Girl Talk No, Catcalling is NOT A Compliment, and Here's Why Julia Gazdag

Disclaimer: This article discusses a mature topic. Our 13-year-old and younger readers are encouraged to read this with an adult.

Halfway through high school, I transferred to an all-girl school and for the first six months, I refused to wear the cliché girls’ school uniform skirt and sweater. I figured that, for once, I wouldn’t get catcalled from every car that drove by on my walk home, because awkwardly fitting khaki pants and oversize grey sweaters were sure to render me invisible. Turns out, you can pretty much walk around in a giant potato sack; as long as you’re a girl, creepsters will still do their thing. Whoop-de-doo.

“But it’s just harmless flattery, why do you have to be such a Feminazi about a guy trying to pay you a compliment, Julia?” Well, me, I’m glad we asked us that. It’s not flattery, actually – it’s harassment. Street harassment, to use the official term. And the thing about street harassment is that it is not meant to be a compliment, but, in fact, an aggressive assertion of male dominance by dehumanizing and hypersexualizing someone. Fun fact: street harassment is not reserved just for women! It’s now available to all members of the LGBTQ community, too! Oh, yeah, about the Feminazi thing? Me standing up for my rights and personal safety don’t warrant a label trying to arbitrarily draw a comparison between my empowerment in the face of social inequality and the German National Socialist Workers Party  responsible for the largest genocide Europe has seen since the Crusades. You do sound like an idiot when you use the term, though, so thank you for identifying yourself! I can now avoid future interaction with you.

Here’s what’s up: aside from it being obnoxious and demeaning, a holler – heck, so much as a whistle – leads me to think that the person emitting these brilliant National Geographic re-enactments sees me as little more than a walking blow-up doll. Verbal assault is assault nonetheless, and in a country with a one in four rape rate among women, when someone hollers “Bring them ____ over here, girl!”, all I hear is, “My face likes mace!” Staying defensive rather than offensive is the golden ticket of avoiding a confrontation, but the second a stranger addresses me aggressively and sexually, he is a threat and I have no qualms acting accordingly.

And why should I? Everywhere I go, I am constantly being told that I have less of a choice in my sex life than a man does. I’m not talking about dating or romantic things (though those are all lovely). Let’s take that can of face mace for example: where can I get one to defend myself in case I need to? Where can I buy a taser? Or so much as a rape whistle? It’s certainly not in the local drugstore, where I have to buy a diaphragm at the pharmacy, which I can only get to by walking past the colorful condom display spanning three shelves. So what I’m being told is basically that for me to protect myself from sexual predators I have to go to a specialty store (did you know you can get pepper spray at the shooting range?), and to practice safe sex, I have to go through a pharmacist. While a man almost never has to worry about being violated simply because he’s walking home alone (almost all women have a defensive strategy for walking alone; almost no men do), he can lift one of dozens of varieties of condoms off the shelf and saunter on up to the self-checkout if he wants to, because he’s a man! He can do what he wants!

And so, with his sense of sexual entitlement and my good reason to think he views my sole purpose as being dominated, a “compliment” hollered down the block about any part of my anatomy is a clear and intentional threat indeed. Most of us have lost track of the etymology of the word “vagina”, but its original meaning is a sheath for a sword. Now, I don’t know about y’all, but my lady-part has many uses and neither it, nor any other part of me serves to function as a place for anyone to keep anything. Visitors are allowed, but only with a valid permit. And while culturally, the original meaning of the clinical term for the most female of anatomies is not well known these days, the sentiment behind it lingers in the whistles and calls of the adult male a**hole.  The idea that a simple holler can potentially turn more serious and dangerous is pretty logical. It also has precedent in an alarming number of cases of violent assault against women. In fact, enjoy this info-graphic that I got from not-me.org – it makes this theory easy to understand and has stick figures!:

While that chart does not include the not-as-rare-as-you’d-like-to-think occasional post-rape murder, it’s also important to note that according to an FBI estimate only one in four rapes is reported, and of those, only 0.35% are incarcerated. That’s less than half a person. A woman’s risk of assault is increased the further down the economic ladder she is.

