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Catcalling: creepy or a compliment?

  • Story Highlights
  • Spring seems to encourage men to yell comments at women
  • Many women find the catcalling very offensive and frightening
  • Some women take photos of offenders and post on sites
  • One woman says unless she did get catcalls, she'd feel dumpy
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By Anna Jane Grossman
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(LifeWire) -- When Holly Kearl was researching her master's thesis on street harassment last winter, she was pleasantly surprised that lewd remarks were few and far between. Then spring rolled around.

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"Suddenly, it was April, and I was getting yelled at everywhere by men in cars," said Kearl, who has since completed a degree in women's studies and public policy from George Washington University.

As part of her research, Kearl conducted an anonymous, informal e-mail survey of 225 women on the subject. She found that 98 percent of respondents experienced some form of street harassment at least a few times, and about 30 percent reported being harassed on a regular basis.

"For me, anyone who interrupts my personal space to objectify me or make me feel uncomfortable or threatened is harassing me," she says.

Women take both sides

As the weather warms each spring, women -- especially in cities with active sidewalk traffic -- once again face catcalls from men. It's a situation some find unnerving and an invasion of their space, while others ignore it or are even flattered by it.

"I call it street abuse," said New York filmmaker Maggie Hadleigh-West, 49. "It's unwanted attention and invasion of space."

In her 1998 documentary "War Zone," Hadleigh-West confronted catcallers and filmed their responses. Many of the men literally ran away to avoid talking to her about why they whistled or made a provocative comment.

The Department of Defense has used the film since 2002 to train branches of the military about issues surrounding sexual harassment and sexism in general, she says.

"Being in a public space with a strange man who is being sexually aggressive is potentially dangerous," Hadleigh-West added.

On the other hand, some women appreciate the attention in certain cases, like Jessica, a 31-year-old health-care educator in Los Angeles who declined to use her last name to protect her privacy.

"Yeah, it's objectifying and all, but you know, if I walked down the street and didn't have men looking me up and down and catcalling, I'd think, 'Boy, I must really be getting old and dumpy,' " she said.

She's gotten catcalls just walking her parents' dog in baggy sweats. "I thought it was hysterical, like, 'Boy, doesn't take much to impress you, does it?' "

But Kimberly Fairchild, 29, an assistant professor of psychology at Manhattan College in New York, says catcalling can take a larger emotional toll than many women realize.

"There seems to be some evidence that it increases self-objectification," said Fairchild, who surveyed 550 women both online and at Rutgers University in 2006 and 2007. The women -- who ranged in age from 15 to 64 in the international online component and from 18 to 24 in the Rutgers survey of women from central New Jersey -- were asked about their experiences with street harassment.

Catcalling "encourages women to look at themselves as body parts instead of as full, whole, intelligent human beings" and can cause women to fear for their safety, Fairchild says.

"When a man catcalls you, you don't know if it will end at that point or if it could escalate to assault," she added.

Biting back via blog

Most women tend not to respond to the hoots and hollers, according to Kearl's research. A vocal minority, however, is fighting back online, especially when name-calling progresses to lewd behavior or even physical contact.

The site HollaBackNYC.blogspot.com encourages New Yorkers to snap pictures of street harassers and then post them.

Emily May, 27, and six of her friends were inspired to create the site in 2005 after a young New York woman used her camera phone to take a photo of a man who was looking at her while touching himself on the subway. The picture led to his arrest. (Such behavior is, according to New York state law, a misdemeanor offense). The blog has spawned similar sites in other major cities such as Chicago and San Francisco.

The site is a way to encourage dialogue, May says. "I think sites like ours can help women see that they're not alone, that it happens to women in all walks of life by men in all walks of life, and that it's not okay."

Some guys just don't know

According to existing studies and her own findings, Kearl says, some men are simply ignorant about how their behavior is perceived. Kearl, who completed her thesis, "Direct Action, Education, Consciousness-Raising, Activism and the Internet: Methods for Combating Street Harassment," last year, thinks posting on Web sites like HollaBackNYC is preferable to resorting to anger and violence.

"A lot of men have no idea that women don't like being talked to in this way," she said. "It never crosses their mind, and yelling doesn't educate them. If you yell, they often don't understand why you are upset and so they take it personally."

Often, Kearl says, an assertive, clear response can elicit a kinder reaction than one expects.

"A lot of the time, I find guys will just say, 'Oh, OK, I didn't realize it made you feel that way. Thanks.' "

LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Anna Jane Grossman is a freelance writer and co-author of "It's Not Me, It's You: The Ultimate Breakup Book."

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