Street objectification: a call against cat-calling

Posted at 7:30 AM Jun 17, 2009

By Andrea Grimes

Today's New York Times article on the sexual objectification of Italian women got me to thinking, not only about sexual objectification in media, but about sexual objectification on the street, in everyday life.

Growing up in the suburbs in Texas, I'd only seen cat-calls on television; I figured that, like sex that doesn't result in STDs or babies, cat-calling only happened on TV. As soon as I started school at NYU, however, I learned that cat-calls are part of a female city-dweller's way of life. I traveled as well, and it was wonderful. But whether I was in New York, Paris, London or Berlin, the calls came all the same.

I think I brushed it off at the time, saying something along the lines of, "Well, what do I expect, an American girl trotting around like I own the place? I'm asking for it!" Which is saddening to think back on, of course, because nobody is "asking" for sexual harassment, regardless of how young and taut and blonde they might be.

After living in Texas for several years, I've since returned to New York City, and the cat-calling has picked up again. And my god, I am tired of it. I am tired of being told, "Smile, baby, I'll fuck that frown upside down," and leered at, "Niiiiiiiiice, baby," and verbally prodded, "Mmm, you wore those boots for daddy!"

But mainly I am tired of being told that I'm overreacting by otherwise sensitive male friends who don't see the problem.

It is not a "compliment" to be cat-called, to be reduced to a walking sexual object that requires only a whistle of appreciation before its panties drop and its legs spread. You want to give me a compliment? Have a damned conversation with me.
I have been trying to explain it thusly to my guy friends: imagine you're walking down the street--in whatever clothing you like--and passing a group of men who weigh, on average, a hundred pounds more than you and are several inches to a foot taller--they could easily overpower you at any time. They're all staring at you hungrily, and making loud insinuations about what they'd like to do to you, sexually, whether you like it or not, frequently making explicit cracks about your asshole or your dick. It is not so much that they will do anything to you, but that they are demonstrating, through their aggression, that they could. Would you want to walk through that, several times a day, on your way to get coffee and shampoo and cat litter?

Thankfully, there's a Twitter that I'm digging: HollabackNYC, wherein harassed folks can "holla back" in 140 characters or less. I love this: "@whitneyhoffman1 why do some men holler every time they see a female? i doubt i'll ever hear a woman say, "it was love at first catcall."


Chad said:

You never got cat-calls in Texas?

Andrea said:

Not that I can remember. There's not enough walking-on-the-street in Texas; it's hard to hear cat-calls from a car.

chad said:

Fair enough. Sexist though I may be, I agree that it's harrassment. I think cat-calling is suppressed in Texas by the heat and the number of women with guns.

BorgQueen said:

This is one area where women win. We don't catcall or make nasty comments, all we need to do is slyly check out a dude's butt (or eyes or package, whatever you go for) then catch his eye and flash a smile. Bam! Putty in our hands. See, guys, doesn't take much and certainly not embarassing us in front of strangers to get our attention.

whatevs said:

Ah yes, my regular reminder from a feminist that free speech only applies when said speech doesn't make anyone feel uncomfortable or icky.

Frankly, I find your stereotyping of male behavior as threatening and aggressive, and your view of all males as potential attackers much more offensive than their view of females as potential partners, even if their attempts are clumsy or harmful for your delicate ears. They're not hurting anyone, move along.

Andrea said:

Cat-calling isn't just "uncomfortable" and "icky" -- it's harassment, "whatevs." I didn't say these men didn't have a right to say whatever they want in public. I said that it's gross and degrading. Obviously it was your own insecurities that read that as a feminist limiting your free speech. Try not to get all wobbly-legged the next time a girl speaks her mind, yeah?

kris said:

I agree with the sentiment about catcalls. And I've been on the receiving end of it from gay guys (like, all of twice. I am so oppressed! /light humor), and the worst part is if you have a problem with it, you're just being a "homophobe".

I actually just wrote a long email to a friend about it, explaining how it's just as sleazy for a guy to always refer to guys in sexual terms as it is for a guy to always refer to women as sex objects. His response? That I just couldn't handle being hit on by guys.

That behavior almost always goes hand in hand with a superiority complex. As if the only way they can view life is through the lens of competition and sex.

Dawn said:

I don't think cat-calling in Texas is suppressed by heat and the number of women with guns. Shocking as it may be, the Texas heat isn't so hot that it would deter people from cat-calling. If it really was that hot, I doubt that there would be any people hanging around on the street to do so. Also, the whole everyone-in-Texas-owns-a-gun stereotype is ridiculous. Trust me, not everyone from Texas is a cowboy/girl.

Andrea, you're from the Austin area, right? I'll admit that I've never been cat-called at while walking on the street by myself in Austin. But it's happened on more than one occasion while walking around downtown in DFW, and even once while driving to class at one of the local colleges (in that case, it was a bunch of guys in a van yelling and using their hands to create lewd symbols). That time was scary because those guys followed me for miles. It wasn't until I reached my destination that they finally took off.