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  1. I’ve never had something like that happen to me and I didn’t realize it was such an issue. I think I’m going to buy some pepper spray soon. None of my friends really get my feminism but this article just encourages me to stick up for women! Thank you for introducing me to this! Also, thanks for the part about nazis. I’ve heard people say things like that and I didn’t think much about it, but now see that it’s not a good comparison. Anyway, thanks! I loved the article.

  2. Thank you for posting this. I face this every day, and it’s degrading, annoying, and plain scary! My tip: Always walk with your car key ready in hand. Not only is it faster to get into your car, but you can always use it as a weapon. And invest in some pepper spray. The worst can happen with strangers AND with people you know.

  3. i can absolutely appreciate what’s being said here. although i don’t mind a wink or a “hey gorgeous” here and there, there is a tipping point that most men i’ve met dont seem to understand. within the past 2 weeks i’ve been followed, felt uncomfortable because of intent staring, ive been touched when it was absolutely not welcome, etc. but by far the best was being dropped off in a terrible neighbourhood at 230am because i wouldn’t come back to som guy’s house and wanted to be taken home like we had discussed. he said, “if that’s how you feel, you can find your own way home”…. apparently i wasnt informed that sex is required if you want someone to be your hero… or drive you home. it feels great to be under the impression that your body is all you have to offer, and the only way to meet anyone or get anywhere in life. thank you, inconsiderate males and the women still under the impression that it’s all “just the way things are”

  4. This is amazing! I’m definitely sharing!!! I would love to be able to jog/walk outside but I simply do not and am a paying member to my local gym. And even there I’m not totally comfortable in a work-out class or on a treadmill. It completely disgusts me when men stand outside the class gawking through the glass walls/doors to check out women who are going about their business. There is really no escape.
    I know that I’m delving into another subject but this is essentially a form of bullying, yet ina more sexual sense and this needs to be addressed when talking about other bullying issues!

  5. This is a really good piece. I was thinking about this exact problem earlier. Why do some people think girls feel it’s a compliment to be shouted at or beeped at while walking along? It’s not okay!

  6. Perfect timing for me to find this unfortunately. My 14 yo daughter has been getting street harassed going to and coming home from school, and in school as well. I just found out on Wednesday night, kept her out of school on Thursday, connected with the school guidance office, which is responding well. It’s time to gear up the education. I’m reposting this, and the youtube video on street harassing.

  7. I cannot express how much I appreciate this article. I recently had to explain this to my husband and several other men, and this article would have helped me express how UNSAFE it makes a woman feel. Men will never truly understand what that is like, but it doesn’t mean we can’t try to at least help them to understand that it’s not ok.

  8. This is a good article.
    I think it would be great for men to have a better understanding of what are ACCEPTABLE ways of approaching women, as opposed to what NOT to do. A lot of young guys just have no idea of what is the “proper” way to do this, and this makes it easy to go along with – and perhaps adopt – the meathead behaviour. It’s not always an easy balance for a guy to display the confidence and flirtatiousness that is often required for approaching or asking someone out, without being sleazy. They don’t teach you this stuff in school. It’d be great to have more dialogue between the sexes – or particularly, females telling males – what works and what is not ok.

  9. Strange men are always telling me to give them a smile. It happened this morning (“Can I get a smile, Beautiful?”), and if I hadn’t read your article, I wouldn’t have thought much about it, but now I’m questioning its appropriateness. I’m sure many of these men are genuinely trying to cheer me up (not that I need it — I’m a happy person, even if I’m not grinning from ear to ear all day), but the comment sort of implies that women’s emotions are so child-like and frivolous, they can perk up on demand. It also tells me that as a woman, I need to be cute and bouncy all the time, even when I’m dodging rush hour traffic to get to work. I’m going to put smile requests on the “let’s not” list.

