The Vagenda

On Catcalling: No, I’m Not Asking for it, and No, It’s Not a Fucking Compliment

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I’m very aware that this is a road well trod for all women out there. If we’re gonna show off our bodies, aren’t we asking for attention? Can we really blame them if men are attracted by a pair of legs in a flippy summer dress? Poor little dumb sods and their willy-led brains. And shouldn’t we make like Paris Lees, and take it as a compliment?

Well I, for one, am fucking sick of this discussion. It’s patronising to men. It’s limiting the behaviour of women. And it’s utterly ridiculous non-logic.

I apologise if you can feel the wrath exuding from these words. I am being An Angry Feminist today. The wrath is fuelled by an incident that occurred way back last summer, but the article is because of an accumulation of this sort of infuriating encounter occurring to my and my friends, over the years, countless times, ad nauseum. Not only is this sort of encounter horrible in and of itself, but the resultant parroting of ‘you should be flattered’/’well what do you expect in a dress like that?’ does my fucking head in.

So, that day last summer. I was walking to The Ladies Ponds in Hampstead, sweaty from my run and in a Speedo swimming costume, denim shorts and clompy boots (not that I should have to explain my outfit, Your Honour). A man in a large white van shouts out…

“Oooh sexy.”

I barely notice and carry on striding.

“Sexy girl! Nice!”

Bit annoying.

“YES! Nice sexy girl! Hoo hoooo!”

OK, that’s it. I saw red. RED. IN fact I think I saw black with white spots. Once is a bit annoying. Twice is REALLY annoying. Three times is undeniably harassment.

I feel ambivalent about my behaviour about the rest of the encounter. It went like this:

“ARE YOU FUCKING TALKING TO ME???”

“The fuck?”

“HOW DARE YOU FUCKING TALK TO ME LIKE THAT. HOW DARE YOU TALK TO WOMEN LIKE THAT?”

“Fuck you, bitch.”

“DON’T CALL ME A BITCH. YOU SHOULD LEARN TO RESPECT WOMEN.”

“Suck my dick.”

“I’D NEVER GO NEAR YOUR TINY LITTLE GREASY HAIRY DICK YOU REVOLTING PIG!”

“FUCK YOU BITCH! CUNT!”

“SHUT UP AND DRIVE!!!!!”

I wasn’t wearing my glasses in this scenario but at this point I believe he made that incredibly infantile gesture where you punch your elbow and the fist of your other hand goes up. I never actually learnt what this was and my brothers would never tell me.

“…smelly….sweaty….cunt….” (that was him again. I hate it when I don’t get the last word).

Then I walked towards two onlookers who checked if I was OK and agreed with me that he was a douchebag and that if I hadn’t have said anything, I’d have got angry all day, imagining ever more creative insults.

But really, did I do the right thing? Nearly crying and shaking with rage, perhaps I actually didn’t feel any better than if I’d walked away and ignored it. Sometimes, shouting back catches catcallers by surprise and shuts them up, but he just seemed to find the whole thing funny, from the safety of his van and with all his mates watching (who, funnily enough, didn’t join in). It was going OK when I was telling him to have more respect for women, but was there even any point in engaging? Was engaging with it all actually indulging him? Not only that, but I lowered myself to his level in childish insults.

This is a series of questions because I genuinely don’t know what is right, what is wrong and what you Vagenda readers think. Obviously you should make sure you’re safe before engaging in a scathing diatribe, but do these men need calling up on their behaviour? Is engaging indulging them? Are they beyond redemption? Were they just looking at my boobs jiggling around while I gesticulated and screamed anyway?

What also pisses me off is the fact that he’d probably tell all his friends things along the lines of “She was in next to nothing. She was asking for it. I’m a man after all!” And they’d all agree.

Well. This is an area in which I am not ambivalent. I have extremely strong views on this sort of “don’t you deserve it a bit?” argument, which is constantly thrown at me, by men and women, old and young, and which I strongly believe to be one enormous crock of sexist shite.

“She was wearing next to nothing. I’m a man after all!”

“You’re not wearing a bullet-proof vest. Why?”

“Errr….”

“Well, someone might have a gun. You might get shot today.”

