Take Back the Streets: How to Make Catcallers Accountable for Harassment

by: Maggie Carr

A complete stranger barked at me once.

I was walking back to the subway after a long day of work, bumpin’ some Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, when a man leaned out of a garbage truck, made some lewd tearing-a-juicy-piece-of-meat-apart gestures, and yes, barked at me.

Here’s another one: “Ma’am!  Ma’am!  You dropped something!”  Upon turning around to retrieve the item I allegedly dropped, he pouts: “I was telling you that you’re fine, and your rude ass wasn’t paying attention.”

Oh, I apologize for offending your delicate sensibilities!  My bad!

Strange men have followed me around the block insisting I give them my email address, grabbed my arms, attempted to put their hands up my skirt, called me a chunky bitch, thrown kisses and still-burning cigarette butts at my legs, mimed cunnilingus at me on the N train.  And this is just the highlight reel.

Catcalls are an inevitable part of being a lady in a large city, but here’s the thing: I’m fucking done with accepting them.

I don’t know if there’s something in the air or what, but the frequency of street harassment happening to me and my people as of late has been off the charts.

Wearing a skirt in cold weather, I learned this week, entitles your average guy on the street to comment that “cold air gets up in your lady parts and makes ‘em stop working.”  This happened to not one, but two of my lady friends last week.

And you know what?  This is bullshit.

Hollering at a woman you don’t know in public has absolutely nothing to do with a compliment—rather, it’s an extremely effective way to put a woman in her place.  Catcalls demonstrate to her that even if she’s on her way to an important job interview or to kick some ass at the gym, she is still nothing more than the sum of her physical parts.  Whether she’s rocking a short skirt or bundled up in a down jacket, her body is still public property.  It can be commented upon, denigrated, sexualized and treated as a goddamn dog toy.

The defense is always—ALWAYS—that we should be proud that someone thinks we’re hot.  Dudes can’t help it if they’re presented with a pretty lady who they want to bone.  We should be grateful for the compliment.

Well, fuck that.  I pass plenty of people on the street who invite commentary, but as an adult, I have the self-control to keep myself from yelling, “Yo, show me your rippling pectorals!” or “Perhaps you should have purchased a pair of pants that better accommodate your derriere!” at complete strangers. You can certainly try to attribute my zipped lip to female socialization, but I think it really comes down to respect.  Decency.  Not being unnecessarily aggressive to other humans.  You know, stuff like that.

Speaking of the way that women are trained to stay silent, though: it takes a lot for me to bite back at street harassers.  Just yesterday, some dude in my neighborhood suggested that I walk slower so he can “watch that booty shake,” and I think I was more surprised than he was when I told him to go fuck himself. You’d think I’d float through the rest of the day on an empowered, take-no-shit high, but I just stayed angry.  That guy didn’t learn a damn thing by me getting pissed off.  And more often than not, getting flustered merely fuels this kind of behavior.  Showing anger shows vulnerability.  They hit us where it hurts, and they love it.

Even worse than feeling ineffective in our retaliation is being unable to retaliate at all.  In many instances, guys harass women when they know she can’t guarantee her own safety if she stands up for herself.  A deserted street, a late-night train, the back hallway of a bar: she has nowhere to go if he doesn’t like the fact that she’s talking back.

So what can we do about it? Personally, I’m trying to be smarter about my hollaback. Obviously, my safety is of prime importance.  I don’t care if it’s effective: I’m not going to engage in a nuanced conversation about the politics of manhood with some creepy piece of shit if it’s 2 A.M. and I’m alone.

I’m trying to find a solid response that attacks the manhood he’s trying so desperately to protect—a prepared retort that I can pull out of my back pocket when I feel like I’m in danger of losing my cool.  So, far I have the following: Does this make you feel more like a man?  I hope someone says that to your mother on the street today.  (I know that sucks and is lacking in the sass department.  Suggestions are welcome.)

In a broader sense, there are men (and women, too!) who want to contribute to a public space that’s not crawling with body-policing, sexually threatening skeevebags.  If you want to be one of them, here are two simple rules to follow:

1. Just. Don’t. Catcall.  It’s like that semi-new anti-rape ad campaign: if you don’t want to live in a world where women are assaulted or harassed, don’t assault or harass women.  End of story.

