the bride by pointing out how much better her ass would look with a cock in it. Their mothers and grandmothers would smile with pride.

        Right, they would do that. Yes?Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        I happen to think I’m closer to the reality than what you lay out in more instances than not, @tod-kelly , but who can say for sure?Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        …Reviewing, I see that I said that what I described was “always” what catcalling is about. That was… dumb. Not always; not nearly. Mostly, though, I’d say. Maybe not by much. But mostly.Report

      • I agree with those who say that both @michael-drew and @tod-kelly are right here. I do think, however, that Michael probably has the better assessment of the overall power relations involved. But what he identifies is probably not mutually exclusive of what Tod identifies.Report

      • Avatar veronica d says:

        Well I don’t think these men consciously think about the power relationships. Nor do I believe these men are aware of the degree this behavior is for the benefit of other men, how it functions as a method of male status signaling. Most people just are not that self aware.

        That said, these men do seem aware this behavior is unacceptable, since they only do it when they can get away with it. They don’t behave this way everywhere, all the time. They do not act this way toward women they respect. Nor will they accept other men acting this way toward such women. Plus, I insist, they must have an awareness that this is not nice for the women. I’ve seen it too many times. When a women appears uncomfortable, or frightened, or rushes away, they laugh and step up their game. The crowd of men gets “in on it.” Then one man steps forth and abuses more.

        So what do they think about their own behavior, later when they are not feeling elevated by the social approval of other men? Well, the human mind can rationalize any behavior. I mean, we humans can rationalize systemic genocide. To rationalize hurting a woman who is a stranger is cake.Report

  2. Avatar Kim says:

    Groping seems to be … an issue of poor impulse control, topped off with “I can do what I want and you wont’ call me on it.” (Guys get groped too).

    Catcalling seems to be more of a group activity — meant to assert your “maleness” or “bro-ness” (I know, girls can catcall too, but I’ve never seen it). It’s not generally intended to get you anywhere (as opposed to random “I’m hitting on you” stuff — like “you’ve got the prettiest smile I’ve ever seen.” — that could be an actual start to “hey, I’m bored and waiting for a bus, Let’s talk.”)Report

    • Avatar veronica d says:

      Yes on the group behavior thing. I’m far more likely to be abused by groups of young men than any other category. And there is a clear sense that it is meant as a spectator sport.

      But I get crap from lone men also. There is an aspect to contemporary masculinity that is very ugly.

      As a contrast, one day I was waiting on the subway platform and a group of three working class men came and stood nearby. Anyway, one of them kept looking at me side eye and mumbled something to the other two. I overheard one of them say “Whatever. He’s [sic] doing his own thing and that’s fine.”

      Which, okay, being misgendered sucks, but it beats getting my ass kicked.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Yeah, I’d venture to say that some of the loners who are bitching at you are feeling insecure about masculinity in general. I haven’t seen catcalls from loners, like ever.

        I suppose it’s a way to express displeasure at non-conformity. I went by a line for a college basketball game (and I had my hair done in an Afro at the time)… I got catcalls, and they weren’t particularly complimentary.Report

      • Avatar veronica d says:

        Well, to clarify, men who are alone harass in a different way from men in groups. Men who are alone are more likely to get uncomfortably close and leer. Usually this is followed by a very indecent proposition, which I guess doesn’t have quite the same dynamic as open catcalling. It falls more in the ugh, no territory.

        (I kinda suspect these guys say stuff to me they would not necessarily say to cis women because trans women are perceived as powerless. Not sure.)

        On the other hand, one night on the subway a (seemingly) homeless guy leered at me as I walked past. When I glanced his way he licked his lips and made “Mmmm mmmm” noises. Which felt abusive the same way catcalls are abusive. But this man was alone.

        Anyway, I stopped, gave him a cold stare, and said, “You’re kidding, right?” He said nothing back.

        Some lines I’ve heard from lone men: “Do you like cock?” (my answer: “not yours”), “Nice ass,” “Suck it babe!”, etc. (my responses: ignore them). Then there was “You have nice legs” (my answer: “Thank you”). Another time, “Excuse me, miss, may I ask a question? Are you involved in the BDSM scene?” (my answer: “Yes.”).

