The Catcall Index
Updated: Aug 4
One of the pleasures of public space is its gift of anonymity - the privilege to move through it without being singled out; the privilege to fade into a larger whole. It's sitting on a bench and watching the world move around you and knowing that if someone else wants to sit, they'll look in your direction and say, "Shoot, that bench is taken," instead of, "Shoot, that individual is sitting there." That might seem like an insignificant nuance, but it's the privilege of becoming part of the public furniture. It's a non-feeling. It's the instinct of belonging.
Are you familiar with that non-feeling? Then you are probably a dude. You're also probably white. Or you live in a separatist lesbian commune somewhere in New England, in which case, call me.
For the rest of us women, queers, people of color, genderfuckers, differently-abled folks, the privilege of anonymity in public space ranges from a completely foreign concept to something we forget we don't have until we are suddenly reminded that it is not ours. An obvious and frequent reminder that we are not sovereign in the public realm is the catcall. It's such a simple and effective way to remind us that our bodies don't have ownership of this common space.
Are catcalls ever acceptable? No, really, they are not. Even within the body of unacceptability, however, there is a hierarchy of shittiness. Below is a non-exhaustive typology of uncomfortable interactions on the street.
This is the most basic form of catcall that we have all seen and/or received. It is the building block of many of the other catcalls on this list. The drive-by is defined by the following attributes:
1.) Poorly thought out: typically reveals no connection between the words spoken and the person they abuse
2.) No follow-up or expectation of follow-up: the comment is purely, if subconsciously, designed to assert dominance in space, not to engender a conversation
3.) One or more parties involved is literally in movement (though not necessarily in a car)
There are endless varieties of the Drive-by including:
"Got a boyfriend?"
"Looking good, mama"
Typically, Drive-by's end as soon as they begin, but the recipient's views on life are notably darkened.
The Forced Conversation
In some senses, the opposite of the Drive-by, the Forced Conversation happens when the person receiving the catcall is not in motion at all, but rather completely sedentary. The Forced Conversation can happen when someone is sitting on a bench eating lunch, perhaps, or reading a magazine in the grass. Typically, the Forced Conversation occurs when the person being spoken to tries to be polite by responding to a stranger, and then the stranger continues the conversation long after social norms are surpassed. They conversation sometimes has sexual overtones, but these are not necessarily a core part of this type of catcall.
What makes the Forced Conversation such an egregious transgression on the part of the catcaller is that the person receiving the abuse is often forced not only into uncomfortable conversation, but also into deciding if they want to continue the uncomfortable conversation or give up their claim to the public space they inhabit.
For example, say you are sitting in a park resting and a middle-aged man approaches you and says, "Excuse me, may I ask you a question?" You answer simply by looking up at him because you don't actually want to be bothered. He says, "Are your feet sweaty in those boots?" And you say, "No." So he continues, "Are you wearing socks in those boots?" And you say, "Yes." So he goes on, "Do you ever not wear socks when you are wearing boots?" You look around to see if anyone else is hearing this interaction. He continues, "Do you ever wear sandals in the summertime?" You don't respond. You stand up and walk away and decide that resting isn't as important and leaving the Forced Conversation.
The other thing that make the Forced Conversation so egregious is that is happens ALL THE TIME. On the subway; in line at the bank; on an airplane; at the bar; in the City Hall courtyard; at the DMV.... they don't all have foot fetishes, but they all think that your time is better spent talking to them than it is doing whatever you would rather be doing.
The Couple Call-out
The Couple Call-out is a variation on the Drive-by that occurs most frequently to queer couples. The standard Couple Call-out sounds similar to, "You two look so cute together."
In of itself, this remark is not negative. In fact, there are three main reasons that someone would say that a queer couple looks cute, and two out of three are positive. First, one could say this because they, too, are queer, and they want to be seen or share the queer pride love. That's awesome. Secondly, a not-queer person could be going out of their way to show that they are totally cool with the gays, and saying, "I see you and I am totally not weirded out." That's fine. Weird, but fine. Third, a creep-o could be creeping up on you and adding the subtext, "Let me in on that," to their statement about the couple. That's not great. That's real bad and it makes everyone sad.
This typology, thus, relies heavily on nuance. In a pinch, just don't comment on a couple that you think is cute unless you are at their wedding or on their first date or something.
The Assumed Life Experience
Another more complex form of the Drive-by, the Assumed Life Experience is a highly-sexualized passing remark that makes assumptions about someone's lived experience, typically with the subtext that the assaulter could fill in the gaps where the victim has missed out on the fun. For example:
"Bet you never had dick like this."
UGH. YOU DON'T KNOW THAT.