“But I won’t, I live in Windsor, it’s very middle class round here.”

“You might. Surely you should wear one, just in case? No?”

Why should I police my own behaviour and dress according to what might not elicit harassment from a tiny percentage of arseholes who ruin it for everyone?

“Aren’t you sort of asking for it in that outfit?”

For starters, it was hot. Personally, I live in denim shorts because I can jump around and stand on escalators without worrying about my dress blowing up around my ears, not because they’re sexy and alluring. Not that it matters – rape and harassment, by their very nature, can’t be “asked for”. Because if they were it would mean there was fucking consent involved. HOW MANY TIMES DO WE NEED TO SAY THIS?

“You should enjoy it. Women are sexual too and like to be looked at’

Do I mind admiring glances? No! I doubt any girl does. It’s nice to be admired, and I like looking and admiring other people, too. But there is a dramatic difference between an admiring glance and a leer. There’s a difference between a friendly hello and pestering. There’s a difference between flirting and sexual harassment. And there’s a difference between consensual sex and “she was asking for it.” These codes of human decency aren’t written down in a rulebook. But I don’t think the boundaries are terribly baffling or confusing – because THE VAST MAJORITY OF MEN AND WOMEN GET IT RIGHT!!!!

“It’s just flirting/banter/eye-fucking”

I wasn’t asking for attention in this outfit, and, though I accepted that I might get the odd glance, I certainly didn’t want to be pestered and harassed and called a bitch with a sweaty cunt. That’s not flirting.

Which leads me to my third and final point – THE WHOLE ARGUMENT SURROUNDING CATCALLING IS PATRONISING TO MEN. Of course they can control themselves, and of course they can know whether they’re making a girl feel fancied or afraid. It’s just the tiny minority, like the Willy Van Man of my earlier encounter, who ruin it. In other words, those who catcall to intimidate and pester, to leer and threaten us.

Because catcalling is not about fancying and flirting and summer time love vibes, whether you’re in Ibiza or on Hampstead Heath. Those summer love vibes when you look lingeringly at someone you pass on the escalator, when groups of boys show off to groups of girls in the park, and when you accidentally touch hands with that handsome stranger, as you reach for the last tub of hummus for your picnic. Everyone’s a bit naked, because it’s hot, and because, in England, we have around 6 days of sunshine a year to tan our pasty, rickets-ridden bodies. So no, by wearing heat-appropriate clothes, allowing a few extra centimetres of skin to show, we aren’t inviting, or asking for, or deserving of unwanted leering, which can make us feel upset, afraid, and belittled.

And as for responding to catcalls, I think we should respond. Maybe not in such a puerile fashion as the stream of immature filth that emerged from my mouth earlier on. But, to me, not saying anything feels like a quiet acceptance and encouragement. A simple “you should learn to respect women,” or “Would you say that to your mother?” perhaps. All I can say is be careful. Make sure you’re not putting yourself in danger. Pick your battles.

- RP

17 thoughts on “On Catcalling: No, I’m Not Asking for it, and No, It’s Not a Fucking Compliment

  1. I agree we should respond. Think of something to say before it happens. In Spain everyone of my friends would get cat-called daily.
    The best response I found was just to turn, look directly at them and ask,
    “Why are you saying that? Are you trying to be nice, or mean? Because it makes us uncomfortable (or scared depending on what was yelled)” I’d say 9/10 times it would make them uncomfortable too- even more so if you were making eye contact. A few times they would laugh it off- but a few times the guys even apologized.

  2. I find it a bit confusing too, the how to react part that is… I was in a bar going to the toilet last weekend and a horrendous guy who I said no to when he asked me to dance, followed me to the toilet and grabbed my ass! It was awful, I just turned around and lost it:

    WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING??
    -WHAT??? NOTHING
    NOTHING??? YOU ARE DISGUSTING! HOW DARE YOU TOUCHING ME???
    -I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING YOU FUCKING BITCH…

    The guy was with a friend and they were quite intimidating.. thankfully I wasn’t drunk so when I complaint to security, they paid attention and kicked him out… In the end, I’m not quite sure if anything positive came out of that whole situation, I was very nervous and upset afterwards but surely the guy didn’t care at all. So yes! definitely yes! we gotta pick our battles, wisely.

