I cannot think of just ONE single moment in which I fell victim to catcalling or street harassment. Instead, I have plenty of such situations in mind which were all similar and therefore mingle in my memory. Sometimes it was ‘just’ an awkwardly long gaze; another time a whistle or another sort of (primitive) ‘acknowledging’ sound; then again shouted ‘greetings’ uttered out of a car slowing down and driving next to me. All of it either by a single man or a bunch of them. I have the impression that such cases accumulate and worsen in summer when the temperatures force women to wear less (long) clothing. Even more than the exact actions, I do remember what I sensed during these situations. Suffering from (social) anxiety already, receiving this kind of (perhaps well-intentioned, but terribly performed) attention makes me even more anxious, with various worst case scenarios going through my mind. The biggest fear behind that is the conviction that I do not consider myself assertive enough to set the limits in case this man/these men went any further. All in all, I do not understand how one could possibly think that women feel appreciated, let alone comfortable by being whistled at or the like. As the term ‘catcalling’ already implies, it describes a way of approaching animals and not a human being on equal footing. To me, it resembles a hunt in which I perceive myself as prey.” Anonymous, 27
When I told my female friends about this article and asked them if they would be willing to share their own experiences with catcalling, I received this powerful text from a friend of mine who wishes to remain anonymous. It not only presents some examples of typical forms of catcalling, but also draws attention to its possible psychological effects. What I find interesting is that many men don’t even seem to be aware of the fact that constant, ongoing street harassment is a social reality for women – something that happens to women of different shapes and sizes, ethnicities, ages, and with different styles of clothing. My experience is that it is hard to find a woman who has not been exposed to some form of catcalling, and I personally don’t know of a single woman who feels flattered or complimented by that sort of behavior. I think it is safe to say that catcalling can be perceived as a form of structural violence.
This is why I decided to critically discuss the phenomenon of catcalling from a feminist perspective and on the background of Lacanian and Foucauldian theory. And before you stop reading: there are also illustrations of obscene cats by Garcia Comix. Also: thanks to the amazing people helping me with this article by sharing their experiences with me.
Let’s start with a definition: catcalling means making insulting and usually sexist remarks in public. Those remarks are mostly coming from men and are directed towards women. The main argument of people defending this kind of behavior is that women need to “learn to take a compliment” and should stop being “overly sensitive”. The logic behind this train of thought is that all women should have the same reactions to being catcalled, while ignoring the (very high) probability of making women (or anyone for that matter) who are leered at feel uncomfortable and unsafe. If that kind of behavior was really based on the need to give an attractive person an innocent compliment, it would stop then as soon as women started talking about how it made them uncomfortable. Instead, this behavior continues. Why so? Do guys catcall because they think it will somehow lead to them having sex? I have never seen this strategy work and all I hear from the women in my social environment is that it is an annoying behavior, making them feel unsafe and insecure.
catcalling is not a compliment!
Some men persistently claim that they are just trying to “brighten a woman’s day” by making remarks about a stranger’s appearance on the streets. This fact hints to the possibility that not all catcalling necessarily has to come from a place of malice, but rather from ignorance. But: an interaction which might be sweet, lovely, and charming to one person might be perceived as highly intrusive by the other party. And although it has to be acknowledged that catcalling is nuanced, I argue that generally this kind of behavior not only reveals a lack of respect and understanding for another person’s boundaries and their comfort zone, but is also based on the underlying assumption that it is appropriate to be sexual towards any woman, and that one has the right to say anything to them. In my opinion, anything that could potentially make people feel unsafe is not flattering and should not be treated as a compliment.
Another argument by which catcalling is often tried to be justified is that there are women who “know how to take” this kind of behavior. I agree that some who are catcalled might enjoy the attention, and might use it to gain self-confidence. What is problematic in this regard is to automatically assume that every woman feels the same way, to assume that they should feel flattered by the attention and that they aren’t allowed to name it what it is: aggressive and belittling.
And this is where the aspect of power and the concept of the male gaze comes into play: catcalling can be interpreted as one example of how the male gaze plays out in day-to-day life. The concept of the gaze was developed by Jacques Lacan and refers to the anxious state that comes with the awareness that one can be viewed. Lacan argues that the psychological effect of this is that the subject loses a degree of autonomy upon realizing that it is a visible object. This concept is bound with his theory of the mirror stage, in which a child encountering a mirror realizes that he or she has an external appearance. In this way a subject comes into being, gains its identity, within the already existing framework of power relations.
In his work “Discipline and Punish” Foucault extends Lacan’s theory with regard to power relations and disciplinary mechanisms by introducing the concept of Panopticism to highlight how a sense of permanent visibility ensures the functioning of an un-verifiable power:
Panopticism is one of the characteristic traits of our society. It’s a type of power that is applied to individuals in the form of continuous individual supervision, in the form of control, punishment and compensation, and in the form of correction, that is, the molding and transformation of individuals in terms of certain norms. This threefold aspect of Panopticism – supervision, control, correction – seems to be a fundamental and characteristic dimension of the power relations that exist in our society.”
power and sexuality cannot be thought independently from each other
In my opinion, claiming that catcalling is merely about power and dominance, and not about sexual desire and attraction at all, would be oversimplifying a social reality. Power and sexual relationships cannot be thought of independently from each other. The question is how one defines power. I am convinced of the fact that, yes – existing hierarchical social structures may be fostered by means of (direct and indirect) aggression and oppression, but those forms of violence are always interwoven with an aggressively charged lust and desire, aiming at pressing others into a passive role by denying them agency through objectification and by reducing them to their outward appearance.
In this context – and on the background of Lacanian and Foucauldian theory – a phenomenon such as catcalling can be interpreted as to reflect, and at the same time reproduce, the current heteronormative societal order. Simultaneously, catcalling as a means of sexualization of women also fosters the reproduction of a certain type of hegemonic masculinity. For this reason, please keep in mind that catcalling is more than innocent complimenting, before belittling or rejecting it as irrelevant.
Foucault, Michel. (1979). Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage Books.
Lacan, Jacques (1977). The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. New York: Norton.
Mayr, Lisa. (2016). Sozialpsychologe: “Männliche Sexualität ist kein Naturrest”. Retrieved from http://derstandard.at/2000032258234/Sozialpsychologe-Maennliche-Sexualitaet-ist-kein-Naturrest
Mulvey, Laura. (1989). Visual and Other Pleasures. Theories of Representation and Difference. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Pr.