We do have nice tits; Thank you for noticing! (Or, An Intersectional Pleasure-Positive Defence of Catcalling)

Posted August 30, 2018
By Ummni Khan

Co-authored by Maggie FitzGerald.

Unpopular opinion: We love to be catcalled.

It can be friendly or flirtatious. Affirming or exciting. For some, afleeting moment of eroticism. 

It can, perhaps, even lead to a not-so-fleeting moment of romantic connection (one of us has, in fact, dated someone met through a catcalling encounter).

Yet in the circles we run in, to even utter this opinion is often cast as false consciousness, a betrayal to our gender, or an insult to the feminist struggle more broadly. “How can you defend – let alone enjoy – this harassment?”

Condemnation of catcalling is growing. For instance, the popular website 'every day feminism' has numerous articles that argue catcalling is not a compliment, but rather, dehumanizing harassment. The women’s movement Ni Una Menos in Argentina has organized large-scale public protests against catcalling, positing the activity as gender-based violence. As a result, catcalling is now punishable by fine in Buenos Aires. The global NGO Hollaback!, which targets harassment in public spaces, has created an app that encourages people to report and track any unwanted street communications they have experienced or witnessed. Numerous videos now exist which follow women walking through urban centres, documenting catcalling and shaming the catcallers. 

On a more punitive side, Belgium passed legislation in April 2014 that effectively criminalized catcalling, defined as uttering a gender-based insult or making intimidating sexual remarks in the street.  In 2015, Portugal followed suit by making ‘verbal sexual abuse’ a crime. Both laws are punishable by a fine or incarceration of up to one year. In the summer of 2016, the Nottinghamshire police in central England categorized street harassment as a ‘misogyny hate crime,’ defined as “incidents against women that are motivated by an attitude of a man towards a woman, and includes behaviour targeted towards women by men simply because they are women.” In May 2018, France’s National Assembly passed a bill targeting a variety of forms of sexual violence, including catcalling.

There are several aspects of these developments that trouble us. 

A central concern is that the discourse conflates catcalling and harassment. Catcalling, as we define it, is any remark made in public by an unknown person to another in which the literal connotation is positive or neutral. This includes greetings (‘hi,’ ‘good morning,’ ‘how ya doing?’); compliments (‘you’re beautiful!’, ‘nice smile’); addresses (‘Hey, Sexy!’, ‘Yo Honey’); solicitation (‘Can I have your number?’); admiring whistles and interjection; and exclamations and gestures of appreciation. It does not include any utterance that conveys, on a literal level, contempt, threat or insult, nor is it stalking or unwanted physical contact. 

Of course, we understand that the line between catcalling and harassment will not always be clear cut, and that people can interpret certain utterances differently. However, we believe that there is conceptual value in distinguishing between catcalling (as we define it above) and harassment. First, most of these types of stranger utterances fit comfortably into the category of catcalling or of insulting/threatening harassment. Second, it is only through such a conceptual distinction that we can we begin to think through the gray space between the categories, and acknowledge that some comments or some contexts are, in fact, ambiguous. In lumping stalking, physical violence, touching, threats and insults, together with catcalling, the anti-catcalling movement universally conflates unwanted harassment and violence with uncertain, and – for some –possibly mutually enjoyable, stranger interactions in public spaces. Separating catcalling from harassment conceptually, on the other hand, creates space for alternative interpretations and experiences of these stranger encounters.

In addition, there is a body of research which indicates that the experience of catcalling as harmful – as opposed to welcome flirtation – can be dependent on numerous factors, most prominent of which is whether the catcaller is perceived to be attractive. The race of the catcaller also shapes whether the interaction is experienced as harmful or pleasurable (and of course, because beauty norms are grounded in white supremacy, the interplay of attractiveness and race is amplified).  Significantly, Kimberly Fairchild’s study finds that 15% of women surveyed reported increased feelings of fear when the “harasser is a different race than me.”  The sample used in this study consisted of 1,277 self-identified females; 87.2% identified as White. In other words, what we have here are white women acknowledging that they are more likely to view encounters with men of colour as more dangerous than similar encounters with white men.  Presumably,the number is higher but because of social acceptance bias, white people know not to admit that they are more fearful of racialized individuals. 

The point of this is that the ways in which catcalling is experienced, perceived, and categorized as harassment are deeply shaped by racism. The anti-catcalling movement seems oblivious to this reality, and in fact, often reproduces problematic racist stereotypes. In their representations, street encounters with primarily poor men of colour are the ones deemed harmful and showcased as examples of harassment. 

This is perhaps most apparent in the recent trend of capturing catcalling on film for purposes of shaming catcallers and highlighting the ‘plight’ of women in the public space. Arguably the most famous of these videos is Hollaback!’s 10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman. In 2014, Hollaback! hired a white actress who was filmed walking around New York City for ten hours. She was told to wear black pants and a black crewneck t-shirt and instructed to ignore any greetings or solicitations. The footage was then edited into a two-minute compilation, which has since gone viral with over 47 million views as of August 2018.  

