My 15-year-old daughter was recently on the receiving end of her first catcall.
It was about as innocuous as they come. The boy was age-appropriate, only about a year or two older, and rolled down the window on his truck and said, “You’re really cute.” When she ignored him, he said nothing further.
She didn’t care much about it either way. She wasn’t flattered and didn’t feel threatened. She considered it an unfortunate rite of passage, certain that it wasn’t to be the last time, and that future catcalls could be varying degrees of unpleasantness.
I received my daughter’s permission to tell that.
In discussing it, my wife made sure to tell my daughter that it’s okay to feel torn about catcalls. Sometimes, a part of you can feel good to have someone else randomly compliment you on your appearance. In discussions about catcalling on my Facebook page, the occasional woman has said that they appreciate catcalls; such things make them feel desirable. This is okay, but I expect that they have not had too many threatening or hostile catcalls sent their way.
And to the men who are reading, do NOT take the previous paragraph as license to start catcalling women. And women readers, likewise do not take what I’m about to say as an equal license to call out your appreciation to any man. Not that many of you would. Reverse catcalling is barely a thing.
But I have been catcalled, and I liked it.
I was an awkward teenager who craved female attention yet received little. I never thought my face was anything special, and will admit that, even at 48 years old, part of my motivation in my fitness regimen is to look good with my shirt off. I enjoy how my wife appreciates it, and yes, I even enjoy how the occasional woman who is not my wife gives me a second glance.
But it’s rare that I noticed being noticed, and far rarer still that someone lets me know they noticed.
In fact, I can only recall being catcalled twice. This, despite many miles run in public with no shirt on, revealing my somewhat above average physique. The one I recall most clearly was a few years ago when I was about a week away from having this photo taken.
It was sunny and hot and I was running up a busy roadway. Again, I wasn’t wearing a shirt because I kind of like showing off my hard work. Two women drove by in a convertible and the one in the passenger seat yelled out, “Woo, baby!”
I didn’t say anything back, but it felt good. I enjoyed the female attention. Because I’m a man, it is much easier for me to appreciate such a thing.
For women, it is different. Men have far less tact when it comes to appreciating women. Last spring, I wrote a viral piece entitled “She Doesn’t Owe You Shit.” It is about how many men have a sense of entitlement about women’s bodies. The piece included many quotes from real women about their experiences with everything from catcalling to being beaten, burned and anally raped. Warning: that link is a hard read.
Here is a sample of quotes from that piece that are specific to catcalling:
When I was 15 I was cat-called and ignored it. When the guy was unhappy about this, he walked over and asked for my phone number. When I ignored him again, he beat me up until I had a concussion. – Kelsie
I ignore a man’s so called compliment “hey beautiful” and he punishes me by throwing his milkshake at my back. – Ellie
I developed early and had breasts at 11; my face was still that of a child but that didn’t stop many drivers slowing down to make some disgusting comments. To this day I still freak out when a car stops by me when I’m walking. – Sara
Walking into Target a guy continued to catcall me, whistle and try to get my attention. I ignored him and continued walking without making eye contact. Then he finally said, “f u you whore, you ain’t that cute anyway.” – Crystal
I’ve been catcalled too many times to bother trying to count. (I’m not even old enough to drink yet.) – Juliet
I run outdoors … the catcalls, sexual remarks etc happen almost every day. Just last week, this guy blocked my path to start talking to me … he complemented my running and asked for my number. I (very politely) told him I need to get back to my run … and then the insults started. I had to push him off the path and run fast just to get out of there. – Sue
I was walking from work to the bus stop one afternoon when a guy pulled up along the side walk and leaned out to talk to me. He said how pretty I was, had nice hair and asked me my name. I responded as I always did, “Thanks, my guy agrees,” (whether I have one or not); he then yelled at me “just asked your name you fucking fat bitch!” – Kimberley
My life has unfortunately been riddled with harassment from men starting when I was 7 and it has ranged from unwanted comments and requests from boys to molestation to catcalls, being followed, obsessions and even assault. – Melissa
“Erin, you have really nice legs. When will you be wearing a skirt to class next?” – my high school computer teacher. In front of the whole class. – Erin
Last night, on my way home from the train station, a man smoking out his window greeted me with “Evening” as I walked past. I smiled slightly, trying to be friendly/prevent further interaction/get home. Which got me called “stuck-up fat cunt!” – Jennifer
Men don’t have experiences like this.
I will repeat.
Men don’t have experiences like this.
There will be exceptions, but overall, the quotes you read above are overwhelmingly what happens to women, not to men.
Me getting catcalled was extraordinarily rare, and only happened because I was out running while wearing as little clothing as is legally permitted.
I imagine if I got catcalled almost every time I went for a run it would become annoying. It would be worse if I was insulted for ignoring the compliments. It would be worse still if I had to fear what might happen if I angered the person who catcalled me.
But I have little to fear.
A woman isn’t going to catcall me then call me a “fat faggot” or something equally horrible because I ignored her. She isn’t going to block my path and demand my phone number. She’s not going to follow me in her car and tell me in lewd detail what she wants to do to me.
And even if she did, there is little chance of me being afraid anyway, because I have a significant physical advantage over most women.
The only thing I fear when I run are big, aggressive dogs with dipshit owners who don’t control them. That, and drivers suffering from a rectal-cranial inversion.
I even got groped once, and kind of liked that too.
It was at a pub about a dozen years ago, after a Van Halen concert. I was grabbing pints from the bar and wearing a T-shirt. As I reached for the beer the woman standing next to me, who was rather attractive and slightly drunk, gave my biceps a quick squeeze and said, “Nice.”
At that was it. No further pursuit. No aggression. No threats or demands. I kind of liked it because it was extraordinarily novel—it never happened before or since—and there was never any threat to me.
Of course, I told my wife about it as soon as I got home and she said, “She’s right. They are nice.”
None of this means I think women should catcall or grope men. I don’t endorse it one bit. People should treat each other appropriately. I say things like “Hey, sexy” and grope my wife all the time, because she’s my wife and I know she enjoys it. She does the same back to me.
But just because I happened to like those rare instances doesn’t mean you should behave inappropriately towards any stranger, or even to an acquaintance.
Men and women deserve equal treatment under the law because we are equal. Despite this equality, we are also different. Again, the point of this post was not to encourage women to treat men like objects, but to examine how different this situation is between genders.
It is because it almost never happens and comes with no fear or threat that I could enjoy being catcalled and even groped.
Conversely, with women catcalling and groping happens frequently. The man is most often physically dominant. Sometimes, such instances are followed by threats and violence when they don’t elicit the response the perpetrator desires.
I expect this is a big part of why women don’t enjoy it.
James S. Fell is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada. He also interviews celebrities about their fitness stories for the Los Angeles Times, and is head fitness columnist for AskMen.com and a regular contributor to Men’s Health.