Street Harassment: Compliments vs. Catcalls

You've all seen that video, right? The one where a woman walks around New York City for 10 hours and finally the whole world gets to see what it's like to be a woman on a public street. As a woman who's lived in San Francisco and NYC, I can tell you it was completely accurate. One of the hardest things about living there was the constant feeling of being encroached upon, of being unsafe.

Many, many people have said many things about the video, so I won't reiterate all of them. I do want to acknowledge that are problems with race representation, and Slate in particular has run a couple of articles addressing this. Mainly, I want to talk about the biggest themes I've run across when people try to defend the men's behavior in the video: that they are just trying be polite and say hello or that they just wanted to pay her a compliment.

First, many of those "polite" greetings were anything but. Tone and context are very important forms of communication, and we all know the difference between a leering "Good morning" and a friendly or polite one.

Next, as a woman in public, you quickly learn that supposedly polite phrases like "Hello," "Good morning," and "Have a nice day," are often just a first gambit for your attention. As soon as you even glance over in response to a greeting, there's a very good chance the person will then say something gross or threatening. I would rather be friendly and open to meeting new folks, but instead I have to completely close myself off in public to avoid even worse harassment than I get when I'm silent and unresponsive.

Finally, and this is the main thing I want to contribute to the conversation, these men are not complimenting women when they call out to them on the street. Compliments are expressions of admiration and respect. They indicate that you think someone has done something well and you want to commend them for it. They are, essentially, social gifts, and yes, people almost universally like them. I've received actual compliments on the street and been pleased.

Catcalling, however, is not in any way a compliment. When we're being honest, we can all see the difference between someone saying, "Hey, you look really nice today!" and continuing on their way, versus someone looking you up and down, licking their lips, and saying, "Mm, sexyyyyy." The first is a compliment, and the second is an expression not of admiration but of sexual pleasure.

99 times out of 100, when a guy catcalls, what he's doing is verbalizing the pleasure he gets from looking at a woman. This is why it feels gross. It's why these comments feel like they're on a continuum with the guy who masturbates at you in the movie theater or humps your back in a crowded subway car. They are on that continuum. All of these acts involve a person (usually a man) taking pleasure from the body of another person (usually a woman) without their consent.

Gentlemen, although you might not be able to help taking pleasure in the appearance of a beautiful person, there is a difference between feeling pleasure and expressing it. It is even possible to look surreptitiously and respectfully to your heart's content. (I know this from personal experience.) You can have your pleasure and keep it to yourself.

The minute you vocalize it, though, not only are you assuming that this person has to care about (and accommodate or at least allow) your pleasure, you are suggesting to her that, just because she exists in a female body, she has no choice but to provide you with pleasure. This is where power comes in, whether it's conscious or not. It's a reminder that men can take things from a woman that she never wanted to give.

A compliment is a gift, but a catcall is a theft. You are using my body to pleasure yourself without my permission, and then you are rubbing it in my face. That is why it is harassment, and that is why it needs to stop.


On living, loving, learning, and fucking with the materials I've got at hand.

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