No, Catcalling Is Definitely Not Flattery

by Christine Sisto
Why conservative skeptics are wrong about street harassment.

On Thursday, most of the women on the Fox News show Outnumbered agreed with a New York Post op-ed in which Doree Lewak defended catcalling. When construction workers whistle at her, Lewak says, “my ego and I can’t fit through the door!”

A few weeks ago, this video by Vocativ went viral on social media. In it, women describe getting catcalled on the street, and eventually sexually harassed, culminating in Jennifer Corey, who was Miss District of Columbia 2010, discussing one instance of her being cornered and harassed on public transportation.

Outnumbered’s hosts didn’t seem so concerned: host Kimberly Guilfoyle said, “Let men be men. Men are going to be that way.” Stacey Dash said that she didn’t “mind it.” (I wouldn’t mind men shouting obscenities at me either if I had bodyguards surrounding me.)

I’m sorry, fellas, but the feminists have it right this time: Catcalling needs to end and the conservatives need to stop defending it.

In the beginning of the Vocative video, a young woman says, “It’s constant, it’s inescapable, it’s hard to get away from.” “Inescapable” is the perfect word to describe street harassment. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t matter what a woman wears or how she walks or what she’s doing — she will still be singled out in public as a sex object.

Lewak writes in her Post opinion piece that she’ll “never forget” the first time she was catcalled at age 20. That’s cute, Doree. I will never forget the first time I was street-harassed either — at 13 years old. My parents and I had brunch one Sunday in a restaurant that happened to have a bar, where a lot of local men were watching a football game. After we finished our meal and exited the restaurant, my mother laughed and told us that as we left, one man looked away from the game and turned his full body to watch me walk out. She teased my father, clapping him on the back and joking that he should “get his shotgun ready,” but I could see that it took all of his restraint to not confront the man. I was mortified that I had been sexualized right in front of my father. Granted, this was not “catcalling,” per se, as the man didn’t actually speak to me, but it was a stepping stone. It only got worse from there.

I have had every obscenity you can imagine yelled at me. I have had men grab themselves in front of me, make lewd gestures, simulate spanking me, lick their lips at me, describe their genitalia to me, follow me home, ask me if they can autograph my chest, grab my backside, encircle me while I sit in an empty subway car, and threaten to “smack the s*** out of me.” None of this is “flattering,” as Lewak writes about catcalls in her article. It is embarrassing and I have walked home in tears on more than one occasion.

Before you even say it, let me beat you to the punch. No, I do not dress like a skank, and this is an argument I hear too often — that women are dressing a certain way because they want the attention is simply an excuse to allow men to continue to misbehave. I was not the kind of 13-year-old who wanted to be 25 and dressed like it. That day in the restaurant, I was not dressed in any way that was meant to attract a man’s attention. I wore Limited Too when I was thirteen, not Abercrombie & Fitch.

The catcalling was probably at its worst when I was in high school. Going to a Catholic school where I had to wear the iconic plaid skirt and white blouse, taking the subway and walking home in uniform was mortifying, thanks to so many Halloween costumes, pornographic movies, and a certain video by Britney Spears. Men consistently made me feel as if I was in a brothel and they were picking out the prostitute they wanted.

Think that’s blowing the situation out of proportion? One day, as my female schoolmate and I rode New York City’s F train home, two thuggish looking youths, who didn’t seem to have discovered belts yet, licked their lips at us and spoke loudly to each other about which one of us they would “choose” and what they would do to us. We were 15.

No, what a woman is wearing doesn’t matter in the least. Trust me, I was not the type of Catholic schoolgirl who was constantly getting scolded by the nuns for having her skirt too short. I was the type of schoolgirl who once got detention for reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie during chemistry class. I couldn’t be bothered to get detention over something as trivial as the dress code, but it wouldn’t matter if my skirt reached down to my ankles — those two “youths” would have harassed us anyway, because it’s not about the way we look. I have been harassed walking home from a softball game, in full uniform, sweaty and dirty. I have been harassed while wearing baggy sweatpants after rolling out of bed and walking to the nearest Rite Aid for contact solution.

Now you may be thinking, “Well, those instances are clear harassment, not catcalling. Catcalling is innocent fun.” Where’s the line? Stacey Dash argued, “as long as you don’t come within arm’s length, it’s good.” The men on the F Train were many, many arms’ lengths away from us. My friend and I still didn’t feel “good.”

