Catcalls Aren’t Compliments

It took me about three-quarters of Doree Lewak’s New York Post article before I realized that it wasn’t a satire. At first it really seemed like an Onion-style satire. Then I was really really hoping that it was a satire. Then it really hit me that Lewak was serious.

Here’s the problem with Lewak’s article “Hey Ladies – Catcalls Are Flattering! Deal With It” – she’s equivalating street harassment with the desire to both give and receive compliments. Is it a natural thing to enjoy receiving compliments? Sure. Is it a natural thing to enjoy giving compliments? Absolutely. Do these things make it a good idea to scream your opinion at a total stranger and expect them to be grateful. No. So very no.

Lewak fondly remembers the first time two guys on the street yelled, “You’re hot!” to her and high-fived. She presents it as a very innocent situation – she was wearing a “tightly molded pink tank top and black capris” and two men gave her the ego boost she was craving. But what weirds me out about Lewak’s article (okay, one of the things) is the extent to which she seems to be presenting her wardrobe choices as an invitation and consent for catcalling. She dressed in a tight tanktop, therefore she must be okay with random strangers shouting compliments at her (she does request toward the end of the article that those strangers not comment specifically on features of her anatomy – specifically her nipples). If that is the case for Lewak, maybe she should invest in some kind of large placard to carry (“PLEASE DO shout compliments at me about my general appearance! Just keep it clean, please!”) because I think that a good chunk of the women who are wearing tank tops in the summer aren’t doing it out of a desire for strangers to scream at them.

I’ve also had strangers scream “You’re hot!” to me. The last time it happened was on a bus. I guess I’m no Lewak – I didn’t get an ego boost out of it. What I did get was twenty minutes on a bus where “You’re hot” was followed by, “Hey, I just said that you’re hot!” followed by, “Hey bitch, didn’t you hear me call you hot?” and then a series of “Turn around and look at me, bitch!”-style comments. The cherry on the whole encounter was one that I think a few women can probably recognize, which was the frantic weighing of my options – should I get out at my stop, which would get me home fast but also potentially allow this screaming stranger to follow me to my apartment building if he got off as well, or get out at the stop before mine, which would hopefully allow me to hide my normal route and home territory but also leave me further away from home and in an area I didn’t know well, which could work against me if he followed me off and I had to run for it.

Flattering. Really, really flattering.

Articles like Lewak’s muddy the waters. Because an actual compliment isn’t a catcall. Let me give an example:

A guy wearing a great pair of skinny jeans is walking to work.

Situation A: While standing in line to get coffee, the guy next to him leans over and says politely (while staying well outside personal space), “Nice pants, man.”

That’s a compliment.

Situation B: While walking down the sidewalk, the guy wearing the great skinny jeans hears a guy about ten feet behind him yell, “Nice pants, man!”

That’s not a compliment. That’s a catcall. And it’s kind of creepy.

Situation C: A car slows down beside the guy wearing the skinny jeans, and a man leans out the passenger side window and yells, “Nice pants, man!” while the driver honks his horn.

That’s not a compliment. That’s a catcall. And it’s creepy.

Situation D: As he reaches the building he works in, the guy passes a man walking in the other direction. The other man stops, turns, and yells, “Nice pants, man!” followed by, “Hey, can’t you take a compliment?” then “You dumb prick, I’m just trying to give you a compliment!” then “Can’t you even smile at me, prick?”

Also not a compliment. That’s a catcall. It’s aggressive, scary, and it’s street harassment. And what makes it frightening when it’s happening is that the person it’s directed against has no idea how far it’s going to escalate.

The guy wearing the skinny jeans didn’t give consent to all of this just by wearing his skinny jeans. Similarly, a woman wearing a tight tank top wouldn’t have given consent either (despite what Lewak seems to believe).

Trying to bring attention to street harassment and hopefully even stop it is presented in articles like Lewak’s as trying to stop all compliments. That’s certainly not the case. Compliments can absolutely be given – and can be given to strangers. Lewak gets a thrill when random strangers scream to her about how hot she is – and has decided that it’s self-empowering. Well, every duck has its pond, I guess. There will always be outliers. But just as I wouldn’t use PonyPlay enthusiasts (thank you, Rob Thurman, for that information that is now seared into my brain) as an example of median sexual expression, I also wouldn’t use Lewak’s article as proof that what women really, truly want is to have total strangers scream at them about how hot they are.

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About M. L. Brennan

Author of the Generation V urban fantasy series, published by Roc Books. Not your usual vampires, kitsune shapeshifters with attitude, Doctor Who jokes, and underemployment. GENERATION V and its sequel, IRON NIGHT, available wherever books are sold. Third installment, TAINTED BLOOD, to be published 11/14.

Posted on August 20, 2014, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Gah. It’s one thing to wear clothes and go out and hope that someone compliments how you’re dressed. Not something I typically want to experience, but I can understand the sentiment. But Lewak’s argument seems very akin to the BS line of, “I know a black guy in a management position, therefore racism doesn’t happen.” Just because she went out in nice clothes and appreciated a random stranger’s commentary does not mean that everybody should behave the same way. One personal event does not set the standard for everybody else in the world.

    As you say, it’s one thing to make a comment in a complimentary fashion. It’s another to act like a creepy jerkwad about it, and the mentality of your aforementioned bus guy highlights the problem quite well. Some comments are intended to be benign and flattering, even if they may no be received that way (communication is a 2-way street). But often there’s this frightening idea that if a man compliments a woman, then she now owes him something. Attention, sex, whatever, but the comment is not given benignly but as the opening to a transaction that only one side is remotely interested in participating in. Change the context a little bit, make it a random stranger offering someone money for their purse (“That’s a nice purse; I’ll give you $5 for it. Hey, I’m talking to you. Hey, bitch, I said I’d give you $5 for your purse! Don’t ignore me; I’m trying to give you money here!”), and yeah, the whole thing becomes more overtly creepy and threatening.

    But oh, he was just admiring your purse, and even being nice enough to try to buy it from you in a fair exchange. That’s a compliment. Deal with it! -_-

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