Just wanted to point out that sexual harassment is not non-existent here in Texas.

BorgQueen said:

whatevs, let me ask you... if someone ran down the street screaming that they were going to kill the president, do you think that should be "protected" free speech? The spirit of the law in this case is not to allow human beings to be cruel or harassing to each other. It all comes down to respect. If a man wanted to compliment me, he needs to come up to me respectfully and politely and say what he thinks. Yelling at me in any form is childish, disturbing and in some cases, yes, scary. I don't think the purpose of the article was to scold men for checking out women, only to say, if you want to do that, think before you speak. Better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool then to open it and remove any doubt.

Paul said:

Cat-calling can be done nicely, unfortunately for the most part, it isn't.

BQ's got a good handle on it, and I toss in a whistle, but I don't make crude gestures or comments.

whatevs said:

Yes, at least as gross and degrading as your views on men. You might examine why you seem to fear that any man who hits on you with anything less eloquent than a sonnet could "easily overpower you at any time" before you diagnose others' insecurities.

Andrea said:

Whatevs, I'm starting to wonder if you can read. At what point did I state that I was afraid of "men" or make any statement about "men" as a gender? I think I illustrated pretty clearly that walking through a gaggle of horny guys shouting sexually offensive statements is threatening and scary. I didn't say that I fear "any man who hits on [me] with anything less than a sonnet" will attack me. I know you really want this to fit what you'd like to believe, but the stretch room just isn't there.

whatevs said:

@BorgQueen Your obvious background in constitutional law notwithstanding, screaming threats is not protected speech, President or not. A construction working making direct physical threats to a woman (or man) is similarly not. Neither the spirit nor the letter of the vast amounts or legislation and judicial precedent on speech take into account whether an utterance or written expression is "cruel", "respectful", or "polite", hence your post is utter nonsense, and a clear departure from the advice espoused in the last line.

Moot point though, in that I defer to Andrea's initial rebuttle, wherein she correctly points out that she "didn't say these men didn't have a right to say whatever they want in public", and apologize if I was implying otherwise.

whatevs said:

@Andrea, my apologies. I re-read the article and comments, and you've bested me. I'm misinterpreting that part about how "guys" were "threatening and scary", and incorrectly took that to mean that you were "afraid" of "men". I assure you I will obtain a different thesaurus post-haste, so as to avoid similar confusion in the future regarding words that are clearly in no-way synonyms.

BorgQueen said:

Awww, whatevs was that an insult? You are gonna have to do better than that, sweetness. I never claimed to have a “background in constitutional law” as you put it and you are missing my point. Any half-dead dumbfuck can see that telling a random woman on the street that he is going to “fuck that frown upside down” is inappropriate and THAT interpretation is what makes a comment or statement not okay. Is it technically illegal to say that to someone? No, but common sense and decency should tell you that you should not say that. Yes, maybe there are women who see a simple smile and a “hi” as insulting but that is extreme and not what this article is about. You seem to think rude comments to other human beings have a place in society and I say they do not.

If you find our views on this site so insulting I kindly invite you to either find another blog to read or start one of your own.

"Starman" Matt Morrison said:

I dunno. Distasteful as cat-calling is, I've had a hard time taking any man who does it seriously as a threat since hearing the Eddie Izzard routine about those sort of guys and what they are really saying.

They Say: Oy, Darling! Oy, Darling! Look at that! Look at that!

They Mean: Oy, Darling! Oy, Darling! I'm a wanker! I'm a wanker!

Emily said:


Thanks for the shout-out! We started HollbackNYC because we were frustrated by not having a real response. If you yell, you get angry; if you walk on you feel victimized; and the police don't care.

I hope all of you will follow us on Twitter @hollabacknyc. You can post your street harassment stories using #hbnyc and we will re-tweet them. Also, send pictures of your street harassers to and we will post 'em. If you can't slap 'em, snap 'em.


Liam said:

Hey! Let me share this on facebook.

Mike in Euless said:

>> Ah yes, my regular reminder from a feminist that free speech only applies when said speech doesn't make anyone feel uncomfortable or icky.

I don't think she's saying they don't have the right for saying whatever they say. I think she's saying that they're boorish jerks for doing so, which isn't the same thing.

Pete said:

One thing that no one pointed out; You will never see just one guy cat-calling. It's always shouted in a crowded theatre, like most fiction.

SickofIt said:

Thank you so much for posting this! I experience this kind of behavior as well, and get so frustrated by it. What is there to do? Something I've always wondered is, does cat-calling actually work for men? Are there actually women that will stop in their tracks, drop their pants, and go after these men for a quick romp? I'm assuming not many would, which makes it even harder to understand why men feel the need to scream such vulgar things at strangers walking by. I mean really, what is the point?

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