cat calls

Reader V.M. writes:

I just got harassed on the street for about the bajillionbillionth time and really,  I don’t know what to do. I internalize it most of the time, though every once in a while I flip the offender the bird. At least I haven’t been followed home, stalked, or run off the road yet like in a previous city. Given that I’m living in this city indefinitely, how can I help myself to deal with this every day? The whistles, catcalls, comments, kissy noises, they really get to me. I feel like they shouldn’t, but they really do. Um… help?

Dear V.M.,

Cat calls are one of those strange holdovers of machismo and sexism that just won’t go away, no matter how many times we tell men that it


Cat calls: not just annoying to felines. Image: federico stevanin / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

makes them look like total idiots, and no matter how many rights we win in the workplace. Yelling supposedly complimentary, yet highly sexual and degrading, phrases at strangers should be something everyone’s mother teaches him is uncalled for. Some people apparently either don’t listen to their mothers, didn’t have mothers, or had very bad mothers. Sadly, you can’t fix the problem of bad parenting. Yet cat calls persist, and I think they can be dangerous (as you pointed out, being run off the road). So short of walking with a male escort or a baseball bat in tow at all times, what’s a modern girl to do?

My advice in this arena is probably the exact opposite of what your guts will tell you to do.

Gut says: invoke anger.

Kat says: invoke mom.

Whenever a guy yells a cat call at me, I tend to yell back something along the lines of:

“Your mom!”

This, of course, doesn’t necessarily go over too well. If you are in a place where, say, the guy may chase after you, insinuating that his mom has, say, large, suckable tits and a nice ass may send the cat caller (who has already questionable social skills) over the edge.

However, you can modify my phrasing into something that may get the fellow to shut up:

“Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?”

My general idea in doing this is to remind the idiot that he would probably never say something so disgusting to a woman he considered to be a person, and most people — nay, I’ll go so far as to say most men — consider their mothers to be the holiest of holies in terms of personhood. Here you are appealing to his general human decency. I like to think everyone (although perhaps I should except serial killers and certain other sociopaths) maintains a certain amount of human decency, although they may need to be reminded of its existence from time to time.

Gut says: ignore it.

Kat says: address it.

I think that taking agency in this case is probably the best thing you can do. As women, even strong, educated, beautiful women, we have somehow internalized the idea that sacrifice and discomfort make us better people. Perhaps tolerance and forbearance are wonderful traits, and maybe the meek will inherit the earth. If you’re not interested in just being yet another female martyr, though, I say speak up. If a man is insulting you, let him know. Do it in such a way that he is utterly ashamed of his behavior. Flipping him off expresses the emotion of this idea, but not the rationale. He’s treating you like an object with no thoughts and feelings. Prove him wrong.

To really shake him up, I recommend that you stop, turn, look him in the eye, and say, “Sir, I don’t appreciate that kind of treatment. I would prefer that you stop.”

This may elicit an unpredictable response, but ignoring it only furthers his belief that you like/don’t mind the cat calls, or you don’t have enough agency to respond.

Gut says: internalize it.

Kat says: externalize it.

Maybe it’s just a feminist wet dream of mine, but the idea that you can shame a man in front of the world for being a jackass is one I daydream about regularly. Can you imagine what would happen if you stopped a cat caller in his tracks and made him feel as little and stupid as he’s trying to make you feel? In my daydream, I stop, turn to the guy, tell him he’s an idiot, and all the women nearby join in. A little granny sporting a rolling pin comes to the scene and chastizes him, preferably in Italian, threatening to hit him over the head with her kitchen weapon. His buddies agree with us. He is mortified and from then on becomes a polite, respectful, well-spoken man who fights for women’s rights.

Yeah, pipe dream.

But if you speak up loudly enough and call a guy out on his ridiculous behavior, surrounding people may take note. They will probably agree with you. I’ll bet you a bajillonbillion dollars you’re not the only girl in the city who’s tired of the whistles and the kissy noises.

I’m not saying you have to start a local “Speak Out Against Cat Calls!” support group and post flyers around the city. I understand that in some places, girls are actually just fine with the whole “quiet means feminine” thing (I’ll never approve, but I understand). Still, you may inspire a passerby to speak up, and not just about cat calling — poor treatment of women comes in many forms, public and private.

You might actually start a Holla Back site for your city. The idea behind this fabulous blog is to publicly shame assholes who cat call, pinch, or otherwise sexually harass women in public. (And it has expanded to include any harassment — racial, religious, or whatever else jerks can come up with.)

Just remember that we ladies aren’t ever going to see the world change to our liking if we’re not willing to ask for that change. Be prepared to demand it from people who are mislead enough to believe you’re an object that likes to be cat called.

And maybe my next post will be about the ethics of carrying mace. Hm.


5 Responses to “cat calls”

  1. 1 Kerrie
    March 20, 2010 at 7:13 am

    Wow, haven’t had to endure a cat call in ages…. But I like your advice! In the past I just made a point of ignoring it, but that doesn’t seem like the best way to handle it.

    I hadn’t heard of the Holla Back websites. Interesting!

  2. 2 JayEm
    March 23, 2010 at 10:57 am

    What would you say to responding to a cat call by saying really loudly, “I know, right? And what about your tiny penis?!” or “Yes, they are suckable! Too bad you couldn’t keep it up!”

    Just trying to brainstorm ways to make men feel as small as they make us feel.

    • March 23, 2010 at 12:44 pm

      i think the spirit may be right, but i have to interject the old adage that “two wrongs don’t make a right”. the idea, in my mind, is not to make men feel little as well. it’s to remind them that women are people and that they shouldn’t make people feel small. so bringing up mom or telling them how you feel is much more productive than just belittling them back. but good spirit.

  3. 4 Di
    March 24, 2010 at 9:29 am

    I remember a self-defense seminar in college where the instructor told us her favorite strategy is to turn around, whip out a notebook and paper and say “What did you just say? I’m an anthropologist studying harrassement and I’d like to get the wording right. Now, how many times a day do you harrass women? Do you always say the same thing, or do you change the wording depending on the situation?” I’ve never tried it, but certainly seems like it would make the guy uncomfortable.

  4. May 11, 2010 at 11:57 am

    I’m wondering if snapping a quick picture of every guy who does that would shake them up?

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