News & Politics

Why Do Men Catcall?

Screaming at women about their appearances reinforces some men's sense of dominance -- but it's street harassment.

"I want to show you a good time."

"Oh, man, talk about country thick -- big, round and juicy."

"Looks like candy. Does you melt in my mouth?"

When Angelita, 26, left her home in San Jose, Calif., on a recent morning, she wasn't dressed for sex.

"I walked by the local auto body shop. I was not looking my best. It started out with whistling and vocalizations. These guys were just hanging around yelling at every pair of buttocks that strolled down the street, no matter what they looked like. I just felt uncomfortable."

This scenario is played out multiple times a day in most cities across the world. Men shout out to female strangers on the street, commenting on their looks and do-ability. In most instances, women ignore their harassers and keep walking as if no comment was made. But in this instance (and as part of an experiment I spearheaded), Angelita bravely turned to the group of guys and asked them one simple question: "Why?"

Not surprisingly, the men offered no insight into their behavior. Instead, the group mentality kicked in and they piled on.

"You got a fat ass."

"Your body got me hummin'."

"Got to hold that body."

"For some men, catcalling reinforces their sense of dominance or manliness," explains Yvonne K. Fulbright, Ph.D. and author of Sex with Your Ex & 69 Other Things You Should Never Do Again. "Others may be eternal optimists, hoping that maybe just one woman will actually throw herself at him. Still others do it because they're really just thinking with their dicks, saying the first thing that jumps into their heads."

All human beings who operate within society learn to censor their primal instincts. When nature calls, most people don't just pull down their pants in public, pop a squat and take care of business. We don't leap over the counter at Dunkin' Donuts and start stuffing Munchkins in our faces just because they look good.

So how is it that so many men operate without an "off" switch when it comes to making sexual comments? Is it because by not protesting, we've implicitly given them the go-ahead?

Thirty-something cultural anthropologist Franny runs a Twitter account that is fascinating in its thorough, block-by-block descriptions of the noises New York City men make toward her on an almost daily basis.

"Over years of receiving various catcalls I, like so many women, had become numb to them, so I decided it was time to stop ignoring them, accepting them or internalizing them and put them out there for what they really are: Obnoxious. Ultimately, I hope that this can become a forum for all women (and men) to share their catcall stories," she says.

Recently, Franny began asking the catcallers why they said these things to her.

"The first person didn't answer. The second, who called me gorgeous and asked for my autograph responded, 'Because you look like a movie star.' I know, since I had just rolled out of bed to go grab coffee that I could not have looked like a movie star ... maybe a movie star caught off guard in an awful paparazzi photo ..."

Before starting the Twitter account (and before that, a blog on the same subject), Franny had the idea to photograph the catcallers -- turning the lens on them -- but it proved too difficult to be constantly at the ready with a camera. Another issue was that she didn't necessarily want to stick around to interact with the person who slows down on his bike so he can make smooching sounds at her as she passes by.

While catcalls might seem like harmless fun or the punchline to a construction worker joke, many of the women I spoke to told me that catcalls made them feel uncomfortable or nervous at best. At worst, they left the situation feeling ashamed, angry and powerless, their dignity robbed by a complete stranger.

Brianne, 22, a grad student in Chico, Calif., described an incident that left her shaken up: "It was about 10 p.m. on a Tuesday, it was dark, and I was riding my bike home. I was just about a block from my apartment when a truck went by and a man yelled out the window 'Can I take you home with me?'

"It was horrifying, but I didn't react outwardly. I wanted to yell at him or flip him off, but I know that it isn't safe to potentially make a catcaller mad. It made me feel scared, and angry and dehumanized. I just kept thinking to myself, 'How could anyone think that it is acceptable to yell something like that?' I live in a college town where rape is all too common, but somehow this man seemed either unaware or unconcerned about that fact."

So why would a guy (who most certainly has a mother and possibly even sisters or a wife or girlfriend) deliberately scare a woman like that? Are these men just stupid or evil? Or is there something else at work?

When studied closely, it becomes apparent that there are three types of catcalls, each with their own distinct motivation.

The "Lunch Buddies" Catcall

Lou Paget, an AASECT-certified sex educator and best-selling author of The Great Lover Playbook, explains that this involves a "group action/mentality of men -- e.g; a display of machoness on a construction site during lunch to see who can embarrass a woman more. Their payoff is the stroke of their buddies."

The "Bitch Would Never Fuck Me" Catcall

Paget says that the motivation here is "for the man to get an attractive woman who may be out of his league to notice him." She goes on to explain that "because a guy is too chicken-shit to say something nice, he whistles at a woman, kind of like, 'I'll show her.' "

The "I Just Adore Women" Catcall

Perhaps the creepiest of all, this guy does not actually think that what he's doing is catcalling due to his "sincere appreciation of the female form."

Eman, 37, is known by his buddies for being a friendly guy who will chat up anyone on the street. He recently thanked two women leaving a restaurant for "being beautiful." His intention? To make them smile.

"There's never any follow-up to the comments I drop," he explains. "If I say to someone, 'That's a beautiful dress you're wearing,' or 'You win the prize for most beautiful mom today,' I say these things in passing, and don't stop to follow up. I think if these statements were a ploy (a 'line'), it would be different. But, if I say something kind and keep walking, there's no threat. They don't think, 'this guy might want something from me.' "

John, 59, believes that catcalls are low class. "I have complimented women because of their long hair, telling her how much men love long hair on women. … I have complimented women's high heels because of how good it makes their legs look." John believes he's doing women a service. "Women crave compliments, it is important for their self-image. The key is that the compliments have to be sincere and not just part of a proposition to get into her pants."

So, is commenting on woman's appearance OK just as long as you don't expect anything in return? Eman is quick to note that he compliments all types of people, young and old, male or female. But,  straight men don't compliment another man's legs or tell him that he wins the award for best-looking dude of the day. So doesn't that imply that these remarks can be a way of asserting sexual power over someone, however innocently intended?

It's worth mentioning that there are some women who don't see these overtures as necessarily negative. A few report that catcalls can be an ego boost, as long as they're not disgusting.

Some women like being acknowledged by strangers, especially if they're at an age when the compliments on their looks don't come as frequently as they used to. Are these women mistaking sexual harassment for praise? Or do the women who find these types of remarks offensive just need to lighten up?

Franny thinks that you can't generalize when it comes to catcalls.

"Catcalls are always so different," she says. "Some are clearly sexual and/or derogatory, meant to objectify the subject, some are bizarrely hilarious, but others are harder to read. I never take them as a compliment though. Even if the words spoken are meant to be complimentary, I take the act of calling out to a stranger as demeaning."

In the end, whether catcalls are intended as a compliment or a tactic to make women feel submissive doesn't matter.

The next time I was walking down the street and a van pulled up beside me, I was ready. As the driver started making kissy noises at me, I reached deep into my pocket and pulled out my middle finger. Sure, I may have given the guy what he wanted -- he succeeded in getting a rise out of me.

Was I putting myself in danger? Maybe. But as the van sped off, I turned around in slow motion, feeling like Trinity from The Matrix, my imaginary black patent-leather overcoat billowing behind me, the overwhelming feeling that I had was power.

I didn't have to stand there and act like this wasn't happening. I didn't have to just "take it."