At the end of the Vocativ video, all of the women agree that the men that have verbally assaulted them seem proud of their work. “I think that most women who have been assaulted know this look,” one woman says, speaking about a “smirk” on the face of her abuser, “It’s ‘I’m getting off on you being uncomfortable.’” This is exactly why catcalling upsets me enough to write this piece. The practice is not about flattering a woman; it’s about power.

Towards my late teens, and into college, I started to get angry. I also learned a few new curse words, and reveled in throwing them at anyone who shouted obscenities at me. The response from the men was usually split 50–50. Half of the men became angry and the other half were proud to have upset me. If they were just tossing a casual compliment at me, as Doree Lewak wants women to believe, they would just shrug and move on.

During a previous job, I worked on a political campaign in my home neighborhood in Brooklyn. A supermarket was being built during my tenure on the campaign, right next door to the campaign office. The verbal abuse from the construction workers was relentless. I know “literally” gets misused, but literally every time I exited the building, the construction workers would shout at me. Sometimes, their words were tame, “Hey baby,” but eventually their catcalls became more graphic. Because I worked for an elected official, I held back from my normal response, which was to drop every curse word listed in Urban Dictionary. Eventually, I asked my boss to speak to the supervisor at the construction site and the abuse ended — for about a week. They never spoke to me again, but they did make it a point to drop what they were doing, run to the fence and stare at me, often chuckling under their breaths. I don’t believe that those construction workers were trying to give me a compliment. I’ve never met a man that cared that strongly about flattering someone.

The last of my vignettes: I was riding the Washington, D.C., Metro while I was in college. A man was walking around to other passengers, asking for donations for a youth sports league. I ignored him when he approached me and pretended to be very interested in the brick wall outside my window. He sat down next to me, too close, and asked again for a donation, and again I ignored him. Then he called me, “baby” and “sexy” and commented on certain body parts. When I looked at him, he licked his lips. I spat out, “Don’t speak to me that way,” which was a pretty tame response considering my history. His eyes changed immediately, and he looked like he wanted to hit me. Scared, I stood up to walk away, but he blocked my exit with his legs. I stepped over them and waited at the subway car’s door. He followed me, stood behind me — again, too close — and said in a scarily calm voice that I was being disrespectful, how dare I walk away from him, and how would I like it if he “smacked the s*** out of me.”

I glanced around the somewhat crowded subway car for someone to help, but everyone pretended not to notice. When the doors opened, I walked quickly towards the exit and he followed me, practically tripping on my heels, repeating his threats. My normal sassiness was gone — no one had ever seemed like they were going to actually hit me before. Just before I reached the escalator, he laughed, tapped me on the head with the flyers in his hand, and ran to catch another train. As soon as I was back in the light of day, I burst into tears. (I wouldn’t have been afraid if I had been allowed to carry a gun, but that’s another article.)

“Street harassment is about ownership,” says one woman in the viral video. “It’s the idea that women’s bodies and their very presence in public space is not for us.” Unfortunately, she’s quite right. There is no other explanation for the anger and the self-righteousness that rise up in men when women do not blush with gratitude every time a man tells her she’s sexy.

Everyday experiences aren’t like the one just described — the main problem, in fact, is how constant the comments are. People say, “hey honey” and other seemingly innocent platitudes to me, conservatively, once a week. It is exhausting being embarrassed that much.

According to a report by Stop Street Harassment, 65 of women have experienced “at least one type” of street harassment in their lifetimes. Fifty percent of those women say they have been harassed before age 17 — young girls have stories similar to mine. (How does that make you feel, dads?) Fifty-seven percent of all women have experienced verbal harassment and 41 percent of all women have experienced physically aggressive forms of street harassment. That’s a lot of “compliments.”

You can wave off my experiences as isolated incidences, as some do, but most of my friends have similar stories and I would bet that most women have similar stories. Every time I pass a group of men, loitering along a sidewalk, my throat seizes up, and I think, “Please let them just leave me alone.” My prayers are often not met and when they do shout, I think, “Will they just shout, or will it get worse? They’re not following me, are they?”

Guys, I see attractive men all the time, but I don’t feel an urge to loudly request to see their genitalia while they walk to Barnes & Noble with their mothers. (Yep, that happened to me, too.) No one can stop you from looking, but you choose to take the effort to make us uncomfortable, and that, I think, is the most hurtful thing of all.

— Christine Sisto is an editorial associate at National Review Online.