    • Its a very strange thing to ask. Something similar happened to my g/f a while back. We were living in a shared house at uni (not a great area of town) and there was a house down the road for recovering alcoholics; once in a while, while she, or the other female housemate were walking back home alone, they’d ask the same thing – to smile. I didn’t like the situation, but it turned for the worse when my g/f tried to ignore them, tried to walk around, and they’d step across and block her path. It happened a couple of times before she told me. I had a friendly word with the men involved and it never happened again. But I was furious about it.
      I would also never let her walk home alone late at night either, but thats mainly because the house was next to a red light district, so I felt, and her too, safer.
      As a single male now, it is difficult to know the fine line between approaching women in a friendly manner, striking up a conversation, and possibly getting a phone number, to becoming threatening and unwelcome.

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  12. I’m from Brazil, a very machist country where catcalling is so deep-rooted in our day-to-day lives. I always thought this was much more a problem related to country culture, but sadly it’s like that even there in your “developed” country women must put up with this disgusting behaviour from men. Emily Whitfield said above that she’s glad she leaves in USA, because at least you are aware, while in Honduras, where she had some bad experiences, girls are not. Well, that’s quite the opposite way with me, I mean, is there a place in this big whole world where a girl can walk and feel fine about who she is, what she wears and safe without being harassed by men? To be aware is not enough. Congrats on your article. We need to share these experiences! Loved the paragraph about the feminazi thing. it’s hard for men to be questioned and recognize how women are opressed in so many subtle ways, they can’t even think about. And I’m so tired of men winging about how they are not all the same whenever women point the finger at their many, many faults. Cmon boys, get over it, let’s move on to the part where you change your behaviour and we won’t have complaints.

    • But not all men are the same, with many many faults… We should be challenging those who do have faults & except this harassment as acceptable.

  13. I loved this article SO MUCH!! Julia, I’m really glad you’ve written this and that so many women and men have shared concern on this topic. What you write regarding catcalls as a type of power extension/domination really hits home with the unfortunate patrarchial society that exists in the US. Great writing! Hope to see more from you!

  14. Interesting article. Good timing too. America is currently waging a war against women. Say goodbye to ribbed condoms and lube in Georgia, as they provide “genital stimulation”. No joke. I hope they don’t ban vaginas. I’ve grown fond of those…

  15. Ok,I’m really happy you wrote this because I just didn’t know if it was just me,like sometimes it gets really scary to even leave the house. I want to be able to wear WHATEVER I want whenever I want and not get all these men that act like if you had dressed with them in mind, it’s not cute,it doesn’t work and something serious should be done about it. They should raise awareness in schools and workplaces and everywhere they could and get the idea out that it really isn’t ok.
    Really,thank you so much for writing that :)
    Loved the video too haha

  16. Really interesting article. I can’t say that I am offended if I’m cat-called but it does make me roll my eyes. It’s like–really? You think whistling from your car is going to attract me?

    • I hear ya, but what about those that don’t consent? It’s all about maintaining control. Men denigrate women in order to feel like they are superior. Whether intentional or not, the effect is there. Same with gallant gestures. Perhaps they mean well, but it maintains the status quo…

  17. Girl, this is the best thing I’ve read in years. Thank you.

  18. If you look at the most recent report from the FBI they report that rapes occured at 54.2 per 100000 and if we estimate there to be 150,000,000 women in the United States, than that takes us to 0.05% of women get raped…that is definitely not 1 in 4….

    • glad you got the point

    • Doesn’t account for sexual assaults either. Have a family member go through that and I doubt you’ll be spouting off irrelevant and inaccurate statistics.