        The “nice legs” guy was okay. I mean, I think he was just hitting on me in an awkward but honest way. He left me alone when it was clear I was not interested.

        The “BDSM” one came from a panhandler in the Boston Common. He ended up being pretty hilarious. Plus at the end of our conversation he shook my hand and said, “It’s always nice to meet a pretty lady.”


        Anyway, some men are gross. Some are nice.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        I think those might just be “clueless fuckers.”
        Perhaps they don’t know how to express themselves well (note: I am not defending criminal or creepy behavior).
        They may also not have sat down quietly and thought “what do I do if I’m interested in a girl who might not be straight, or might not understand that I’m interested in her??” (otherwise known as: you’re taking them a little off the script that they’ve written on “how to interact with a cool lady”).

        But I’m sure a fair half of them are jerks.Report

    • Avatar zic says:

      Absolutely it’s a group thing. I’ve never been cat-called by a lone male when there were no other males about. But put two or three or more in proximity, and it happens.

      It’s definitely signaling something to the other males, not quite sure what.

      Groping is a different beast, that’s done alone and when you suspect nobody will see (crowds offer a lot of protection for groping.)

      And exposing oneself? I have this theory that many men want to be visually admired the way they admire — internet selfies are another example of this underlying desire.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        I think it is signalling something like “I am enjoying that lady’s figure.” But it’s gotta be more than that — as the simple “1 o’clock” also signals that.

        Yeah, they’ve done studies on the types of guys who expose themselves to women, and a lot of them do really want/hope for compliments. [Nevertheless, this is severe harrassment, and these people need some mental counseling… I don’t Mind if they find folks who like “random exposures” and do it to Them. Leave the rest of humanity out of it!!]Report

      • Avatar Maribou says:

        I have been catcalled by lone males, fwiw. Just like I would be by groups. It is rare, to the point where I tend to look around in puzzlement for their group and be surprised that they don’t have one, but it does happen.Report

    • Avatar Guy says:

      I’ve gotten catcalls from a group of girls once. It was a strange, uncomfortable experience that I have no desire to inflict on anyone else. The only remotely rational motive I can think of is that they wanted something to laugh about later.Report

  3. Avatar dhex says:

    nyc has an advanced and fairly entrenched street harassment culture. it seems to be largely performative for the sake of other members of the group, though there’s also just a lot of straight up people with no notion of boundaries/getting punched in the neck.

    “I ended up apologizing to the woman on behalf of my gender”

    were you recently elected spokesbro?Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      Many people seem to think that social boundaries and acceptable behavior are for hide-bound losers and disregarding them shows how special they are. Sometimes they have a point but having social boundaries does make it easier to keep lots of people living together without murder.Report

    • Avatar Jim Heffman says:

      “were you recently elected spokesbro?”

      An important aspect of the white knight personality is maintenance. After all, it’s hard to self-dramatize if you never act out.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        I can safely assure that my brother and I are far too cynical and intelligent to be white knights. We also have Mediterranean skin coloring so if we were knights our color would be olive green.Report

      • Avatar veronica d says:

        “White knight” has become a term-of-art used by the MRA sorts and their various ilk to refer to any man who speaks up for women. So when an MRA-ish person takes the time to call you that, you should probably be pleased.Report

      • Avatar Jim Heffman says:

        ““White knight” has become a term-of-art”

        “White knight” doesn’t have anything to do with the MRA movement. It’s been around for a lot longer than that. If anything, it’s the historical form of “#notallmen”.Report

    • Avatar veronica d says:


      I mean, the whole “apologize for group X” this is a bit precious. On the other hand, I think it is a positive good that (some) men are able to perceive how gross this stuff is.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        And on the third hand, it’s a great way to start a conversation with a really attractive woman.Report

      • Avatar dhex says:

        isn’t it basically a IRL #notallmen?

        i’d wager nearly all men would perceive it as gross were it directed at someone they care about, as well as a possible “fighting words” situation. (which has its own issues of ownership involved, of course)

        many years ago downtown i passed by this guy yelling “hey purple pants” at a woman in purple pants. i was puzzled on beer and humidity so i asked him “hey, does that ever work? like do you get numbers or whatever?” he looked at me like i’d asked him if he could fly. it’s not really an attempt at connection so much as uh yelling shit at strangers to hurt their feelings and show off for friends.Report

      • Avatar veronica d says:

        I don’t think it is precisely the same as #notallmen. I think it comes from a similar place, a deep discomfort and a need to recenter men in the discourse. However, the #notallmen thing is problematic insofar as it derails conversations that women are having. Offering support to a woman walking alone is not the same thing.

