Julia Gazdag
writer | producer | photographer

No, Catcalling is NOT A Compliment, and Here's Why

This piece first appeared on HG March 20, 2012


Disclaimer: This article discusses a mature topic. Our 13­year­old and younger readers are encouraged to read this with an adult.

Halfway through high school, I transferred to an all-girl school and for the first six months, I refused to wear the cliché girls’ school uniform skirt and sweater. I figured that, for once, I wouldn’t get catcalled from every car that drove by on my walk home, because awkwardly fitting khaki pants and oversize grey sweaters were sure to render me invisible. Turns out, you can pretty much walk around in a giant potato sack; as long as you’re a girl, creepsters will still do their thing. Whoop-de-doo.

“But it’s just harmless flattery, why do you have to be such a Feminazi about a guy trying to pay you a compliment, Julia?” Well, me, I’m glad we asked us that. It’s not flattery, actually – it’s harassment. Street harassment, to use the official term. And the thing about street harassment is that it is not meant to be a compliment, but, in fact, an aggressive assertion of male dominance by dehumanizing and hypersexualizing someone. Fun fact: street harassment is not reserved just for women! It’s now available to all members of the LGBTQ community, too! Oh, yeah, about the Feminazi thing? Me standing up for my rights and personal safety don’t warrant a label trying to arbitrarily draw a comparison between my empowerment in the face of social inequality and the German National Socialist Workers Party responsible for the largest genocide Europe has seen since the Crusades. You do sound like an idiot when you use the term, though, so thank you for identifying yourself! I can now avoid future interaction with you.

Here’s what’s up: aside from it being obnoxious and demeaning, a holler – heck, so much as a whistle – leads me to think that the person emitting these brilliant National Geographic re-enactments sees me as little more than a walking blow-up doll. Verbal assault is assault nonetheless, and in a country with a one in four rape rate among women, when someone hollers “Bring them ____ over here, girl!”, all I hear is, “My face likes mace!” Staying defensive rather than offensive is the golden ticket of avoiding a confrontation, but the second a stranger addresses me aggressively and sexually, he is a threat and I have no qualms acting accordingly.

And why should I? Everywhere I go, I am constantly being told that I have less of a choice in my sex life than a man does. I’m not talking about dating or romantic things (though those are all lovely). Let’s take that can of face mace for example: where can I get one to defend myself in case I need to? Where can I buy a taser? Or so much as a rape whistle? It’s certainly not in the local drugstore, where I have to buy a diaphragm at the pharmacy, which I can only get to by walking past the colorful condom display spanning three shelves. So what I’m being told is basically that for me to protect myself from sexual predators I have to go to a specialty store (did you know you can get pepper spray at the shooting range?), and to practice safe sex, I have to go through a pharmacist. While a man almost never has to worry about being violated simply because he’s walking home alone (almost all women have a defensive strategy for walking alone; almost no men do), he can lift one of dozens of varieties of condoms off the shelf and saunter on up to the self- checkout if he wants to, because he’s a man! He can do what he wants!

And so, with his sense of sexual entitlement and my good reason to think he views my sole purpose as being dominated, a “compliment” hollered down the block about any part of my anatomy is a clear and intentional threat indeed. Most of us have lost track of the etymology of the word “vagina”, but its original meaning is a sheath for a sword. Now, I don’t know about y’all, but my lady-part has many uses and neither it, nor any other part of me serves to function as a place for anyone to keep anything. Visitors are allowed, but only with a valid permit. And while culturally, the original meaning of the clinical term for the most female of anatomies is not well known these days, the sentiment behind it lingers in the whistles and calls of the adult male a**hole. The idea that a simple holler can potentially turn more serious and dangerous is pretty logical. It also has precedent in an alarming number of cases of violent assault against women. In fact, enjoy this info-graphic that I got from not-me.org – it makes this theory easy to understand and has stick figures!:


While that chart does not include the not-as-rare-as-you’d-like-to-think occasional post-rape murder, it’s also important to note that according to an FBI estimate only one in four rapes is reported, and of those, only 0.35% are incarcerated. That’s less than half a person. A woman’s risk of assault is increased the further down the economic ladder she is.

Here’s another infographic (also from not-me.org and also featuring stick figures), explaining the 3 A’s of street harrasment disruption, a way to non-violently defend yourself:


I really love what the ladies (and gents!) are doing at Hollaback, a website dedicated to ending street harassment. This is an immensely serious and concern-worthy issue, and they bring a barrel of empowerment to the table. Hollaback has great resources for self-defense, as well as a space to share stories and pictures of aggressors. The more humiliating and unacceptable we make street harassment, the less people will feel free to engage in it. The site has branches in 45 cities (in 16 countries), so I encourage everyone to check it out! Should you feel you need it, a lot of cities also have van services to drive women home safely. I personally never go home at night before checking to make sure everyone has a ride, whatever their gender – mugging is no joke, either – and encourage everyone to be generous with their wheels too!

I don’t want to forgo giving all the gentlemen out there the props they deserve, mind you. A few years ago I was walking

down 4th Ave in New York, when a man who was walking past stopped me. A middle aged guy who seemed possibly homeless, he asked me politely if he could compliment me. I said yes, he could, and he told me that he thought I looked really lovely. I thanked him, he thanked me, and we both went on our way. He was polite, respectful and seemed to genuinely want to say something nice to me without expecting anything in return. I was stunned. That hadn’t happened to me before, and it hasn’t happened since. And so, in honor of this gentleman, and all the fine fellows who treat a lady like a lady, I’d like to beat a dead meme one last time and share with you this fun little video I found on Hollaback’s blog: