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Comments Unwelcome: The Insidious Problem of Catcalling

By Lily K. Calcagnini

To the forthright gentleman who invaded my morning to tell me that you hoped I was having a great day, Little Girl: Thank you. I was.

To the candid man who approached me, rubbing your crotch and murmuring that you could make love to me all day and night, Baby: I could probably call the cops on you at any hour, Buddy.

To the two sirs who, from the safety of your car, hurled cries of Chica, Beautiful Lady, Sexy, Mami, Honey, and Pretty One out of your windows: You made me want to cry.

As you pounded the center of your steering wheel with the palm of your hand, commanding the attention of additional passers-by with each honk of your horn, you encouraged others to join in your objectification game. Powerless, I waited for your traffic light to change, so you would speed away towards the next corner and the next girl.

There are women who welcome catcalls, who believe that the complimentary—as in, free and unsolicited—comments they receive in the street are compliments. These women should learn how to differentiate a compliment from a slur.

The way I see it, a compliment is composed of three things: its content, the context in which it’s shared, and the speaker’s intent. Of these, the first plays the smallest role.

I often receive—and sometimes give—compliments that aren’t strictly genuine. Have you ever told someone you loved her outfit when you kind of didn’t? You’re excused. We all do this, because compliments are a powerful tool. Used correctly, they brighten moods and boost confidence, even when we aren’t scrupulous in constructing them truthfully.

It should go without saying that a true compliment makes its recipient feel valued and respected—that is, safer than she felt before. But in the wrong context and with the wrong intent, a compliment’s power to effect positivity shatters. These are the variables that make catcalls slurs.

Catcalls are arresting because they decontextualize the language of physical attraction that might be meaningful when exchanged between lovers. I’m flattered to know that someone who cares deeply about me also finds me beautiful, but this is only because I know that they appreciate my personhood more than my biological ability to have sex.

Using the same language, a catcall is vapid. It reduces my worth to that of my appearance. In the public context of the street, coming from the mouth of a stranger, a catcall exploits the verbiage of intimacy and makes me feel both objectified and powerless to rebuke my objectification.

Moreover, there is implicit sexual intent in a catcall by nature of the fact that it is spoken aloud. Since anyone can enjoyably objectify me without my knowing, I must take a man’s brazen expression of arousal to mean that he’s hoping for some favor in return. Hoping that he’s singled out a woman whose self-esteem is low. Hoping that I’ll forget I’m en route to Spanish and will instead fulfill his sexual fantasies in an alley. Hoping that, to quote the gallant young man who followed me around Harvard Square yesterday, I will “suck his dick.”

PSA: Giving a compliment should be an act of altruism. You should not expect or accept anything in return.

Perpetrators of this kind of objectification may not realize how many women they undermine when they insult one. Their comments dismantle the significant, but clearly still inadequate, social progress that feminists have made for all women.

Each time a woman is catcalled, publicly humiliated, and forced to ignore it, the psychology of female objectification becomes evermore seared into the brains of all actors and bystanders involved. We’re already conditioned to look at a woman and see the raw sum of her physical components before we consider her brain. The more we reinforce this subconscious thought process, the more ingrained it becomes in our psychology.

To all of the men who make it a habit to catcall me and other women, here’s something to think about: I do not dress myself to be mentally undressed by you. And if I can’t be sure that you’ll make me feel safe if you kiss me, then I’m not interested in your tongue down my throat, or your hands on my cheeks, or your commentary on my life.

It does not take courage or humility to catcall a woman. It takes a lethal mix of disillusionment and disrespect.

Lily K. Calcagnini ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Dunster House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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