        I mean, it can be bad, if your offer is unwelcome. If she seems standoffish, then leave her alone. But she might in fact appreciate the kind words. And walking along beside her can save her a lot of grief. On the other hand, to her it might feel disempowering. Or she could simply not trust you. In which case back off.

        Point is, these things are delicate.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        I just said to the woman “I’m sorry” The for my gender thing was just wiritng.Report

      • Avatar dhex says:

        “I just said to the woman “I’m sorry” The for my gender thing was just wiritng.”

        that’s a lot less crazy. significantly so.Report

      • Avatar veronica d says:

        @saul-degraw — “I’m so sorry that happened to you,” is the perfect thing to say.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


      My friend suffered from indecent exposure plus touching in Italy.

      @dhex @veronica-d @jim-heffman

      The spokesbro comment makes it seem like a game I can’t win or lose. Should I have just said nothing.


      That would be the Civilization and Its Discontents line of thought.Report

      • Avatar dhex says:

        my preferred solution would be to address the yeller, frankly.

        but seriously, how do you apologize for an entire gender? that’s like apologizing for math or chromosomes.Report

      • Avatar veronica d says:

        Well, you cannot apologize on behalf of men.

        Which does not mean you are wrong to speak about this stuff. Please keep speaking. Nor does it mean you were wrong to help. Please keep helping.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        Considering that this is an area known for occasional gang violence that could have been a dangerous proposition.

        Also, I’m not a bro.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        Also, I’m not a bro.

        Ouch….I think you just got dissed, @leeesq 😉Report

      • Avatar dhex says:


        “Considering that this is an area known for occasional gang violence that could have been a dangerous proposition.

        ladies love assisted breathing machines. plus you can put bumper stickers on them.

        that said, it doesn’t have to be necessarily an afternoon prelude to a curbstomp. it can be simply a “bro, if that was your mother or your sister, you’d be mad as hell, dude.”

        “Also, I’m not a bro.”

        you’re from long island. you just gotta dig deep. we can’t change who we are.Report

      • Avatar veronica d says:

        Challenging young men in groups is a very bad idea. On the other hand, to talk kindly to the women, to act as if you know her (if she seems comfortable) can defuse a situation.

        Funny thing, I literally witnessed a fistfight on the subway Tuesday night, and one of the assailants was a dude who had moments before sexually harassed me. (Just crude comments. No big.) Now, I had my headphones on and I’m not sure how the fight got started. As far as I know it had nothing to do with me, and I see no reason to think the other kid was sticking up for me. But about two minutes after the dude said shit to me, he and this other dude were in the center aisle throwing punches.

        #lifeinboston 🙂Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        @glyph, thats okay. I always wanted a twin sister.Report

      • Avatar veronica d says:

        @leeesq @saul-degraw — I can give you two pointers if you want to make this happen.


  4. Avatar Kim says:

    Catcalling was a normative part of Hispanic culture for women alone after dark — basically meant to represent that they shouldn’t be out there unescorted.

    Groping is such a part of Japanese culture that some men fantasize about groping their girlfriends (presumably, because then she can’t protest…) and the girlfriend then liking it…Report

  5. Avatar zic says:

    Thanks for noticing, Saul. And considering what you were seeing means to the women subjected to this. I’ve had these things happen to me thousands of times; times beyond counting. It never made me feel attractive or desired or beautiful or proud, either, it always made me feel creeped out. Some days, it made it hard to want to do anything out and about in the world, too. It limits how I dressed, where I went, who I would talk to. At it’s very worst, it’s criminal assault.Report

  6. Avatar ScarletNumbers says:

    I ended up apologizing to the woman on behalf of my gender

    No one likes a white knight.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

      So it would have been better to just ignore what was going on?Report

      • Avatar Guy says:

        If you’re genuinely uncomfortable and not trying to take over the situation, you aren’t white knighting in any useful sense. (ie, Scarlet and Jim aren’t using the term well)

        White knighting (not knitting, dang it) is a phenomenon worth knowing about; it is best characterized as a false altruism, where the white knight defends a party specifically and exclusively to enhance their own status, either in the eyes of the party or in the eyes of a larger community (such as an internet forum).Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        I have a real problem with what I call you can’t win arguments. I feel like if I wrote a post about this and said I didn’t do anything, the accusation would be a passive enabler and part of the problem. Saying something if only a statement of sympathy makes me a “white knight” who is secretly trying to get into her arms by another means.