The Bait-and-Switch often comes in the form of asking for directions. This type of catcall is particularly pernicious because it begins with luring you into a false sense of security - you think this person is calling you out not because you lack ownership of space, but because they need help, and you look like you belong here. The interaction begins with the feeling that you are driving the narrative. Yes, you do know where the closest CVS is, and yes... you will help with directions. Your decision. You're in power.
Then the moment you tell the person to take the next left and continue for two more blocks, he'll look you up and down and say, "Gotta boyfriend?"
Suddenly you are unsafe, out-of-place, and angry that you helped at all.
This is a rare type of catcall, and while it is only barely above the Drive-by as far as its ability to make you uncomfortable, the At-least-you-got-creative Type has the noted benefit of making the recipient say, "Huh. I feel uncomfortable, but at least you got creative."
My favorite example an At-least-you-got-creative cat call happened to me in college. It's hypothesized that a specificity of the At-least-you-got-creative is that you remember every detail of these catcall scenarios because I remember exactly what I was wearing: a black denim skirt that I still own, a graphic T-shirt that said, "Save our Tree Friends," and high-heeled Oxfords that my grandmother told me looked like, "old lady shoes." Also my hair at the time: I was growing out my fauxhawk and I was deep in a late-60s Paul McCartney phase. I was walking home from class along the Rue de la Sorbonne and suddenly this guy stopped in front of me and said, "Your skin... it is like an Italian painting from the renaissance. I... would love to paint you." Then he gave me his card. His name was Philippe. Listen, guys, I had terrible acne until I was 18 - my skin definitely does not look like an Italian painting from the renaissance. However, as he walked away, I couldn't help but think, "Huh... at least he got creative."
My least favorite example of this type could be considered a classic Bait-and-Switch with a twist. It also happened in college, this time late-late one night coming home from dancing. You see - catcallers can get creative at any time of day. This run-in was particularly uncomfortable because it came after a rose seller started following me for a couple of blocks around St. Germain and then some guys in a mini-van asked if I needed a ride along the rue de Rennes. So when an older man asked me for directions at the intersection of the rue de Vaugirard and the Boulevard de Montparnasse, I was already feeling weary and wary of men. I pointed him in the direction he wanted to go, and then he said, "...Do you like to give men pain?"
I mean... at least he got creative.
The Factual Observation
The Factual Observation toes the line between catcall and compliment from a stranger. It is at the apex of the hierarchy of the catcall typology. Frankly, depending on the tone of the person delivering the Factual Observation, this may not seem like a catcall at all. At its base, it is an elevated form of a Drive-by. Typically, one or more parties involved in the catcalling situation will be in movement and there is no expectation that the interaction will evolve into something deeper than a passing remark that pulls someone out of the anonymity of public space. However, what defines a Factual Observation and separates it from the crude Drive-by is the level of detail levied by the catcaller.
There is a major difference between, "Hey, gorgeous," and, "Hey, you have really beautiful eyes."
A Factual Observation is especially distinct from a Drive-by when the observation is about an element of the recipient that is not part of her physical body AND is devoid of overtly sexualized language. "That is a really nice outfit," "Your hair color is so cool," and "Wow, I love those shoes," are great Factual Observations, and they differ substantially from, "Your ass looks good in that skirt," "Damn, your hair is sexy," and, "You should keep those shoes on later."
I think it goes without saying that tone is huge here. There is definitely a way to say, "Your hair color is so cool!" in a super creepy way. Listen, Factual Observation is still catcalling in that it calls out an individual and singles someone out from the anonymity that others enjoy in public space. That said, I'm kind of ok with most Factual Observations. My outfit does look good.
The U-turn starts as a simple Drive-by, but at some point in the interaction - early on, necessarily, as Drive-by's are short by definition - the nature of the catcall shifts dramatically. This is a rare occurrence, but when it happens, there is something definitely great about it. The shift is frequently in who holds the power. Sometimes the shift is in tone or content. That server who body slammed a diner who grabbed her ass and reprimanded him while he lay on the pizzeria floor? Total U-turn. Sometimes when you are feeling over it all and you respond to a catcaller with a, "And you're looking good today, too, buddy," and he says, "Hey, thanks, I really needed to hear that today," that's a U-turn, too.
My favorite U-turn happened in South Philadelphia. I was having a bad day. I was walking home from my friend's house where I had been sad and crying and a car rolls by me. The man in the passenger seat said, "How you doing, mama?" and I responded, "You know, really not great." The man in the passenger seat got real serious, looked me in the eye, and said, "Hey. It's going to be ok."
And that is exactly, honestly, legitimately what I needed to hear from a stranger at that moment. It made me feel so much better. Total U-turn.
There are many variations on the typology offered here, but overall - though there are better or worse ways to make someone feel like they don't belong in common space, let's try not to make people feel unsafe. Cool? Cool.