On Catcalling and Why It’s Not a Compliment (no matter how much you say it is)

So I’m super excited to be writing to you today from the second ever F-Word Link-up with Kelly and I!  Last month went really well and we LOVED reading through all of your amazing posts, so we’re hoping that this month will be even better!  If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, go check out the first link-up where I talk about still needing feminism in 2014.  And when you’re done, head back here to catch up on this month’s posts.

This month’s topic is sexism that you’ve experienced in your everyday life, whether it be catcalling, unequal pay, how people view single mothers, or anything else you can think of.


I guess my confusion stems from my definition of a compliment – “a polite expression of praise or admiration” – because to me, yelling at a woman from a moving vehicle doesn’t feel as polite as I guess it was intended.  Because the way I was taught, polite would be allowing me the chance to respond which, since you’re driving at 50 MPH straight past me, doesn’t really seem like an option. Although I suppose it is always an option for me to write down your license plate number and track you down through the DMV or local police station.  Or maybe I could just run after your car until you stop, and we’re finally united in true love.

We’ve all heard this argument before: the fight over whether or not yelling “hey baby!” at a random woman on the street is okay.  Even Playboy and Fox News have weighed in on the subject of catcalling as a compliment (and I bet you can’t guess who took what side of that argument).  I’ve commented on the subject before, whether it was on this blog, on Facebook, or in person.  And yet I’m still always shocked and confused when a person says “I don’t know what you’re so mad about! They’re just trying to COMPLIMENT you for God’s sake!”

But all of that aside, I was always of the opinion that a compliment is intended to make the recipient feel good, not the complimenter.  And if that were the case, there wouldn’t be women confronting you about it or men going on the defensive when they do.  So defensive in fact, that I once had a man spend two days fighting with me that catcalling is a man’s way of “calling me sexy for Christ’s sake,” and my not being interested is me being shallow because he had a “friend” who had done it before and a girl had responded.

Here’s my bottom line though: maybe there are a few women out there who secretly love when the construction workers on Broad Street tell them how much they’d love to bend them over, but it’s pretty obvious that the majority of women are not amused.  And we would hardly consider subjecting men everywhere to something they’re made uncomfortable by simply because “we want to make them smile.”


  • http://nomad-notebook.blogspot.co.uk/ Lizzy

    Catcalling had me terrified of walking back home from primary school since year 5. Whilst I cope a lot better with it now, it has also made my anxiety of even leaving the house much worse in the past. Never, ever has it made me smile! I don’t even think many people talk about it- at least when I told my mother about it a few years ago and how much I hated walking back from school everyday as a child, she had absolutely no idea it even happened.

    Lizzy from Nomad Notebook

  • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

    That’s awful – I’m so sorry to hear that Lizzy! I am planning on moving to the city soon, and I can’t imagine how much worse it’s going to get, because I know how bad it is just in my small town! I once had a cab driver who was driving me to work shout out the window at women we drove past – like what part of that seemed okay?!

    I definitely think you’re right though that a lot of people don’t even get that it’s as big an issue as it is!

  • http://lifecouldbeadreamblog.com/ Jana Tolman

    The thing about catcalling is, it’s really hard to take something like that as a compliment when you’re wondering what else that man is probably thinking about you. Or thinking about doing to you. Because clearly, if all they can think to do is point out the fact that you have a nice body or that they think you’re sexy, they probably don’t see you as an actual human being. Just something to look at and treat however they want. Which is pretty scary.

  • http://mariellegreen.com/ Marielle

    I can’t believe people try to argue that it’s a compliment. I remember growing up with cartoons where characters were always whistling at women. . .I hope that’s not common anymore because it can be such an influence on how kids conceptualize adult behavior.

  • Shybiker

    Good for you. Catcalling is not complimentary; rather, it’s a rude exercise of male power over public space. It disrupts women’s peace of mind and triggers their concern for safety. Men Should Not Do It.

  • Shybiker

    I have a good friend who recently moved to Brooklyn from San Francisco. She reports being harassed daily on the street by men ogling her. Parts of the city are very inhospitable to young women.

  • http://bellebrita.com/ Brita Long

    I’m SO excited to link up with this and to read what other feminists have to say!

    I completely agree–catcalling is NOT a compliment. I have been catcalled, and I have been genuinely complimented in the streets by strangers, and they are completely different.

