Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Are Cat Calls and Wolf Whistles Offensive?

Short answer: In many, if not most, instances in our country cat calls, wolf whistles and unsolicited 'compliments' from strangers can cause offence or discomfort. Please not I do not say in all instances, just in many.

A few examples of the unsolicited 'compliments' and cat calling that I am referring to, which I have gathered from real people I am acquainted with.

[whilst groping] Nice tits.
Fat cow
Hey, red! Red, you gotta man?
Well, if it wasn't for that belly of yours, you'd be pretty good looking! 
Alright sexy!
She's pretty, is she yours? 
I'd like a feel of that ass.
Hey gorgeous show me some sugar.
I'd fuck you!
Nice skirt.. Do those legs go all the way up.
I don't know if you're a man or a woman but I'd still do you.
So what's the way to your heart? 
An assortment of noises often vaguely animalistic in nature.

It's a pretty mixed bag isn't it? Some of those when written down in isolation don't sound to bad at all, maybe even nice. Some of them are clearly horrible or even downright threatening. But as we should all be aware, context is everything. These are not phrases snipped from the middle of a conversation, nor are they the product of friendly banter. They aren't even politely given in one-on-one conversations. These are the stark phrases that are delivered without prequel, often at top volume, from one individual to a complete stranger or somebody who is merely an acquaintance.

Firstly, I apologise I'm going to have to make a couple of generalisations here (though I promise to address the exceptions): cat calling and street harassment traditionally takes the shape of men harassing women. Secondly the person making the cat calls is often in a group of a similar demographic to themselves.

 I would also like to introduce at this point the common defence of cat calling: women like the cat calls and it's just a way of giving a compliment.

 Well I'm afraid that that statement is just a fallacy.
Cat calls and street harassment are not giving somebody a compliment. They are not. 
Outside of friendship circles with a well established banter, wolf whistles and cat calls are rarely about telling a woman you find her attractive - if you wanted to do that you would strike up a conversation with the woman and inform her in a polite manner. They are not about paying compliments. If they were about paying genuine compliments then the men who make catcalls would do it to everybody - ‘Oi! nice shoes mate!’ ‘Who’s been hitting the gym?!’ etc . The language would also be overwhelmingly positive without slurs or derogatory content.
Cat calls and wolf whistles are about asserting dominance - usually (though not always and I'll get to that) the dominance of a straight male over any and all females. They are about power and making sure that women know that men have the right to judge and assert their opinion over women whenever they want, regardless of the social situation and relationship (or lack of).
Many men feel that they are being flattering and kind however they have been brought up in a way that they do not recognise the power play at hand. But they still bow to the reasoning that it is their right to make a cat call and it is the women’s duty to take it and like it. And that’s of course before we get into more threatening and abusive cat calling.

To readdress one of my generalisations then, yes some men receive harassment from other men and from groups of women. This is less of a regular occurrence but it still an artifact of one group trying to assert dominance over another. Men asserting dominance over men they feel are 'less manly' or different to their demographic including people who are gender ambiguous or cross dressing, or men they perceive to be gay. Groups of younger people or 'youths' harassing older people because they aren't 'cool. Women harassing men in order to re-affirm their own power and assertiveness in a world that traditionally doesn't allow it. Women harassing men because they are so used to it happening to themselves, why should they care about the feelings of others.

Let's get this absolutely clear right now. Harassment of anybody from any quarter is not acceptable, that is why it is called harassment. Cat calls and wolf whistles are more often than not a type of harassment. Two wrongs do not make a right. I have heard many men and some women say 'well it's OK for us to do it because they do it to.'. No. Just No. Is this true in any other context? Is it OK to mug people because somebody once nicked your wallet? No. Is it OK to start a career of house breaking because you had your house burgled when you were 12? No. It is not OK to harass people because you have been harassed.