        This sort of argumentation is not open to any form of discourse and is more about having an ax to grind.Report

      • Avatar ScarletNumbers says:

        So it would have been better to just ignore what was going on?

        Since she wasn’t in danger, and since she was a stranger, yes.Report

      • Avatar ScarletNumbers says:

        I have a real problem with what I call you can’t win arguments.

        To be fair, no one MADE you make this post.

        I feel like if I wrote a post about this and said I didn’t do anything, the accusation would be a passive enabler and part of the problem.

        You are correct. Not from me, but from others.Report

      • Avatar Maribou says:

        Saul, are you familiar with Aesop’s fable about the old man, the young man, and the donkey? Pretty much any time you say “I did X”, SOMEONE is going to think you did it wrong.

        That said, I think, assuming the woman felt reasonably comfortable with you (which I suspect she did), she probably appreciated the company / support. I have fallen into step with someone who felt safer than the surrounds before. But, if you were the one who fell in step, I can imagine her feeling more threatened along the lines of “man, not only did guys catcall me but someone actually WALKED NEXT TO ME for two blocks. i hate walking alone in that neighborhood”. It sucks that it might feel that way to her, but it’s not a personal thing, just the result of many bad experiences which most women have had.

        It sounds to me, though, as though you respected her space and made her feel safer. Which is a good thing.Report

      • Avatar Maribou says:

        Just *occasionally* you can see why Jaybird and I are so happily married 😀Report

      • Avatar Guy says:

        Sorry if I wasn’t being clear. The point I’m trying to get across is that white knighting is a real phenomenon (see, eg, the “Nice Guy”), and that despite the reality of the phenomenon, you are not a part of it.Report

      • Avatar veronica d says:

        @saul-degraw — What you did was fine, and speaking as a women, I suspect quite welcome.

        There are men who “protest too much” in these situations. As I suggest in my other post, these things are delicate. But a person willing to bring dignity into a miserable, humiliation experience is a fine thing.Report

      • Avatar EB says:

        @saul-degraw You’ll get yelled at no matter what you do, but it will be by different groups. It’s up to you who you would rather stand with: the people who think sexual harassment is a bad thing or the people who don’t.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      Alice did.Report

  7. A friend of mine was walking past a schoolyard. A boy, maybe 12, called out to her, “nice breasts, ma’am.” She appreciated him being polite*.

    *Polite, that is, if you ignore the objectification.Report

  8. Avatar Patrick says:

    The group dynamic is I think the larger bit rather than the smaller one, which is why I don’t entirely agree with @tod-kelly .

    Although saying anything with broad coverage when you’re talking about peoples’ motivations is dangerous, it does appear very much to not be signaling anything to the woman at all, and everything to the guys you’re hanging out with.

    “Check me out, I’m brave enough to talk to the pretty girl that is out of my class” is about the most charitable interpretation.

    From an objectification standpoint, I’m pretty sure this isn’t “better”, but it’s not quite the same thing as actually wanting to get into your pants. It’s wanting the other guys you’re with to think that you’re the type of guy who could totally get into your pants.

    Which, come to think about it, is probably why these sorts of stupid interactions fail ugly when the woman talks back to the guy, because she’s trying to respond to him as if he’s a person, and then he responds to her as a proxy for the other guys he’s hanging around with. Face is lost. I must now regain it among the compadres by denigrating her, because that’s the only way for me to get face back.

    External validation is fucking weird.Report

    • Avatar zic says:

      Which, come to think about it, is probably why these sorts of stupid interactions fail ugly when the woman talks back to the guy, because she’s trying to respond to him as if he’s a person, and then he responds to her as a proxy for the other guys he’s hanging around with. Face is lost. I must now regain it among the compadres by denigrating her, because that’s the only way for me to get face back.