    I remember one time on the metro in Paris, very late at night, when a young man sat across from me. He told me my necklace was pretty. I beamed. That’s a compliment. Another time, in Niort, I was waiting at a crosswalk for the signal. A car of guys pulled up. One of them nodded at me and said Bonjour. That was it. A polite interaction.

    On the other hand, my friend and I were walking together in Le Vésinet to pick up our charges from school. She was pushing a stroller with a baby in it. A car of guys slowed down by us and started jeering at us, asking for our numbers, calling us sexy, not stopping. THAT is street harassment. THAT is not complimentary.

  • http://www.the-lifestyle-project.com/ Danielle @ The-Lifestyle-Prj

    I was just watching a segment on The Daily Show where Jon Stewart addressed this issue. I think it was a female Senator or Congresswoman who recently came out in public addressing the sexist remarks she’s been subject to in Washington. In true Jon Stewart fashion, he showed clips of news anchors discussing her allegations and I was so surprised (especially at how many WOMEN) dismissed the sexist comments as compliments. Since when does, “Don’t work out too much, I like my women porky” from a colleague sound like a compliment?? One of the counterarguments was, “Well, why then do women smile when they receive catcalls?” For me personally, it’s a roll-my-eyes kind of smile because I don’t have time to stop and correct the men cat-calling me and/or I don’t even want to engage with them in conversation.

  • http://www.littlemisslulu.net/ Sarah Marchant

    I’m not sure what men even want to accomplish by catcalling. I don’t think they actually intend to date or even sleep with the woman in question; they just want to assert their dominance and make their target feel helpless. It’s all a power play.

  • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

    My brother goes to school in the city, and one of his good friends said she can’t walk a block without hearing at least one man yell at her. It’s disgusting, and I can’t believe it’s something we’re still dealing with in America in 2014.

  • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

    Exactly – and quite frankly, I just don’t see “nice ass sweetheart” as a compliment, especially coming from a man driving past me who I’ll never even meet.

    And exactly – when a man is yelling something like that at a woman, he’s not seeing her as a woman, just as an object that turns him on.

  • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

    That’s exactly what I feel like! I’ve actually had someone argue with me (the same man I mentioned in this article) that men who do this are legitimately trying to start a conversation out of sincere interest. I’m sorry – but how on EARTH do you think that works? Am I supposed to chase after your car? (his reasoning was “well what do you want them to do, get out of their car on the highway?” freaking EXACTLY! Am I supposed to do just that in order to follow up on your comment?) There is no way that men doing this think anything’s going to come of it. They just feel that they have the right to do it, and so they do.

  • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

    I had heard about that, and I just find it so utterly disgusting that a POLITICIAN is hearing those things from her coworkers. Like how unprofessional can you get, and completely disrespectful to a woman who has worked just as hard as or harder than you to get where she is! And all you can do is comment on her body, and how you like it to look. That’s not a compliment -that’s an assertion of power.

  • http://www.kaseyatthebat.com/ Kasey Decker

    I hate the argument that catcalling is a compliment because it always brings with it “all women dress to look good + gain attention from men” which makes my blood boil. I don’t know anyone who wakes up, walks into her closet, + thinks “hmm, what can I wear today to impress strange men I might pass on the street?”

  • http://www.thestyledunce.com/ Katie @ The Style Dunce

    The best part is I don’t think catcalls are even about compliments. I don’t think any of the guys doing it actually expect any kind of positive response from it. It’s just another way to objectify women and treat them as less than human. Obviously there’s a difference between “you’re beautiful” and “I’d like to bend you over,” but it all just plays into the idea that women’s looks are something the public at large should feel free to comment on.

  • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

    Exactly – I just love when people try to play it off as a compliment and I’m an awful person for not taking it that way. No – you’re exercising the power you know you have as a man, and the idea that I make myself look a certain way to please you. It would never work the other way around. I agree with you that none of the men doing it REALLY expect a positive response to what they’re doing/saying.

  • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

    THANK YOU! I was watching a video about the Everyday Sexism Project that Lulu shared in her linked up post (http://www.littlemisslulu.net/11-awesome-feminist-videos/), and one of the women featured in it, who had been severely harassed in the street, was made to believe that it was HER fault because “you probably looked really sexy.” As though not only are our appearances exclusively tailored to please men, but now if we’re harassed because a man might find us attractive, that’s our fault. I’m sorry – should I just wear a giant paper bag from now on if I want to avoid comments on my body from men I don’t know?

