In preparation for our most recent Stuff Mom Never Told You episode on catcalling, Molly and I asked Facebook fans whether they ever considered the street comments complimentary. In recent years, organizations such as Hollaback! have launched campaigns to stop this female-targeted street harassment and educate men about why these public displays of attraction/lust/leering can make women uncomfortable and potential endanger us physically. But the results of our informal Facebook poll also indicate that not all catcalls are created and received equally.
According to some of the articles we ran across, men actually catcall to impress other men, not women. Academics see it as a means of publicly asserting masculinity, heterosexuality and gender-based power. Rarely would a guy assume that a woman he whistles at will stop, turn around and ask him on a date. Due to that power dynamic, however, the line between catcalling and blatant harassment is quickly and easily crossed, potentially escalating to violence.
Says one lady, "Absolutely not. It's quite annoying and the catcallers are never successful. What do they think we're going to do? Say 'oh I love that, please let me be a part of your life'??"
Another woman responded, "Most catcalls feel aggressive; almost verbal violence."
But then around a third of Facebook respondents said that sometimes, just sometimes, catcalls feel like compliments. For instance:
"Every time it happens to me I ignore it but inside I'm like 'yay', they think I look good."
"Depends if the person doing the catcalling is attractive or not, lol."
"It's not ok, but you know there will be a tinge of remorse the day it stops."
Also the two (count 'em!) brave men who participated in the poll similarly qualified the catcalling intentions.
So where's the line between a kindly drive-by compliment and street harassment? For organizations like Hollaback! there isn't one due to that underlying power issue. Whether well-intentioned or not, catcalling inherently objectifies women -- and there's the rub. Sure, on some days, it can be nice to hear that a handsome fella finds you physically fetching. But as the Facebook poll demonstrates, those instances of complimentary catcalls are few and far between.