2. If you witness an act of street harassment and your personal safety isn’t immediately threatened, turning the other way makes you just as complicit.  It shouldn’t have to be the sole responsibility of the victim to fight back.

We all need to be accountable for what happens in our public spaces, and I think this oft-shared clip offers a great example of how we should respond to harassment. If we’re not that mind-bogglingly badass redhead hollering back for all she’s worth, we need to be the other people in that train car.  We need to point fingers.  We need to humiliate.  We need to take out our iPhones and we need to post that shit to YouTube.

We all own the streets. It’s high time we take them back from the catcallers.

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Maggie Carr is a feminist, actor, and sometimes writer living in Brooklyn, NY.  She received her BA in English and American Studies at Boston College, where she was awarded the Janet James Essay Prize in Women’s Studies for her senior thesis on the performativity of storytelling in Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues.  Her interests—both in research and life—include pop music, cheesy musical theatre and vinyasa yoga.  She tweets sporadically at @racecarr.


19 responses to “Take Back the Streets: How to Make Catcallers Accountable for Harassment

  1. Honest questions:

    -What’s the line between catcall and compliment?

    -If a guy you don’t know strikes up a conversation or asks you out, is it still equivalent?
    It’s in a public sphere and it’s not solicited, but realistically people aren’t going to ask you out if they’re not attracted to you and if they don’t know you then…

    I’ve been musing about some of these things after seeing how people interact at bars and clubs, i.e. super aggressively etc.

    • Clearly there’s a difference between a catcall and compliment, depending on the person’s intention. But the fact is, women are ogled all the time. I can’t go a single day wearing a summer dress without having dudes honk at me or yell out nasty shit. So, even if you do think a woman is beautiful, chances are she’d rather you keep it to yourself instead of stopping her- like so many disrespectful dudes do- and making her feel like eyes are on her.

      Now, if someone wants to come up to me and strike up a conversation in a way that’s tasteful- and then that person wants to ask me out- hey, have at it. THAT is flattering and it makes me (I can’t speak for all women here) feel like this person actually wants to know who I am before they hit on me.

      My advice is: be aware of your intention. If your intent is to just let someone know they’re attractive- chances are they’ve heard it from gross dudes and are probably sick of the attention.

    • Both totally legit questions.

      The line between catcall and compliment differs for everyone, but for me, a catcall is an unsolicited, sexually aggressive opener. A complete stranger striking up a conversation and then sliding in a compliment at the end and/or a respectful request for my phone number: not catcalling. (For me.) A complete stranger hollering about my ass and repeatedly demanding that I give him his phone number as he follows me down the street: catcalling.

      Samesies for a bar or club. Yeah, the sexual stakes are higher and more overt when you go out, but there’s a big difference between padding a compliment in a conversation and straight-up calling out someone’s physical attributes.

      I guess my point is: if you don’t know me, you have absolutely no right to demand ownership of my body. I consider publicly yelling about my appearance an attempt at ownership. But to each their own, I suppose…

    • I never want strangers to give me compliments me when I’m just walking on the street. There is some difference between something vulgar and “you have beautiful hair / eyes / legs / whatever!” but both make me uncomfortable. The latter usually comes with the expectation that I will at least pause, smile, and thank the guy for the compliment. But I don’t want to stop and show gratitude for something that actually made me uncomfortable. I hate when men shout comments about my appearance, so I’m not happy or grateful, and I definitely don’t feel like smiling. So I feel manipulated into a situation where I’m supposed to either give some stranger what he wants from me, against my wishes, or passive-aggressively keep walking, which sometimes causes guys (who were just being “nice” a second ago) to shout that I’m a stuck-up bitch. I just want to be left alone.

