The Terror Of Catcalling

Alice Xie recounts it:

I was sexually harassed on a regular basis from the year I turned fourteen until the year I left for college. I tried so hard, every day, to ignore it. But I couldn’t. It changed me. The irrepressible nervousness when a stranger approached. Being afraid to look any man on the street in the eyes. Worrying I was being followed. Not wanting to leave my house unless I had to. Crying. Not crying until I got home, then crying. Hating myself for crying. Playing the faces of dozens of men back in my mind—I remember them all. Wondering what would have happened if I had bumped into them in a deserted area. The rape nightmares. But the worst part was how it warped my own view of myself.

The Terror Of Catcalling, Ctd

A reader writes:

Thank you for linking to that essay, which I have passed on to my 23-year-old daughter. She deals with catcalling every time she turns right from her house and walks down the next block – which she now seldom does. The (mostly out of work) young men sitting on their porch stoops or leaning against cars parked in the street (which means they are blocking the sidewalk) make horrible comments to her – “Hey fucking white bitch,” “I wanna fuck you, white bitch,” etc. Lovely, no? Like the young essayist, she wears the baggiest, most unattractive clothes if she is forced to walk through that area, but to no avail. The closest bus stop is through those two blocks of catcalls, but she walks six blocks in the other direction to avoid the harassment. This is in your fair city of Washington, DC, just three blocks from Rock Creek Park. (But she is planning to move to Silver Spring in a couple of months.)

Washington City Paper did a cover story on the problem several years ago. Another reader:

It’s a conversation I’ve had with men so many times, and it’s been so hard to make a dent. Some of them do get it after a while – a lot of them don’t.

I grew up in a big city, taking public transportation, and dealt with this from about age 14 through early college. I never came to any actual physical harm, though one of the men staring at me on the bus late at night did get off the bus after me at my stop and start to follow me home. (I went to a male friend’s house, explained what was going on, and hid out there until the coast seemed clear. If my friend hadn’t been nearby? Who knows.)

But the daily gauntlet was so exhausting and so demoralizing. One day in high school I wore a short skirt and a crop top to school – it was the late ’80s, it was fashionable, and it was a warm day. I forgot that I was supposed to take the city bus to an orthodontist’s appointment after school that day. (Every time I retell this story I make sure to include that detail.) The bus was excruciating (catcalls, stares, leers, gropes, girlfriends of starers also glaring at me, etc.) and I had no leeway – pull down the top to cover my belly and there was more cleavage, pull up the skirt and there was more leg, etc. I had a small backpack and used that as a shield best I could.

I finally escaped to the haven of the orthodontist’s office. Or so I thought. Stretched out on the dentist’s chair, the ogling and inappropriate comments started all over again – from the orthodontist.

Having gotten through THAT, I waited anxiously for my dad to pick me up (he was late, and I literally hid inside the lobby, finding the least-visible corner), and started sobbing as soon as I closed the car door behind me. He of course wanted to know what was wrong, and I tried to explain. He profoundly didn’t get it. “You just look nice today,” he said.

Yes, I should have remembered that I needed to take the bus and worn something more concealing. But really, why is that the baseline? Why did that mean that 17-year-old me was “asking for” that kind of harassment?

I do think it’s something that we as women get used to and can eventually brush off. And get old enough and it stops – something I genuinely don’t mind. I prefer invisibility to that kind of visibility.

But it’s going to keep happening to new generations of girls who are ill equipped to deal with it and shouldn’t have to deal with it, unless the people doing the more “innocent” but contributory staring quit (notice how she reacts, and stop if she seems uncomfortable) and unless everyone contributes to censure of the really overt gropers catcallers.


I’m a 27-year-old woman who, ten years ago, turned down the most competitive college I’d been admitted to because there were some things about living in a big city that scared the hell out of me, including catcalling. Earlier this year, after a decade of living in different cities and growing a lot more comfortable in my own skin, I was walking down Market Street in San Francisco, south of Civic Center, when a probably homeless, probably druggy man got right up in my face and called me gorgeous, and it didn’t even phase me.

At some point, I realized that treating each whistle, holler, or unwelcome compliment as threatened rape just isn’t evidence based. Most of these men are just looking to have their existence acknowledged by a pretty woman. It’s annoying, pathetic, and I wish they’d stop, but I refuse to let it terrify me anymore.

On the other hand, later that day, a separate group of men gave off enough of a different vibe that when they started yelling comments after I passed, it was enough to make me turn the corner and take the next street down the rest of the way to my destination. Not all catcalls are created equal, and sometimes it’s hard to even pinpoint what the difference is.

The Terror Of Catcalling, Ctd

A reader writes:

You struck a nerve with this one, as I was just discussing this very thing a few weeks ago with a group of high-school freshmen in my English class. We were discussing homosexuality because of an allusion to it in the book we were reading, and several boys made comments such as, "That's disgusting." We got into the debate and eventually a boy admitted that he was terrified/disgusted when he was once sharing a taxi and the other male passenger made a pass at him.

The lightbulb went off. "Oh," I said. "I get it. See, you are afraid, because for the first time in your life you have found yourself a victim of unwanted sexual advances by someone who has the physical ability to use force against you." The boy nodded and shuddered visibly.