  3. One factor that blinds people to what catcalling can feel like is that being intruded upon is a pretty ubiquitous experience as a girl.

    Catcalling would stop overnight if the men doing it asked their mothers if they had ever felt that specific kind of darkness that is *so* fucking common in our lives, but still somehow not acknowledged.

    And when left unacknowledged, behavior like this will propagate, as will the belief that it is no big deal.

  4. Funny how if this really is something that men can’t help, how they can usually help it when alone and on foot, as opposed to surrounded by other men and preferably safe in a car, makes one wonder doesn’t it?…

  5. When travelling in Morocco with some female friends, we experienced their local version of catcalling, which is even worse – men make a quiet clicking or tutting sound at you as you walk past. Because only you and them can usually hear it it somehow seems all the worse because it is more ‘intimate.’

  6. Thanks so much for this article. I was having the exact same conversation yesterday when my friend and I overheard a man shouting after a girl ‘ oooh I could do you some serious damage’ accompanied by a wolf whistle and a longing look. When no response was made he then shouted ‘suck my ballsack’.

    Do they have any idea what they actually look like when they do this? Surely threatening harm to a girl followed by an order for her to get on her knees can only show you in the worst light possible?

    Following this, my friend and I decided that the best response if one had to be made at all was ‘do you have any idea how ridiculous you look when you do this?

  7. This article reminds me of my time as an angry feminist when I questioned a woman friend’s appreciation of the beautiful athletic male bodies playing volleyball on the beach. I could not verbalise it properly at the time but I gave her a warning that her adoration was somehow feeding the entitlement that white, sexist South African men so enjoy. She disagreed with me but as we walked past a house with an upstairs veranda full of virile young beer-drinking students, one of them pointed at her and stuck his finger in his mouth and made a vomiting gesture which earned him the pack laughter of his mates. This was very hurtful to her and I think she caught a wake-up call. As you might have guessed, my friend was neither sexy nor slim. My point is that it is not only the cat-calls which are so offensive to us, It is also the fat or ugly chick calls as well – in other words, the objectification of women theme. Our bodies are either good enough to be fucked or ugly enough to be ridiculed. I am now an older woman and enjoy the lack of unsolicited male interest but HAD I been a Tess of the D’Urbaville, and shaved off my eyebrows to try to avoid sexual attention, I might have been mocked for my ugliness! Really, you can’t win with dickheads.

  8. I see one problem with the picking your fight strategy: the guy who is catcalling already picked his fight – he knows very well it is offending, it is a wilful provocation. If you fight back, he is happy. The proper punishment for his transgression is ignoring it. Eventually he will stop, feeling defeated. You just have to fight your urge to have the last word.

  9. I’ve had two instances of unwanted attention. One, I turned round with pleasantry, the other was somewhat different.

    When I was about 20, walking through Manchester, a man called down from a scaffold something along the lines of “Hello gorgeous!” For a split-second, I froze, then I turned to him, gave him my biggest smile and said “Thank you!”. “Eh? What?” came the bemused reply. “Thank you”, I repeated. “That’s the nicest thing anyone has said to me all week.” He looked utterly confused and said “Oh, erm, you’re welcome”, went bright red and turned away.

    A few weeks later, at work, a male colleague, some 30 years older than me, grabbed my arse as he was passing. Immediately, I spun round and shouted at the top of my voice “Anthony, if you touch my arse again, I will break your f****** arm, you pervert!”. Silence fell in our enormous open plan office, and I rarely saw Anthony again; he chose to take a different route back to his desk. Another male colleague came to me afterwards and congratulated me. Apparently Anthony had previous ‘form’ with harassment, but I was the first to really have a go at him. I do hope he never did it again.

