Why We Suck at Discussing Catcalling

cat calling video

When I was 17 years old, I walked a mile to the liquor store a few blocks away from my home. It was a hot, boring day, and I wanted to get out of the house. Donning a black shirt and jeans, I quickly tamed my frizzy, curly hair into a bun and set off to buy a $1 Arizona Iced Tea.

My route passed mostly through a suburban housing track, with a stretch on a dirt field alongside a main road. Returning home on this stretch, I noticed a car honking on the other side of the road, inside it (or outside, as half his body was hanging out the window) a man shouting garbled, nonsensical sounds and whistling. When he circled back to repeat the process, I realized he was shouting at me.

He followed me down the dirt stretch, shouting even as I turned down the road that led to the housing track. Worried that he would turn around and follow me through the track, I called my boyfriend, who asked me to stay on the line until I got home.

Art by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh.

Art by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh.

There is nothing unique about that anecdote. Most women have had a similar experience. The shouting and whistling itself was unremarkable—for many women, it’s a part of their daily commute. What sears that particular instance into my memory was the effort that man made to follow me, and how intimidated and powerless I felt in the moment.

Discussing Catcalling

That’s why I applaud, in many ways, the efforts to call out catcalling, to draw attention to the casual and not-so-casual ways women are subjected to pervasive sexism day-in and day-out. Hollaback!, a non-profit that aims to end street violence, released a video of a woman walking through New York for 10 hours, garnering 100+ catcalls. Writer Kati Heng founded the “Stop the Cat Call” Tumblr, where women upload the outfits they wore when they were catcalled, debunking the idea that a woman’s clothing invites the attention. Grassroots nonprofit Stop Street Harassment has been globally mobilizing people around the cause for several years. Printouts to hand out to your street harassers exist, thanks to the people behind Cards against Harassment. The UN has even recognized street harassment as a legitimate threat to women.

With all this, our media is saturated with conversations about street harassment. So why are we doing such a sloppy job at having productive conversations about it?

Hollaback! Song talks Catcalling

For one, that Hollaback! video is collaborative work with ad agency Rob Bliss Creative: Anytime a cause blends with advertising tactics, we should probably be wary. More than that, the video propagates some seriously skewed racial politics by conveniently editing out white men harassing the woman in the video. Bliss claims, “We got a fair amount of white guys, but for whatever reason, a lot of what they said was in passing, or off camera.” He acknowledges that the video “is not a perfect representation of everything that happened.”

Even with its flaws, perhaps the video could prompt mainstream media to have productive conversations about catcalling in the streets?

Not really. In a segment on CNN, relationship “expert” Steve Santagati offered his take on catcalling, claiming “The bottom line is this, ladies: You would not care if all these guys were hot. They would be bolstering your self-esteem, bolstering your ego. There is nothing more that a woman loves to hear than how pretty she is.” He offered that the solution to particularly aggressive street harassment was to carry a gun.

Prior to the Hollaback! video’s release, a circle of Fox News hosts defended catcalling, with host Kimberly Guilfoyle saying “let men be men” and noting how its awkward to be catcalled while her son is there, but “he’s kind of used to it.”

To be sure, there are some salient conversations about street harassment out there. A group of women of color released a response video to Hollaback! at Jezebel, with the statement, “The Hollaback! video’s omission of white men, and the omission of black and brown women, worked together in an sinister alchemy to reinforce centuries-old stereotypes about who needs to be saved and protected and who needs to be feared and controlled.”

In the video, video creator Collier Meyerson says, “The point here isn’t to devalue or minimize the experience of women who strongly identified with this video, but to open the conversation, to make it broader.”

Street harassment is, like all things, incredibly nuanced. According to a report by Stop Street Harassment, people of color, lower-income people and members of the LGBTQ community are disproportionately affected by street harassment. Harassment takes many forms, both verbal and physical, and an individual’s experience of the harassment varies greatly. Street harassment is experienced differently across the country, and the world. In short, a two minute video cannot encapsulate the entire discourse on street harassment.

To their credit, Hollaback! has apologized for the video’s flaws, saying “Hollaback! understands that harassment is a broad problem perpetuated by a diversity of individuals regardless of race. There is no one profile for a harasser and harassment comes in many different forms … This video should have done a better job of representing this knowledge.”

Public discourse on street harassment is an important undertaking, but guys, we could do better. Especially when someone thinks a solution is to tell women to carry a gun on their walk to Walgreens.



Courtney Hamilton

An avid writer, reader, feminist and french fry fanatic.