"But," I continued. "As a woman, you learn to live with that from the time you are fourteen, and it never stops. We live with that fear every day of our lives. Every man walking through the parking garage the same time you are is either just a harmless stranger or a potential rapist. Every time."

The girls in the room nodded, agreeing. The boys seemed genuinely shocked. 

"So think about that the next time you hit on a girl. Maybe, like you in the taxi, she doesn't actually want you to."

Another writes:

I find any discussion of catcalling fascinating. I'm a 25-year-old male who has lived in Washington D.C. for three years. I constantly walk around the city at night with my female friends, often in less-than-great areas where catcalling is supposed to take place. Except for one memorable encounter with a homeless man, I've never observed any of my female friends being victimized by a catcall. At the same time, they all insist that it happens to them on a daily basis.

I've always assumed that the reason for this strange discrepancy is that catcalling doesn't happen as frequently when I am around. I'm a pretty tall, strong looking man, and I'm guessing my presence quiets some would-be cat-callers. For this reason, I don't know if I can even begin to understand what young women are going through. It is pretty common for me to hear about a friend of mine getting cat-called and think to myself, "Man, I'd love for a women to comment on my ass while walking down the street", but I know that the reality for them must be much different.


Since I'm a man, until recently, the experience of women and catcalling was alien to me. Last summer, I was walking down State Street in Madison when a guy called out to me, "Hey, nice shirt!" It totally threw me off, because the shirt I was wearing was a basic, business-casual straight guy shirt.

Me: "Huh? I bought it at Target."  
Catcaller: "Well, what have you got planned?"
Me: "Ummm, looking for something to eat."
Catcaller: "Oh yeah, I know this great pl…"
Me: "I think I'll eat here" – and I practically dove into the Qdoba that happened to be where I was, even though I didn't want to eat Qdoba.

I wasn't angry at the guy, but as I ate my burrito, it was a long meditation on "what the hell"? I mentioned it to my wife later and she just kind of sighed.

The Terror Of Catcalling, Ctd

A reader continues the popular thread:

I'm a straight guy who doesn't catcall, but I can understand the impulse that drives it. Or at least I'm better equipped to understand it than feminists who claim the authority to say that every catcall is an effort by the man to sexually humiliate and dis-empower a woman. That may be the effect of the catcall, but that doesn't mean it's the motive. We men have a deep-seated urge to get the attention of a prospective mate, and those efforts are not always informed by a coherent calculation of the most tactical course. To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, "Wherever there is a woman, we have a man working on it. Now, he may not be our best man, but our organization is very thorough." On other occasions, I imagine it's just a reflex, like saying "Wow."

Mostly, a catcall is a failure of empathy. The man is ignorant to or uninterested in the effect of his catcalling on the woman. And shame on him for that. But for women to apply such a far-reaching and cynical motive to the practice is also a failure empathy.

Another writes:

Alright, I don't want to sound like I'm victim-blaming here, but the reader who complained about dressing skimpy whilst on a bus and being eyed … how was she not expecting it?

Teenage girls pull crap like that all the time because they want attention. I don't buy that they are often that bothered by it. Yeah, maybe as they get older, it gets weird. But every time I'm walking home late on a Friday night (invariably, from the library, such is the life of a graduate student) and see half-naked girls drunkenly giggling, I don't really feel sorry for them being checked out, because why else are they dressing like that?

This isn't to say I'm a complete prude. I'll go out and have a night of fun and drunkenly hook up with boys too, if I can. But I can tell you exactly one time in my life I've been cat-called, and I didn't mind it. I was 17, it was a construction worker outside of a grocery store in Boston, and I had some witty thing to say in return that made him laugh.

Like many women of below-average looks, maybe I just assume that it's pretty girls getting called out and they deserve it for being pretty. I'm the girl who's always carrying piles of books, wears glasses, doesn't run in a bra but a tshirt, is perfectly average-size and absolutely nothing remarkable in her looks, who has been called one of the "bros" or "lads" more times than I care to count. But I'll say this, I'd give almost anything to have men of any sort look at me. I seriously doubt the women who have written to you would be willing to go without the attention like I do. It gets lonely after a while.

Update from another:

Your two latest missives on catcalling are instructive, I think, but not in the way that their authors intended. They both bring up elements of the usual answer for why catcalling is so pervasive: the idea that men's attraction to women is so innate and powerful that anything they do under its thrall is understandable, if not always excusable. That's just resentment masquerading as an argument. Sexual attraction is a powerful force, no doubt, but let's not deny that it can drive people to violent or threatening behavior. That's the central problem with catcalling. It's not anything that women do or don't do.

The times I've been catcalled have made me furious, and in situations where I've felt safe enough to do so I've yelled back in order to shame the guy. I don't know if it always works, but often enough the catcaller in question is taken aback, and it makes me feel less like a victim. Men on the street have also given me sweet compliments, or told me friendly jokes, and boy do those guys get a big grin from me. It ends up being a pleasant interaction for both of us. If guys happen to want attention from a woman, why can't they try charm? Since that's always an option, it seems most likely that catcalls that hurt are intended to sexually humiliate someone else.

