Sex. Feminism. Lesbian Werewolves.

Cat-Calling and Rape Culture Go Hand-in-Hand

Posted on Oct 21, 2010 in Uncategorized | 6 comments

The other night I got into a debate with a well-meaning straight guy about why cat-calling sucks.  He seemed to agree that cat-calling isn’t nice, but he also suggested that it wasn’t a problem that had anything to do with men and power.

I disagree.  Catcalling is a way men inflict their will on women.  In this way, it goes hand in hand with rape culture.

Catcalling is a daily occurrence for me.  It doesn’t matter what I’m wearing (most often I leave the house in baggy jeans and a t-shirt), if I’ve got makeup on, if I’m sick or whatever.  I can tell you, every single time, it’s unwanted attention.  Days that I go without getting elevator eyes with smooching sounds, or a ‘hey baby, hey baby’ are really awesome days in my book.

As Ndidi Oriji at the always-splendid Racialicious wrote:

I didn’t need you to turn my morning into one long defense of my humanity. I didn’t need you to add to the “gauntlet” that I already had to walk to get to the train station.

There are men who insist that catcalls are “flattering.”  No doubt there are women who are complicit in this too.  Men often use this as an excuse that because some women enjoy it, that I, a completely different woman with a different set of tastes and standards, should appreciate it too.  This is, of course, a warped and idiotic logic that is based on the understanding that I, in my possession of XX chromosomes, must be a part of the hivemind of womanhood that kowtows to male standards of behavior.   Because. . .

Rape culture demands that women are sexually subservient. We must behave in a pre-programmed way to any and all attention we get on the street from greasy strangers.  Hence the perennial street-harasser’s favorite: “Smile, honey!  You have such a pretty smile.”

There are variations on the catcalls, too.  Sometimes they do try to express genuine interest, as when I was leaving my office at the Gay & Lesbian Center and a particularly filthy man, along with two friends who were sitting on the curb drinking 40s out of paper bags, suggested that “Girl, you are the kind of woman I go for.”  When I retorted that “That’s a problem, cause I don’t go for men at all,” all three men got angry and one snarked something about an ex-girlfriend.  Unfortunately, I had walked too far by that point to hear what, exactly, she and I had in common.  From the outset, it was a relative innocuous statement.  The problem is that when I dared open my mouth in response, he and his buddies got defensive.

Catcalling is a way of removing a woman’s voice.  How many times have you witnessed/experienced/heard about a woman responding to a catcall with a loud “fuck off” which only encouraged the man to follow/harass/chase her?   In my world “fuck off” means “no.”  But in the world of cat-calling, “fuck off” means intimidate, harass, or yell louder.

As Starling wrote in the now-internet-famous essay Schrodinger’s Rapist:

A man who ignores a woman’s NO in a non-sexual setting is more likely to ignore NO in a sexual setting, as well.

If you pursue a conversation when she’s tried to cut it off, you send a message. It is that your desire to speak trumps her right to be left alone. And each of those messages indicates that you believe your desires are a legitimate reason to override her rights.

Catcalling is part of rape culture.  It declares that the catcaller has more rights than recipient of said harassment.  It tells her that her voice is irrelevant and that she should just grin and bear it.  It tells her that she should take it as a compliment and if she doesn’t, it’s her that’s broken.  Pardon me, well-meaning straight guy who doesn’t see catcalling as part of rape culture, but doesn’t this sound familiar?



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  1. ciciley bailee

    girl- hear, fuckin’, hear. i consider it a good day when i am not gawked at, hooted at, or catcalled, and especially, for me, at the gym. it’s violating. it’s upsetting to me that this is a Worry i have every day before going into the gym, and causes me to wear oversized, heavy clothing that is far less comfortable for exercising. i try Not to make friends at one of the only social outlets of adult working life, because i don’t want to be approached by straight men. when it happens, my response to it is usually a stone cold dirty “i see you- my bod is not for you, leave me alone” face, which probably only does the trick until i am around the corner. what i really want to do is run up to them and say, ‘hey, does that ever actually get you laid by girls like me? because guess what i’m into? i’m into a scrawny blind nerd of a cracker at home who loves me and has never disrespected me. and HE gets all my fabulous blow jobs.” but i’m pretty sure that would just put me in the “psycho” category and keep them after me.

  2. Allison

    Ah yes, the whole “Your pain is invalid because it sucks way worse for other people” argument. I’m certainly not going to say her and my pain are the same. Just like I don’t say in my OP that rape and catcalling are the same. It’s true that someone always has it worse, and speaking as an American, who cultures most often have it worse. Most of the rest of the world has it worse. I’m not arguing against that. But to declare my own life experience invalid by telling me to “put it in perspective” doesn’t really serve anyone.
    People mobilize around causes that affect them directly. We may give money to Haitian earthquake victims or repost gruesome videos about Iranian sniper victims, but ultimately what moves people to make change is the pain they feel.
    So, while you may feel that catcalling isn’t misogyny and that one example of a woman who was in power in the UK for a few years erases eons of male oppression, I respectfully disagree. I see catcalling, acid attacks, rape, unfair hiring practices, workplace sexual harassment, female circumcision and all the other ways women are demeaned in our culture to be part of the same problem- the devaluing and oppression of women in society.

  3. Laudanum

    I did not say it was invalid, I said a sense of perspective was in order.

    You simply cannot put rape and catcalling in the same category. It is true that some men catcall in an EXTREMELY degrading manner, but it’s not the same as getting a hold of a woman, and brutally raping her, it just isn’t.

    There are many, many ways in which women are demeaned, but they’re not all the same.

    We cannot erase eons of male repression. I hate gender politics, truly. But we shouldn’t equate things as going hand in hand with other things they blatantly aren’t.

    And I am speaking from experience as a victim of rape. I say that just in case anyone thought I couldn’t possibly know what I’m talking about.

  4. Allison

    I understand where you’re coming from, and I know my opinion isn’t a popular one. I was very clear in my comment and in my OP in saying that rape and catcalling are not the same thing.

    I still stand by my original comment, though, they they are in the same system of oppressing women. Like rape, catcalling is designed to humiliate and to silence women. It reinforces the status quo by keeping women afraid and “in their place.”

    I agree that it’s important to keep things in perspective, and that all trespasses are not equal. I do think though that it’s important speak up about all forms of injustice, particularly those that get a “free pass” from society for being innocuous.

    Thanks for your feedback, Laudanum. I really appreciate it.

  5. Laudanum

    I haven’t looked at your Shelfari list, I tend to use Goodreads, but if you haven’t read “Half The Sky” yet, please do.

    It’s a book I think everyone should read. I come from an area in the UK with a high level of immigration from India and Pakistan. I grew up surrounded by differing cultures, some of which I despised because of the way they treated their women.

    Then after reading Half The Sky, I realised what these people were running away from. I challenge anyone to read that book and keep a dry eye. I certainly couldn’t.

    Thank you for allowing me to voice my opinion.


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