The vast majority of the ‘verbal harassments’ depicted in the video would fall under our definition of catcalling. For instance, the video shows men addressing the woman with greetings such as ‘God Bless,’ and ‘Smile.’ Others ask her questions like ‘What’s up beautiful?’ and ‘You don’t wanna talk?’. The video ends with a note that over 100 instances of “verbal harassment” were captured during filming and encourages the viewer to consider donating to the organization’s fight to end street harassment.  In other words, to raise funds, the video implicitly banks on the demonization of men of colour as sexual threats to white femininity. 

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While the video was applauded for calling out the catcallers, it was also criticized because virtually all of the catcallers shown in the video were men of colour.  

The racist selectivity of the Hollaback! video is not surprising. As Chris Moore points out, over half the footage comes from Harlem, where the majority of residents are people of colour. The catcalling captured from this area would therefore disproportionally involve men of colour. On the other hand, the editor of the video, Rob Bliss, acknowledged in an apology posted on reddit (now deleted) that while a lot of white men were caught on film catcalling, the footage was not high quality, and therefore had to be edited out. As a result, mostly Black and Latino men were shown as street harassers.

Whether the cause was intentional editing, or (apparently) unintentional neighbourhood selection, the end result is that men of colour are constructed, presented, and shamed as the main perpetrators of catcalling in this video.

There are now many of these types of videos from around the world. As in the Hollaback! example, we find that in these videos, racism shapes how these encounters are experienced, portrayed, and also received by audiences. For instance, a similar video produced in Belgium, Femme de la Rue, also disproportionately shows men of colour as catcallers, and viewers of the video are taking note: the comments section of the video’s website is riddled with racist remarks. One viewer, for instance, writes, “This is not men on the streets of Brussels. It is animals from Arabia.”  Another viewer posts, “I’m willing to bet that the men who harassed the woman are mostly immigrants if not all, [sic] from Muslim countries. Bye bye Belgium, Hello Belgiumistan.”

Most important of all is that this particular construction of catcalling also implicitly or explicitly promotes criminalization and carceral solutions to these complex interactions. These videos, and the anti-catcalling movement in general, are having material consequences. In fact, the documentary Femme de la Rue is cited as one of the main catalysts for Belgium’s law against sexism in public places. As noted above, other places are following suit by suggesting and implementing carceral responses to these public encounters. 

Quite frankly, we find this appalling.  “Progressive” discourses that support these measures spit in the face of intersectionality, ignoring the racist underpinnings of the justice system (as if the police need more encouragement to target men of colour on the street).  As Jay Dodd suggests, in the ideology of this movement, White women’s fear is considered more important than Black men’s lives.”

We also want to point out that to be subject to catcalls is not just a nuisance or a threat (for those who experience it that way); it is also a privilege. Many people yearn for, and are denied, this kind of attention because of lookism, which encompasses fat phobia, rigid gender norms, ageism, ableism, racism etc.  As Elizabeth Thorn states in her blog about wanting to be catcalled: “I feel that most women have grown accustomed to the remarks and gestures they receive from men. It is old news. It is degrading only because they know they can leverage that “emotional trauma” from the event to gain more attention.”  In other words, complaining about being catcalled can unfortunately be seen as a kind of humble brag; under the cloak of a feminist grievance, one attests to one’s desirability while firmly keeping the spotlight on oneself.  It is this issue that compelled us to choose a cheeky title.  We argue that regardless of one’s intentions, or how one interprets the utterances, there are boastful aspects to discussing one’s experience of being catcalled.  

We believe that included in the conversations about catcalling should be consideration of these complex issues: the ways in which the anti-catcalling movement feeds into racialized stranger danger fears; how it is bound up with shaming and carceral solutions; the fact that it erases the reality that we directly or indirectly derive satisfaction from these encounters. Instead, it seems we are up against an overwhelming majority who condemn catcalling as inherently oppressive and harmful, or, at the very least, agree that catcalling is in violation of a universal norm of mutual inattention in the public space

It is this last point that we believe is most overlooked. The public is always-already comprised of competing norms. These norms shape the terms of encounters in the public space in complex ways. The anti-catcalling movement is, we would argue, obfuscating and even erasing this complexity by asserting a white bourgeois norm onto the public en masse

This is not to suggest that everyone has to enjoy, or even feel neutral about, catcalling. Rather the point is just that: catcalling – like many encounters in the public space – is fraught with potential to be positive, negative, and more often than not, some combination of these at the same time. A wholesale vilification of catcalling fails to grapple with this reality. It constructs certain men as dangerous, and constructs women – like us – who enjoy the experiences as either buying into gender hierarchies or as bad feminists. It also constructs the public as a space that should be void of sexual pleasure. As one of us has pointed out, the sanitization of pleasure from various aspects of life, such as the workplace, is already well underway. We should be wary of the pleasure cost of continuing this trend in the public space.  And we should be especially wary of social movements that are providing feminist justification to demonize, criminalize and harass men of colour.  

Maggie FitzGerald is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University, Ottawa, ON.