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Catcalling Is a Problem: How to Talk to a Woman Without Being Rude, Creepy or Scary

Street harassment is not OK. Guys, if you really want to get a woman's attention, here's what you should say.

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“As embarrassing as this is to admit, I feel like the main reason my friends and I objectify women is to let each other know that we’re straight,” a male friend of mine told me. Later, a man I confronted on the street told me I was his “dream girl” and asked me to let him prove himself to me in more obscene terms. “This is just what guys do,” he said. “We’re just joking around. No offense!”


Let’s take a look at the etymological origins of the most common slang terms for street harassment. While “wolf-whistle” does have a predatory connotation -- wolves have been symbols of male lust since the Elizabethan era, and the specific use of wolf for “sexually aggressive male” was first recorded in the mid-1800s -- most other terms are more similar to “girl watching” in the sense that they are not as much aggressive as they are critical or male-exclusive.

For example, the first documented “catcallers” were theatergoers in the 1700s who whistled and jeered to express disapproval for actors or actions onstage. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the word took on a sexual meaning, but the basic idea is the same: the catcaller’s right to vocally judge the catcallee. He’s an audience member expected to give feedback to a performance.

“Hubba hubba” caught on during World War II when Marine Harry H. Miller used the phrase -- commonly used at his military camp to mean “double time” or “hurry up” -- to draw his friend’s attention to a group of beautiful women, using a term “he knew only his buddy would understand.”

Catcallers and hubba-hubba-ers aren’t, for the most part, women-haters. They catcall because they’re taught by their elders, peers, and effectively by the women that ignore them that street harassment is a fun, inoffensive social activity. For centuries, more or less well meaning men have gleaned that it’s acceptable, even funny.


Am I saying men should never talk to women in public? No, not at all.

There’s a huge difference between harassing a woman and trying to start a conversation. Here are some tips: talk to her, not at her. Treat her with respect: be aware of her personal space, ask her how she’s doing or what she’s reading instead of commenting on her body parts, look at her face instead of her chest. If she ignores you, drops eye contact, or walks away, back off. It wasn’t rude of you to approach her, but she’s not being rude if she doesn’t want to keep talking to you, especially if you initiated conversation while she was running an errand, waiting for the bus, or on her computer at a coffee shop.

Let’s say you’re not interested in having an actual conversation, but just want to let a woman know she’s beautiful. Go ahead, it’s a free country; just do it respectfully. Don’t be threatening, don’t make animal sounds, don’t follow her. Most women I know wouldn’t be offended if someone told her she was looking great or had gorgeous hair or a beautiful smile. But don’t expect the woman in question to feel the same way, and don’t act aggressive if she rejects your advances.

Studies suggest that 80 to 100 percent of all women face at least occasional unwanted, harassing attention in public places from men they do not know.

Many men (like my friend, quoted above) insist they’d be “thrilled” to be shouted at on the street. So why don’t women feel flattered? Because we live with the threat of rape -- the knowledge that one in every six American women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Even if a man has “innocent” intentions when he yells “Hey sexy!” at a woman, he has a good chance of making her feel uncomfortable, angry, or frightened. She’s likely to automatically connect the moment with other negative street harassment experiences she’s had -- or, worse, with memories of more serious assault.

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