    • The FBI has only recently begun to rewrite their outdated definition of rape, which since 1929 has been “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will” — their current statistics only reflect reported rapes (which is an estimated 25% of rapes that actually occur), and within that, they only account vaginal penetration as rape, which leaves various other forms unaccounted for. It also doesn’t include attempts in which the victim fights her assailant off, or date rape, because if the woman is semi-conscious or unconscious, thus unable to verbally express resistance, the rape is often overlooked because it was not non-consentual by government standards. And the 1 in 4 statistic is not yearly, it’s over a lifetime, while the FBI statistic you quoted is based on a yearly number.
      Really, though? You thought THIS was an appropriate response to this post? I guess this isn’t even an issue at all, because not THAT many women get raped (except they do, since your statistic leaves out a whole lot).

  19. I thought this article was great, but two things I feel like I have to comment on:

    1. Commenters sharing stories of being harassed outlining their non-provocative clothing and basically saying, “I wasn’t even asking for it!” are kind of missing the point, and in fact feeding in to the victim-blaming mentality that colors rape culture in today’s society. No one ‘asks’ to be harassed, molested, assaulted, etc. Moreover, crimes like this are about violence and power, not about sexuality. You can wear whatever you want and no one has a right to touch you or harass you.

    2. I agree that we need to keep working toward better access to hormonal birth control for women, and that it is absurd that women must obtain a prescription and pay a higher cost for birth control (dr.’s appt.s, labs etc.). However, let’s not dismiss condoms as for men only. If I relied on guys to provide condoms, I’d be having a lot of unsafe sex. Besides, even a woman who is on birth control should be using condoms to prevent transmission of STDs (both ways), so let’s not assign gender responsibility to them.

    I love this article and this discussion. More like this, HG!!

    • I agree, I don’t think condoms are only for men and they are very important in preventing STD’s. But they are marketed to men and they are associated with men, so what I’m trying to point out (and this was just one example) is that the cultural message coming at women is most often that men have more freedom over their sex life than women, simply because it is made more accessible to them.
      And Richard, you seem very polite! Just having a conversation with a woman, respectfully and with genuine interest, is worlds away from the aggressive need to dominate that is behind most street harassment. I mean, hey, it’s not like I don’t check out guys on the street, on the bus, wherever! It’s not that you look, it’s how you look — are you interested, or are you threatening (“you” being general, not you specifically)?

    • Regarding your reply to me earlier, thank you, just wanted to check the context of it. I fully agree with that; why anyone would find those comments ok is beyond me.
      I honestly thought that type of behaviour was so uncommon, it was the characteristics of men who are mentally disturbed, and would end up in a court room when they made these comments. It seems I was wrong; I have actually been disturbed by these readings myself. I only hop nothing like this happens to my younger sis.

      On another note, in terms of propositioning a random woman whom I find attractive (asking for a number, striking up a convo, in a polite manner), I hope that isn’t seen as a problem on the same scale? I’m not exactly Romeo when it comes to it, but sometimes, I have done it. Last thing I’d want to do is come across as some knuckledragging wolf whistler.
      As for staring, its difficult not to look at an attractive woman walking down a street, or sat on a tube/bus; its just basic attraction, and I’ve been on the receiving end (though not as much as I’d like!) Its very difficult to know when & how to approach women, without coming across as a complete tool; especially as its still projected that men make the first ‘move’.

  20. Wow this article makes it sound very unsafe in the USA. I used towalk home from the train station by myself (I recently moved and now have a car) every night after work, and I would be getting home around 7pm so in winter it was always dark, and I never felt unsafe. I’ve travelled the world by myself and I have often walked around at night and not felt unsafe. Actually, I guess the only time I felt unsafe was when I was in San Diego and it was dark at 4:30pm and I only walked 2 blocks from my hotel and I felt kinda creeped out by some of the people walking around looking at me.
    But I agree, I don’t think the whistles/comments are necessary, althought I seriously doubt most guys that do it would end up being rapists, and they possibly don’t realise that it’s demeaning, so hopefully we can educate them about it.

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