Now of course that only addresses the men’s role. Some women do enjoy getting wolf whistles and cat calls. When they are delivered in a friendly and kind manner they can be pleasant and it can be nice to know that you look nice to other people. However, nobody should assume that all women, all the time like, enjoy and want cat calls. Even a woman who likes a compliment from a complete stranger about her ass may on that particular day be in a bad mood, or feeling sensitive or not want to be singled out. And even if a woman liked the first wolf whistle that morning, by the fourth fifth or sixth comment that day she might be feeling frustrated and angry and regretting her choice of attire. It is entirely possible that a woman left the house knowing full well that she was attractive but doesn't particualrly need to be told about it and would rather be complimented on her creative writing, astute wit or knowlege of the UK legal system (or whatever acomplishment she is particularly proud of that day).

Let's move on to the other generalisation I made and how this is relevant to cat calls. The person making the cat call is often part of a group made up of a similar demographic. That is to say you will often get a group of lads of a similar age; a group of women out together; the classic gaggle of builders on scaffolding being the purveyors of cat calls. Often it will be one voice speaking from the group and then looking to others for support and encouragement. The group might not always be physically present but may be a group of people with whom they can share their experiences with later in the pub or on line and receive congratulations and affirmation of their actions. 
This is about power as well but it is about personal power, confidence and self image. 
Wolf whistles etc are often a result of the individual doing it having low self esteem or confidence. It is easier for them to shout at somebody in the street than it is to calmly approach a person and actually talk to them. This isn't an attempt to excuse the behaviour but rather it paints a picture of the people doing the cat-calling as being insecure and having poorly developed social skills. This is further bolstered by the company they are in. The cat calling is an assertion of self an assertion of their own personal power in order for them to find a niche to fit into. By public asserting this power in front of their associates they establish themselves in a pecking order and re-affirm their worth in the eyes of (some) others. They have been able to appear confident and 'masculine', powerful and 'able to have a joke' in front of others in the easiest way possible. It is a short route to fitting in.
Ironically then, the cat caller is often perceived by the target and the wider public as being a little bit week and unable to interact socially with people in a normal and non confrontational way.
So even if the target enjoys unsolicited loud public compliments, finds them genuinely uplifting or complimentary, they may make judgements about the cat-callers social skills and personality which are not flattering and not particularly appealing, which in tern, makes the ‘compliment’ even less appealing.
There will also be times when the person making the cat calls is perfectly aware that what they are doing is abhorant behaviour, but still they choose to act in that way. What a delightful person they are.

Not all unsolicited attention, compliments and comments need be bad though. The reason for this is not the intent behind it; it is the respect, expectations and reactions that go with the comment. 
Shouting across a street 'Nice skirt love' is in many instances likely to cause discomfort, offence or even fear. Politely stopping somebody at an appropriate juncture (perhaps you are both standing waiting to cross a street), and saying 'Excuse me, but that skirt is nice.' or even 'May I say you look lovely in that outfit.' are probably going to be met with better responses. It's not guaranteed though. A stranger interrupting your personal space and thoughts to offer a compliment, particularly one pertaining to physical features may still illicit a negative response and that's OK. A compliment is not owed gracious or raptuous delight.
The expectation, reaction and respect is crucial now. Did you offer the comment in expectation of it escalating into a romantic or sexual proposition or did you give the comment as a genuine compliment? If the former you may be in trouble. How do you react to their negative or dismissive reaction? If you get angry, offer insults, try and convince the person that their feelings are wrong or invalid then you are in fact harassing them and your original comment was just an opening gambit. You wished to exert power by making your opinion of them important, when that failed, you have resorted to negative comments to make the person feel small, scared or bad, again in an attempt to exert power and dominance. By not reacting at all, apologising or at least showing a look of contrition you engage the third key element: respect. you have shown respect for another human being by acknowledging their feelings and accepting that your own actions, thoughts or feelings do not automatically trump theirs.

'Your hair looks lovely, miss.' Said the very nice man apropos of nothing as he passed by the young woman fixing her fringe. She smiled in surprise and said thank you. And thus the mythical respectful unsolicited genuine compliment did occur.

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