  • http://airnicetolivelands.blogspot.com/ Andrew L’autre

    I don’t understand people who engage in this behavior. I know a man who has sometimes had sexually explicit comments said to him by random women when he’s gone out for walks. If he, as a man, has felt uncomfortable when random women have done it to him, I can understand why women are uncomfortable when random men do it to them. I agree that it’s not a compliment when the “giver” is satisfied but the recipient is uncomfortable; it’s a power thing, not a genuine attempt to make someone feel good.

    (I really hope this wasn’t a “what about the men?” comment; I just wanted to share here a piece of street harassment that I know has happened to someone I know.)

    And that guy who argued with you for two days about this? Wow…what a douche.

  • http://thethingsiamcrazyfor.wordpress.com/ Camila

    I think that some men it’s just ignorance, they are probably clueless and think in their head that it is a compliment – I’m not apologising for them, but merely trying to understand why they would do scream stuff to a women. However, I think a big amount of men (or so it seems, those that I have encountered) do it to show some sort of superiority. That’s what I feel a lot of the time – especially with the guys screaming stuff from vehicles. There are really no excuse for that, it’s disgusting and I just try to ignore, even though sometimes I hear them laugh which makes me feel so much angrier! On a nicer note, however, I was once living through a hellish day, I felt really down and as I was walking down the street this guy stopped me and said ‘you’re really beautiful. just wanted to tell you that.’ smiled and then walked away. That is a compliment and it was done in such a polite and sweet manner, it helped lift my mood just a little.

  • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

    I’m sorry to hear that happens to your friend – it’s not something ANYONE should have to deal with, male or female. And I don’t think you sounded like you were saying “what about the men,” – it’s an experience you have a friend dealing with.

  • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

    I’m sure there are some men who are just being ignorant, but for the most part I feel like you must know that nobody actually enjoys being yelled at by random men on the street, and it’s not as though you can really think it’ll get you a date or anything. I definitely agree with you that a lot of it is a superiority thing, or just one more way of saying that women’s bodies exist to please men.

    And that’s so sweet – definitely a difference between that and what I mentioned in this post! I love that there are people out there like that :)

  • http://www.emily-makes.com/ Emily Spada

    I’ve definitely been called at before. Maybe I’m just a bad feminist, but I just kind of ignore it. I think they want a reaction because they know what they’re doing is slimy. Bullies hate when you ignore them.

  • http://www.jarfullofstars.com/ Lisa

    Totally no way that men intend these comments as compliments – if they did it wouldn´t be aggressive or demanding and actually be genuine. But I do think that many are ignorant in why they do it – is it just a habit? are they just doing what their friends do? In any case, it´s unacceptable and infuriating to be disrespected and I doubt many have experienced harassment themselves. Have you seen Laci´s video on the topic?? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=peBddZQbWYk

  • http://yourstrulyjanette.blogspot.com/ Janette Garcia

    I never understood why some men think it’s okay to yell “compliments” at women. It’s creepy and can get scary if the woman doesn’t take it like the guy wants her too. Women are already taught to fear a lot of things and this is one of them. If I were to say something back, he might get mad and become violent. If I ignore it, I’m letting it happen. It’s a bad situation because men don’t seem to understand how wrong it is.

  • http://beyondthekhakipants.com/ Trish

    Thanks for hosting a great link-up! I agree that catcalling is not appreciated. To some extent, I don’t know if it being a compliment or not is the issue. But rather the issue being that the communication form is not appropriate. From the tone, language, situation, etc. No one should be talked to in this way.

  • http://simplicityrelished.com/ Daisy @ Simplicity Relished

    This is a great post. I’ve been feeling this way since I moved to a new city where apparently catcalling is much more common. It’s driven me crazy and has been my most recent excuse to not go running near where I live, which is when it usually happens. I’m learning to shake it off… because while it’s a violation of sorts, I’m not sure there’s much I can do about it!

    • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

      Thanks, Daisy! And I definitely think catcalling is worse in the cities, but that’s why I’m always surprised by how bad it is in my small town. Now that I’m working in the city, I’m sure I’ll find out how much worse it can get. I usually try to shake it off, but it just bothers me that walking down the street in 2014, I’m more of a piece of ass to the men who see me than I am a person.