The Terror Of Catcalling, Ctd


Some remaining thoughts from readers:

There is a difference between catcalling and men noticing you as a woman and smiling at you or giving you a second glance. The first is based on anonymous objectifying and the latter is normal human attraction/attention.  And if both women and men can't tell the difference, that's sad.  I've always wondered what men who catcall actually hope to achieve.  Do they imagine the woman stopping and engaging them and then magically hooking up with them?  Please, in what universe is that going to happen?


Isn't making insulting comments to someone a form of assault and couldn't that assault require police intervention? With cellphones having cameras, women should film their catcallers as they walk by and provide the evidence to the police.  This would seem to be something that could be solved through technology.  People film everything else, why not this?

Another suggestion:

I work out almost every day with a friend of mine, who cycles to the gym in a bicycle skirt. She told me one day about the catcalls she got on her way over, and when I asked her what she did (I assumed she just rode her bike faster), she said, "Well, I stopped and pointed to my skirt said, 'Yep. I did it for you.' And they shut up." As I like to wear short skirts myself, I made a note to try this.

About a week later, I got my chance. On my way into work, a group of men started in ("hey baby! nice legs! oh yeah!") and I turned to them and said, "Yeah. I did it for you." Sure enough, their jaws dropped. I'm sure I didn't stop them from doing this to someone else, but it was mighty satisfactory to shut them down that way. I use the line all the time now, and it works.

Another reader:

I've been reading the series on cat-calling and had a moment where the tumblers finally clicked, opening a door to a new understanding regarding behaviour I witness frequently.  I live in Toronto and commute every day to work on public transit.  This offers the opportunity to people watch and of course, appreciate the beauty of women on the bus/streetcar/subway I am taking to and from work.  I have definitely noticed a certain pattern whereby more objectively attractive women appear somewhat harried, never making eye contact and very briskly sitting down at the front of the vehicle (instead of walking down the aisle to seats further back).  Of course not all such women do this, but I have noticed this approach being taken more often than not among the "most attractive" group.

I wondered at this sometimes and let it lead me to negative thoughts like "what's her problem" or "wow I guess she wants to avoid everyone cause she's so beautiful – don't kid yourself honey you're not that great".  In reading the series of reader comments on this, many coming from women describing in detail the way cat-calling/ogling affects them, I realized why these women pick the shortest path to a seat and avoid making all eye contact: its likely based on years of being cat-called, stared at and otherwise harassed by men on public transit!

What I saw as perhaps the result of a big ego was rather more likely the result of years of men wearing them down until a simple ride on a streetcar – something I think nothing of – can become a gauntlet of sorts for them to navigate.  All of this is to thank you for providing the venue for a series that has given me a fresh understanding and more empathy.

Previous discussion here, here, here and here.

(Photo: "American Girl in Italy" (1951) by Ruth Orkin)

Calling Out Catcalls

by Dish Staff


YouGov’s Peter Moore presents a new survey:

[A]ccording to a large majority of the public, it is never appropriate (72%) to catcall. 18% say that it’s sometimes appropriate, while 2% think that it’s always appropriate. Men (22%) were only marginally more likely than women (18%) to say that it is ‘sometimes’ or ‘always’ appropriate. Asked whether catcalls are compliments or not, most Americans (55%) say that they [constitute] harassment, 24% aren’t sure while only 20% think that they are ‘compliments’.

As seen in the chart above, the relationship between age and catcall-attitudes may come as a surprise:

The question of whether or not catcalls are harassment or complimentary reveals a significant generation divide. Under-30s are the least likely group to say that catcalls constitute harassment (45%), and are the most likely to say that catcalls are complimentary (31%).

In another study released this year, 57% of women indicated they had suffered street harassment and 23% reported they had been “purposely touched or brushed up against in an unwanted, sexual way” while in public. Bryn Donovan recently collected some catcall horror stories:

One woman was harassed right after having her dog put down after his battle with cancer.

I’m at least glad she let the guy have it. Two of the women I talked to had been catcalled while going home from a funeral. One of them had stopped at a convenience store, wearing a black dress, because she had cried so hard at her friend’s service that she needed some Gatorade. A man called after her, making kissing noises and saying, “Damn girl you make that dress look gooood.” A doctor told me possibly the worst story. She had finished a terrible shift in the ER. After declaring a 15-year-old girl brain dead, she had a painful talk with the family about organ donation. Then she admitted a 14-year-old girl who had been raped, beaten, and left for dead, and a long-term patient of hers suddenly coded and died. She came out into the parking lot at 10 a.m. and got catcalled. The family of the 15-year-old was walking out with her, and when the doctor hugged the girl’s mother, the stream of harassment got worse.

Many of us have a long history with harassment, beginning in our early teens. One of my friends thought being pregnant would make her temporarily immune. Nope. I honestly thought that at my age, I would be done with it. Middle-aged women, I am always told, are invisible. I don’t want to be invisible in social situations or at work, but on the street? Yes please.

For more stories, read through our 2012 thread The Terror Of Catcalling.