      Ha. Being my fearless (and probably reckless) self, I’ve done this. Walking by a construction site in Boston one day, someone cat called. So I went over, started asking questions. I’m not sure which one of the crew had whistled, but they were all giggling about it at first — which suggests they were giggling about my discomfort — until I came over, big smile on my face, and asked some relatively intelligent question about the concrete forms they were getting ready to pour. They got all church-marm on me, overly polite, obviously discomforted.

      So I’m sure they may think they’re signaling, “I’m the kinda guy who could walk on the wild side,” I think the ‘wild side” in question is the creep-her-out wild side. They giggled at discomfort. And when I obviously didn’t show discomfort, they remembered manners.Report

  9. Avatar Jim Heffman says:

    What people apparently want is for gender interaction to be controlled, rigid, and formal to the point that the 1950 America would look like a society of freewheeling libertines.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      Yeah, heaven forbid men treat women with respect! I mean, that’s like going back to the dark ages or something.Report

    • Who on earth are you talking about?

      Also, what the hell does “gender interaction” mean?Report

      • Avatar Guy says:

        The Gender Interaction is a relatively complecated physical process whereby a particle with a strong “male” charge collides with another particle that has a strong “anti-male” (or “female”) charge. Sometimes, the two particles simply collide and then go their separate ways, but it is also fairly common for the particles to “partially annihilate”, each losing some of its Gender charge. The partial annihilation reaction results in a weakly-charged child particle. Often, the child particle decays such that its charge increases, but sometimes the charge will decrease or even change sign. It is hoped that Red String Theory will explain some of the more mysterious aspects of the Gender Interaction, but the theory is at present poorly understood and not remarkably predictive. The decay of the child particle is also poorly understood, but no plausible explanation has yet emerged for why it should have its particular statistics. Experimental results are, however, very well documented, and a few general trends can be found.Report

      • Avatar Murali says:

        It is hoped that Red String Theory will explain some of the more mysterious aspects of the Gender Interaction


    • Avatar zic says:

      Why on earth would you think that this is okay to do to women, that saying it’s rude sends us back to some other time? Have you watched Madmen?

      In the so-called 1950’s of which you speak, it was considered okay to suggest woman couldn’t do things because female and not as smart; the 1960’s had us wondering if women’s uteruses would fall out in the free fall of outer space. In the 1970’s, a woman in a business suit was assumed to be a secretary instead of the CEO.

      That’s the whole damned thing we’re trying to walk away from — being secondary citizens, objectified as trophies, and not taken seriously in circles of power.Report

      • Avatar Guy says:

        “… the 1960?s had us wondering if women’s uteruses would fall out in the free fall of outer space….”

        Truly, the only thing worse than living in the present is living in the past.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      Where “controlled, rigid, and formal” means “open for discussion.

      You know, OT tries to be a place people can come for good snark, and comments like this are killing the brand name.Report

    • Avatar veronica d says:

      Right. The only choices are “rigid formality” and crass misogyny. As if people cannot be happy, outgoing, and kind all at the same time.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      Me thinks that you are perceiving past social interactions through the lens of the movie rather than reality. Hollywood movies made it look like mid-20th century America was a place where men were guys and women were dolls who felt flattered by catcalls but in reality I think that many women did not like them.Report

  10. Avatar Brian Murphy says:

    To quote Seinfeld, “These are guys that have run out of ideas!”Report

  11. Avatar Stillwater says:

    I’d say that men do this stuff in groups out of a combo of inside group identity coupled with a really high level of accepted and culturally reinforced emotional juvenility. In fact, that’s not even right, since most schooground kids wouldn’t think about acting like that, yet manymany so-called adult men delight in it. It’s like a form of regression reinforced by certain adult groups.

    Clearly, tho, men who catcall have no desire to actually meet the women they shout at – at least, meet them on an emotional level. What they want to do . If fuck them, and signal to all their buddies that they’re just the kind of guy who would fuck attractive women. Not that *those kind* of women would have them, acourse.Report

  12. Avatar notme says:


    I would attribute the cat calling to mating rituals where the male tries to draw the attention of the female to him. Tell us more about the males involved.Report