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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.

Hey, sexy mama! How’d you get so fine?

Jesus, look at those legs.

I’m used to ignoring the terms of endearment yelled at me by strange men on the street. Like most women I know, I treat street harassment like unpleasant weather -- a common occurrence I silently endure by drawing my coat tighter around my body and walking briskly ahead with a stiff neck. But, thanks to this piece, I’d been promising myself I’d take the plunge for weeks, and on this particular day I finally snapped.

“I want to know why you think it’s OK to talk to me like that,” I heard my five-foot-two, small-boned self saying in a voice I wished was less shaky.

“I just appreciate a beautiful woman,” the man said back with a smile.

“OK,” I said, “if you appreciate me, you can tell me I’m beautiful in a respectful way. But you’re treating me like I’m not a human being. No woman likes that, and it doesn’t make me feel beautiful.”

The man looked confused. “I’m really, really sorry,” he said. “I have sisters, and I understand where you’re coming from.”

After a few more seemingly genuine apologies I walked away. I was pleased, slightly cynical (could I really have gotten through to this man in less than 30 seconds?), but most of all shocked that this was my first time talking back to a street harasser. I consider myself a feminist, and am widely known as someone who’s never afraid to speak her mind. Why, then, am I inherently hard-wired to ignore every whistle, lip smack, or holler?


Some men may wonder why I care so much, why I let street harassment get to me. Maybe you think I’m overreacting by lecturing strangers who only want to compliment me, after all. “I’d be thrilled if a woman on the street told me I was sexy,” a male friend once said to me after I expressed my frustration.

I’m happy to address those questions (and will, later on) -- and I understand that it can be difficult to understand how threatening a seemingly harmless “Smile, beautiful!” can feel -- but let’s get one thing straight. Go ask any woman in your life whom you respect -- mother, sister, cousin, lover, or friend -- how it makes her feel when she’s loudly and publicly objectified, the recipient of obscene comments like “suck my cock,” or followed down the street. I promise you that it doesn’t make her feel good or beautiful or respected.

Street harassment has a negative effect on us all. No single man wants the actions of a few to be attributed to his entire gender, but studies show that male harassers impact victims’ perception and reaction to men in general. Still, most street harassers aren’t “bad men” -- they don’t fully realize why their actions are hurtful or disrespectful to the female population. Sometimes they don’t even realize they are harassing women at all.

That’s why it won’t end until both men and women start engaging with harassers.


New York City lawmakers are considering an official catcalling ban, but I’m not sure how successful that could be. Is it really possible to prevent people from talking or calling out to others on the street? More importantly, do we want it to be? While passive objectification can be just as hurtful as the aggressive kind, monitoring it can be much more complicated.

Hollaback!, a group “dedicated to ending street harassment using mobile technology,” encourages women to, well, “holla back” by sharing stories and photos using social media. Hollaback! is a wonderful movement, and definitely a step in the right direction in terms of drawing attention to the cause. But it can only be so effective when the harasser has no idea he’s being “hollered back” at.

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