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.

I believe reacting online is an approach too detached to make a significant impact. The more I safely challenge my harassers -- and see how they almost always step down -- the more I realize that we can’t depend on lawmakers or our cell phones to do all of the work for us. So I have a radical idea: Instead of thinking of all street harassers solely as criminals who deserve penalization and public ridicule, we need to communicate with them about how it feels to be the target of their actions.

I know some will be angry with me (hi, Mom) for proposing what may seem like a dangerous idea. Confronting street harassers is not always possible in every situation or for everyone. To be sure, it’s a very bad idea to engage with those who have truly harmful intentions, and if even a small part of you feels threatened, you should walk away.

But (according to Hollaback!, interestingly enough) studies show that those who “respond assertively” to harassment are less vulnerable. It’s possible -- if your harasser or leerer seems more ignorant than dangerous, and you’re in a well-lit area with people nearby -- to succinctly and calmly explain why certain actions are disrespectful.

I want to challenge all good men to step up. Men, please say something when you witness street harassment, even if the harassers are your coworkers or friends. I’m not saying all men are responsible for their street harassing ilk, but they owe it to the women they respect to set an example and encourage others to do the same.


In Platus’ Mercator, written around 200 B.C., Demipho turns away the beautiful slave girl bought for his mother by his son Charinus. “She is hardly the proper sort of person,” says Demipho. “Why not?” asks Charinus (who is secretly in love with the girl, as is -- naturally -- his father). “Because it would cause scandal if such a beauty were the attendant of a wife and mother,” Demipho replies. “When she passes through the streets all the men would look at her, leer, nod and wink and whistle.”

This is the first known recording of a form of bullying that, thousands of years later, the vast majority of women experience on a regular basis. Today it has evolved into a variety of behaviors, often arranged by severity from physical contact and verbal abuse to stares and whistles. Other forms include exposing, picture-taking, groping, masturbating, threatening, intimidating, stalking, and attention-seeking behavior like flattering and honking.

As a woman, I’ve experienced almost all of these variations more than once. There’s no doubt that some street harassers are more dangerous than others; gropers, for example, trump picture-takers any day. But I’m not as interested in discussing why rapists, stalkers, or “dick-flashers” do what they do. I’m more intrigued by the watchers and callers.


In Beth A. Quinn’s workplace-focused study, “Sexual Harassment and Masculinity: The Power and Meaning of ‘Girl Watching,’” she notes that “no man discussed girl watching in initial accounts of his workplace”:

I suspect that they did not consider it to be relevant to a discussion of their average workday, even though it became apparent that it was an integral daily activity for some groups of men.

It not only shows how second-nature street harassment is to some men -- hello, it’s been going on since at least 200 B.C. -- but how it often isn’t about the interchangeable female targets as much as it is about male bonding, defining one’s own masculinity, or collectively -- even if subconsciously -- asserting men’s inherent physical power over women.

“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.

When a woman catcalls a man, it’s far more likely to be considered “charming” or “flattering” because there’s usually no chance that the woman could force the man into a dangerous situation by sheer physical force or intimidation.

Men: would you find it complimentary if it were commonplace for other men to yell out “I’d like to take that home with me” or “Why the sad face? I’ll give you something to smile about” while following you down the street? Men who could, hypothetically, force you to go home with them if they wanted? Think about it. I suspect most of you would feel uncomfortable, threatened, even scared.


What about the most passive of street harassers, the ones who don’t say anything outwardly insulting or objectifying -- or maybe don’t say anything at all? They’re harder to confront without feeling like an asshole. I had a cold last week, and one morning stumbled and sneezed my way to the supermarket in pajamas and a messy bun to get some soup. I was reaching for the Campbells when I turned around and nearly bumped into a man who was standing less than an inch away from me, staring at me intently. “You are so beautiful,” he said, feet firmly planted in my personal space. “Why aren’t you smiling?” I had to literally step around him and make my way down another aisle before he stopped leering at me.

Afterward, I was furious -- not just because of the way that man made me feel, but because I’m honestly unsure if it’s OK to feel such anger in similar situations. The man didn’t say anything objectifying, make any animal sounds, or gesture at me inappropriately. But even if he didn’t catcall me, so to speak, he made me feel like I was on stage -- and, especially in my sniffling state (and trust me, although this is somewhat irrelevant, I did not look my best), I was resentful that I was made to feel intimidated when all I wanted was a can of soup.

Plus, why should I have to smile? In a post expressing her own frustration with being hit on while running errands, blogger Almie Rose laments that “as women, we’re subliminally taught to be polite under duress. Because if we say no, or reject any sort of advance even if we do it kindly, we’re labeled a bitch.” It’s true: many women I know say a “smile, beautiful!” frustrates them more than an obscene come-on. It all comes back to the same point: woman aren’t performing for you.

What about the women, like “Subway Badass” Nicola Briggs, who respond creatively to street harassers? Briggs became a folk hero for frustrated women everywhere when a video of her yelling at a guy for “dickflashing” her on the subway recently went viral. In 2008, an Israeli tourist became so fed up with construction-worker catcallers while visiting New Zealand that she actually stripped in front of them in exasperation.

Frustratingly, society tends to punish, not congratulate, those who speak up. Briggs hated the fact that TV stations blurred her face when airing her video -- it gave “the wrong message to women” by making her into a victim instead of a victor. The Israeli woman was similarly victim-shamed when told by police that her behavior was “inappropriate” -- ”She’s not an unattractive looking lady,” one policeman told the press -- while her catcallers probably enjoyed the best workday of their lives.


The bottom line is to treat others with respect. If you approach a woman, be aware of her personal boundaries and talk to her as if she is a person, not a sex object. If she’s clearly disinterested, know when to back away. And, for God’s sake, don’t whistle. She is not a farm animal.

I’m loath to say that respect works both ways in these situations -- it’s hard to treat street harassers kindly. (If I were confronted by someone who clearly has serious issues -- like Briggs’ flasher -- I’d go ahead and yell my head off.) But I’ve personally found that speaking calmly and clearly is more constructive than yelling (which, trust me, I’ve also done).

These days, when I’m harassed and feel that I’m in a safe enough situation to communicate with my harasser, I think about Platus’ slave girl. I remember that I have just as much a right to go about my day without being harassed as does anyone else. And I remember that unless I do engage, nothing will change. Should we have to explain why “I’d like a piece of that” is demeaning? No -- but if we make a habit of it, fewer will need the lesson.

Katie Baker is a Digital Media Producer for Hearst Newspapers/the San Francisco Chronicle, a columnist for the San Francisco Appeal, and a writer of many other things.
Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Election 2018