  10. I struggle with this issue a lot. Seems like no men see this as a problem and most girls my age think they should feel flattered by it. I had an experience last year when I was walking through a busy shopping centre alone wearing a T-shirt with “GAY OK” printed on it (FYI, not gay, just supportive) and a group of guys younger than me walked past and one shouted “you might be gay but I’d still fuck you!” I was so shocked I couldn’t think of anything witty to say back, plus I was intimidated that there were a number of them all agreeing/laughing, and the place was busy and nobody jumped in to defend me. I felt sick afterwards. I’d love to know a good way to respond to stuff like this without putting myself in any danger. Women can’t win and it makes me really fucking mad.

  11. I always feel better if I say something to them. Once I chased a man, after standing frozen for a moment, to ask him why the fuck he just smacked me on the arse. And he told me off for swearing in front of some kids who were passing. I was enraged by his response but I think Is till felt better than I would have if I’d done nothing.

    I can identify with the “seeing red” moment you had. One night when I was working in a nightclub cloakroom, a male customer was harassing my female colleague. She was trying to brush him off, telling him he couldn’t have her number because she didn’t have a phone and so on. Eventually I told him to leave her alone, and he said, “Why, are you a dyke? Do you fancy her, is that why you don’t want me to have her number?” And, after dealing with sexist arseholes all night, I totally lost it. I can probably count on my fingers the number of times I’ve truly lost my temper, but I couldn’t believe this dickhead would think the only reason I’d try and stop him harassing someone is that I was gay and fancied her. (I’m not even gay, but I didn’t bother correcting him because that wasn’t the point.) I screamed words to that effect at him and told him to fuck off, and he refused to leave until I made to fetch a (male) bouncer.

    Often people don’t understand why such a seemingly “minor” incident can make you flip out, but sometimes it’s just too many dickheads in one day. I was glad I screamed at the man though, because he deserved it. I don’t really care if he thought I was crazy – and he probably did, because he phoned my boss to complain (she was understanding of my side…) – because in that moment I just needed to be angry.

  12. I usually see it as a power struggle than a sexual thing. In my experience they don’t want a fight, they want submission, shame, and walking away in fear. Also, if the guy is actually turned on it’s more in the sexual assault category than catcalling. But for regular catcalling, which I see as about power and control, I’ve had success with the following (not as a teenager, I’d just be afraid when I was a teenager, but late 20s I felt more confident):

    Think you are their teacher or doctor or a cop, not a victim. You’re in charge, you’re the boss. Ask them what they’re talking about, or pretend you didn’t hear and ask them to repeat themselves with direct, but nice eye contact. They usually don’t know what to say past the first shout and get embarrassed. They are used to women getting scared and walking away.

    - “Hey sexy!”
    Stop, turn around, give nice but dominant eye contact:
    - “Sorry, what? Did you have a question?”
    Usually at this point they become very polite, if they say anything at all it’ll be a polite compliment on your looks:
    - “I said you’re beautiful”
    You’re disappointed in them, like a teacher who expected more. They wasted your time.
    - “Oh. Thanks.”
    And walk away.

    They won’t be telling their friends about this interaction, and a long time has to pass before they try it again. Of course don’t do it if there is any chance of danger, that would depend on the situation.

  13. I’ve heard that from a plethora of latin men. It is actually a cat-call. This is the noise you make to call an animal. It is awful.

  14. Forgive me, but clearly, you aren’t a woman and have never been subjected to the sexual objectification all women encounter. Ignore it? Really? That might work with children, but we are dealing with grown men – who should’ve been taught to respect others. Ignoring the issue doesn’t make it stop, it just makes the cat-caller move on to the next victim.

    I used to get cat called every single day by the same meat-headed ignoramuses in my way to work, thinking if I ignored it, surely they would stop. Guess what? It didn’t. So, one day I turned around and said “do you realize how stupid and desperate you look? I have never responded to anything you’ve said. So, it should be obvious this strategy doesn’t work. Which makes me wonder, if you aren’t getting any reply, are you doing this to be intimidating or scary?” Not a single one of them could reply, and they never hollered at me again.

    Point being? Ignoring something and hoping it stops doesn’t do a fucking thing to change how people think, or put an end to macho bullshit.

  15. Well. what a great idea. I am a teacher, in fact, and naturally inclined to patronise arseholes, so I am going to try that option for a while. When I say patronise arseholes, I am of course referring to my occasionally regrettable social skills, not my shopping habits.