      There are appropriate times and places to approach women and strike up a conversation. A singles bar, a party, online dating (virtual approaching), an event with mingling — even public places like in line or on the train can be okay, but in those situations, I greatly prefer that someone start talking to me like a fellow human, engaging me about the situation, or the book I’m holding, or a political button that I have, something like that — and then read my signals (a short response means I don’t want to have a conversation). When someone approaches me to say some variation of “you’re pretty” it’s a red flag that I don’t want to talk to that person. Because it reminds me of every other encounter where men have told me what they think of my appearance, and my experience is that men who start that way dont’t respect me.

      We don’t live in a world where most men who approach women are nice, respectful, and will immediately back off when the woman indicates disinterest. So when a man randomly interrupts a woman’s day to offer a “compliment” on the street, he’s doing it in the context where 500 men who have come before him, making her feel objectified and degraded, or expecting attention she doesn’t want to give (then getting angry with her when she doesn’t respond exactly how they wanted). This is why most women don’t want random strangers to yell “compliments” — you’re doing it in a context where she dreads this type of interaction. Even if you mean well, it’s just not the time or the place.

      • So I wanted to remain anonymous, but I told Maggie who I was so as not to be creepy anon.


        I’m glad that MarianDevlin said what she did because that was part of my point. If the intent is ‘just a compliment’, i.e. if I were to say “that sundress looks great on you” vs “that sundress makes you ass and titties look so hot, c’mere lady” you could still interpret the former to be a come on even if I said it in passing and kept walking.

        I mean, I gave a girl a compliment on her dress the other day, but I did it at a coffee shop where she was sitting with a friend and I was sitting with another friend that happened to be a girl. I told her that I didn’t want to bother her but I think that her dress was awesome because it reminded me of some of Damien Hurst’s paintings of dots. She didn’t know him and I told her that he was rad and she should check out his stuff.

        I mean, I’m just surprised when I hear that friends go out with guys they met at a grocery store or on the subway or whatever. I just feel like it’s so freaking awkward to ask someone out in that context. But realistically, if you’re doing it at a bar or club, then everyone thinks that your intention is just to have sex. Maybe that’s just my own issue because I feel like that’s the perception.

        When I go out dancing and end up dancing with girls I don’t know, I’ll usually ask them if they want to dance and the first thing I do isn’t grab them and pull them onto me if they say yes. At the same time, I see the guys that were being aggressive going home with the girl that they had just ‘walked all up on’ earlier. The girl is lucid, maybe a hair tipsy, but probably not like “woah, i cant see straight” tipsy.

        While in the same night if I just walk up to someone and start dancing, I’m more likely to get a response than if I was to ask.

        Realistically, I’ve been overanalyzing this stuff way more lately.

        Maybe I’m just old fashioned sans the misogyny…

  2. I like to think of myself as a peaceful gal, but I am actually ashamed of the thoughts that go through my head when a stranger catcalls at me. I don’t know what it is about being hollered at, that makes me want to act out in a violent rage (like, the only thing that makes me want to do that), but I have, in some instances, started yelling and cussing. Maybe its a feeling of helplessness mixed with disrespect? Either way, I LOATHE it.

    The only solution, I believe, is for OTHER PEOPLE who are witnessing the harassment to step up and say its not cool. Because honestly, it doesn’t matter what you say to the person who is harassing you- in fact, attention from you is exactly what they want. But if other people take it upon themselves to do some public shaming, then maybe it will make a difference.

    So, thank you for posting this. I can’t even tell you how much catcalling chaps my ass.


    • Me too — I’m kind of glad I’m not the only one who feels this way. Street harassment makes me feel horrible. When I’m already feeling kind of tired and vulnerable, and I get a lot of this crap in a short period, it really affects me to the point where I come home and I’m feeling kind of distraught about it. It’s just so degrading and aggressive and makes me feel like people just did what they wanted to me — they got to yell things that made me feel awful, and I had no choice but to take it.

    • Haha, I had some fun with the shaming when some dude bros were messing with a bunch of girls coming home on the subway over NYE 2 years ago.

      They were being really ridiculous and I started being snarky to them. The girls all started laughing at them when I started saying things like “woah, have you been working on that pickup line all week?”.

      It was a good night, but my friends were terrified that the dude bros were gonna start a brawl.

