Eye of the Beholder Part Two: Why Do Men Catcall?

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Guest Writer: David Raney; Atlanta, Georgia

You can read Part One here.

For women, that experience is united at some level by fear. They’re afraid of being pawed, stalked or attacked, however innocuous men might find the leer or whistle. “Almost all women have a defensive strategy for walking alone,” writes Jamie Golden in “Why Just Telling Men No Doesn’t Necessarily Work,” but “almost no men do.” This seems to be true across cultures, and it tells us much of what we need to know. “A young woman likes to feel attractive,” one told me, “but I think women of all ages feel that implicit threat of physical peril, always.”

Many men, I’m sure, would regard this as ludicrous. Most women, I’m equally sure, would find it commonplace. Two women in a single week of October 2015 were murdered after refusing to talk or give their phone number to a man. One was in Detroit, at a funeral of all things, the other on a street in Queens. Margaret Atwood writes that she once asked a male friend why men feel threatened by women. He told her, “They’re afraid women will laugh at them.” She asked a group of women the same question and they said, “We’re afraid of being killed.”

The wolf’s defense is typically to claim that a whistle or call is a compliment. Deep down women like it; why the fuss? Innumerable articles and blog posts argue against this, their titles sufficient: “No, Dudes, It’s Not Flattering”; “Your Catcalls Are Not a Compliment. Ever.” Even Playboyweighed in with a flowchart called “Dudes, It’s Not Flattering” which concludes that precisely two circumstances make catcalling acceptable: “1) You’ve consensually agreed to shout sexually suggestive comments to each other in public; 2) She is literally a cat.”

Yet in 2014 New York Postwriter Doree Lewak caused a stir with an article titled “Hey ladies! Catcalls are flattering! Deal with it” in which she maintains that she loves all the attention from construction crews:

I’ll never forget my first time… I was over the moon…. The mystique and machismo of manly construction workers have always made my heart beat a little faster — and made my sashay a little saucier. It’s as primal as it gets.           

Never mind that, as Lauren Bans noted in GQ, this “reads like a drunk Carrie Bradshaw after a partial lobotomy.” The point Lewak chooses to ignore is that she’s decided to be pleased by a situation that might turn to violence, and frequently does. It’s not everyone’s option to disregard that fact, nor her place to instruct them how to feel.

This is why when male celebrities complain of being objectified (Robert Redford: “People have been so busy relating to how I look, it's a miracle I didn't become a self-conscious blob of protoplasm”), it’s possible to think they’re sincere without accepting that they really know what they’re talking about. Any fear they associate with the experience involves being professionally trivialized, not made to hate half of humanity for the rest of your life.

It’s why I’ll never really know what I’m talking about, either.In my only example of trading perspectives, I was biking one day and stopped for a water break in a tony neighborhood. A van of teenagers rolled by, and one girl leaned out the window and whooped something about my butt in bike shorts, pretending to be enthused for the benefit of the guy driving and, I’m sure, for her own amusement. It wasn’t about me — any male 15 to 50 would have served — and there was no physical threat. But it didn’t feel great, because that’s what objectification is: being rendered interchangeable, a category.

The other reflexive defense of this behavior is that it’s timeless, ineradicable, it’s in our DNA. You hear this from men interviewed in the street, including one who let this drop (along with my jaw) in a video: “I understand, you know — I have five sisters. But it’s just, like, a societal thing. It’s the way things roll.” To appeal to someone’s mother or sister might seem a foolproof way to humanize the encounter. (Would you want someone to talk to your daughter that way?) But isn’t it objectifying, too, to say a woman is worthy of respect because she’s somebody’s something?

The behavior is certainly old, so I guess the excuses have to be. References to whistling at women date to at least 200 B.C., when the Roman playwright Plautus mentions a young woman who, "when she passes through the streets, all the men would look at her, leer, nod and wink and whistle." He has a father say this to his son about a slave girl they both covet. But old isn’t the same thing as natural — and what does that matter anyway? We tamp down or prohibit all kinds of things that are arguably natural. Evolutionarily speaking, indiscriminate rape is an efficient way to spread one’s genes. Civilized people don’t practice it. And there’s the slippery slope problem. Assaults and rape are worse than whistling, but are they categorically different or just on a continuum? If the whistling’s hard-wired, as some would have it, thus a cousin of “real” violence, wouldn’t rape be just as hard to eradicate, and as exempt from the attempt?

I hope not, because I enjoy connecting with people, not objects or opposites. Maybe I’m fooling myself and a sexual agenda lurks under all our veneers. But maybe not. I like giving directions to strangers, though I’m awful at it, and I like seeing other people do it — both looking the same direction, arms outstretched like an invitation to dance. And I like eyes. While I can’t look at the world through someone else’s, I can look into them, and what I see there often saddens me.

Girls are taught early not to talk to strange men, not to make eye contact. That’s what I see in women’s eyes when they’re alone. Asked what she does to protect herself from street harassment, a woman in Jessica Williams’s Late Show segment on catcalling replies, “My normal response is to put on my bitch face.” The other women nod; it’s what they do, too. I pass them on the sidewalk, morning and evening, walking and running, in suits and dresses and gym clothes. Their eyes sayI’ve heard it beforeasshole, or Go ahead and look, I’m not even here

These expressions aren’t haughty, just defensive or middle-distance vacant, born of long practice deflecting the muttered invitations and Damn, girls. They pierce, and not because these women need to talk to me, much less have sex with me, but because they need to do it at all. Instead of thinking about the spring air or a project at work or a drink with friends, they’re spending mental energy sorting me into a box (guys, jerks) like the one they’ve been in since middle school (tits, ass). Wouldn’t it be good to imagine a brighter world to breathe in, where our fleeting chance of connection didn’t come so freighted with fear.

I’ll never know exactly what another person thinks or feels; I’m not even sure how well I understand myself. But half a life later, I think I know what that sparrow saw.

About David Raney:

I'm a writer and editor in Atlanta, and I've been fortunate enough to have my pieces appear in a couple of dozen journals, books and newspapers. The latest good fortune was being listed in the Best American Essays 2018.