  3. Thank you for posting this! The other day a guy yelled something at my friend and I, and I said something back to them. Something relatively harmless, but it allowed me to vent my frustration a little. The guy yelled back that I was a bitch. I turned to my friend and said, “Did you hear that?” My friend said, “Well, you WERE being a bitch.” I’m not even sure how to go about analyzing my friend’s response…but it made me feel even worse than the catcalling.

  4. Are you serious or trolling?
    Now, I am going to be offended as a straight-man: it’s time to evolve, gentlemen. I don’t care if it is well-received from some women and its an effective “tactic” for men to gain consensual sex ~ I don’t want it floating around in the public environs period. My problem is mostly with the men because I’m not going to tell the ladies how to feel — I know there’s not a flag on women that says “hey, I’m receptive to this”. How many women do the construction workers go through in shot-gun fashion? No. No no no.
    The way to change men is actually to contain the skeezers and reach boys at a younger age — make it clear what should be part of their masculinity and what should not. If I had a son, I don’t want him to see that SHIT and think for a second that it’s acceptable. FUCK NO.
    If I can ‘preach’ a little, I would like to think that people can have a deeper encounter with one another. There’s a lot to unpack in that — a lot of thoughts and opinions. It’s a shame that anyone should have to walk from A-to-B with their guard-up, unable to have an honest encounter for fear they are going to objectified or otherwise dominated. Let’s clean it up, first for the ladies and then for the future men (who I hope will have better social skills).

  5. Let’s move away from the idea that this has anything to do with “compliments.” It’s not. It’s about ownership of public space. When men cat-call, they are reminding women that THEY OWN public space, so if you (a woman) are in public space, then you’re fair game. And whatever they say to you, you just have to take it. You’re in their space, after all. A compliment is quiet and unobtrusive. A cat-call is, by definition, not. I agree with Cari and Fysh–when in doubt, just don’t comment on women’s bodies or appearance at all. Why? Because you are probably making her deeply uncomfortable, and putting her in an impossible situation. She worries that whether or not she reacts, you will take it as a further invitation to harass her, touch her, or possibly even assault her. And either way, she’s going to be the one who ends up feeling horrible. I cannot describe to you, Duza, the feelings of powerlessness and rage I experience when men put me in that kind of situation. Don’t take a cue from your construction buddies. They should not be seen as role models. Don’t cat-call women. Just don’t.

  6. Actually, I do think that a woman that gets cat called and can actually turn around and pop the finger or say something back is empowered a little bit. However, most guys that actually catcall usually don’t turn around and sit there while they’re being mouthed off. Good on you and your old construction buddies for taking it, but a lot of the other time that’s not how it works. Cue examples that maggie cited.

    And, I’m really glad that you and your construction buddies are gods gift to women. You know, by basically putting themselves in your presence, they’re just telling you that they want to be catcalled and want to sleep with you.

    For everyone one girl that has slept with you or your buddies, how many kept walking or mouthed off or gave you the finger? Maybe that ratio should tell you how much of the female populace actually agrees with you.

    You know why most girls won’t speak up about shit like this? It’s because of responses like yours. I.e. “Have you ever wondered if there isn’t something wrong with you?,” that causes most women not to speak up. You basically just told the women here that they have no right to feel the way they do because *SOME* women that you catcall end up sleeping with you.

    That and you basically just inserted a physical threat, i.e. “I’d like to see you have a conversation about deeper meaning with those construction guys.”

    You’re basically dismissing women who dislike this as defensive. A great way to start the conversation.

    This is why the argument is that this needs to be talked about to kids and not adults. You think that you’re owed something. Good for you. Enjoy the entitlement.

    As a side note: Do you and your buddies also think that calling out two lesbians holding hands as they walk by your site is an open invitation for you asking them to have a threesome?

  7. “Catcalls demonstrate to her that even if she’s on her way to an important job interview or to kick some ass at the gym, she is still nothing more than the sum of her physical parts.” Oh you just hit the nail square on with that. I want to print it out and hand it to the next guy who catcalls me.

  8. Pingback: We Need To Make Catcallers Accountable For Harassment | Thought Catalog·

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