by Kimi Eisele
Hey sexy Damn girl Ay, mamacita Hey baby Aaaaay Guapa
Hola chula Mami Mmm-hmmm Why don’t you smile? Pretty thing
Chances are, if you’ve ever walked down a public street, you’ve heard at least one of these expressions hollered either at you or at someone nearby. They’re known as “catcalls.” They’re usually directed at women, but men get them, too.
The term catcall comes from the 17th century and refers to a noise used to express disapproval at theatrical performances—a whistle or a squeal, perhaps cat-like.
From a folklife perspective, catcalls might fall under the category of the “verbal arts”— myths, legends, proverbs, riddles, jokes and dichos (sayings) used by groups of people as a way to communicate group norms and share beliefs and practices.
Not all forms of folklife need be celebrated. But there is merit in acknowledging, dissecting, and understanding more deeply things we might find offensive. Whether or not catcalls are worthy of the term “art,” they do reveal things about culture.
Culture of dominance
Manuel Abril, a board member for the national nonprofit organization Stop Street Harassment, says catcalling is a form of street harassment. “It’s about power. It’s about who can be in public and who can’t be,” he said.
Abril, who has worked in sexual violence prevention for over a decade, says young people—mostly girls—report that street harassment starts at age 11 or 12, often when they are alone. “Research backs this up. It happens to people who are just embarking in being in public life,” he said.
“It is a way of controlling the environment, the context. When something makes you turn a corner and not walk in a certain direction, it’s a form of control,” said Abril, a behavioral health technician at PSA Art Awakenings in Tucson.
Amanda Brand, coordinator of the Flagstaff chapter of the national organization Hollaback!, agreed. “Catcalling and street harassment are forms of verbal violence in which someone’s agency is impeded,” she said.
Responses from women to a Facebook post for this story, asking “Have you ever catcalled or been catcalled?” support what Brand and Abril say:
I dressed in a beautiful bright blue past-the-knee slip as a dress and headed out to the bus stop about 6 blocks away. No less than 5 men honked, whistled, and yelled from cars at me. The first one made me feel kind of good, because I had been working hard to create what I considered an attractive body and was proud of it. But by the 5th, I felt vulnerable and afraid, so I walked back to the house and changed my outfit before heading out again.
I was 19 and running so hard and powerfully fast to get to a store before they closed. I was feeling fit, spry, purposeful… And some asshole yelled “nice tits!” I felt so angry and body shamed. It honestly still makes me livid almost 30 years later.
This 2014 video from Hollaback! filmed in New York City reveals the kinds of language and behavior some men use to get women’s attention or dominate space. The video was later criticized for excluding catcalls from white men, but the idea to film street harassment this way caught on. Here’s an example from Costa Rica.
Because they happen so often, catcalls sometimes seem “natural” or “the way the world is,” Abril said.
“It’s so ubiquitous that it seems nothing can be done about it,” he said. “But this kind of power dynamic is constructed and it’s consensual. We say this is okay for this to happen.”
Ironically, as with other cultural phenomena, its pervasiveness sometimes makes catcalling difficult to see and acknowledge as potentially dangerous. “The things that are unmarked are the things that lay down the path for the more egregious things that happen. They are all in the service of a culture of dominance,” Abril says.
Just words or …?
Catcalls are not always verbal statements. They also come in the form of honks, whistles, or shouts.
They are sometimes viewed as “lesser” forms of abuse than sexual assault. But physical, sexual, and verbal abuses are all symptoms of the same problem, Brand says. “They work together to disenfranchise and marginalize those who are already the most vulnerable in our community.”
But are all catcalls considered street harassment?
“The truth is, a lot of it really depends on how the person receiving the comments or whistles feels about the encounter,” Brand said.
A request to use Ruth Orkin’s famous photograph, “An American Girl in Italy,” to illustrate this story, for example, was denied by the director of Orkin’s archive. Why? Because neither the woman photographed, nor Orkin, experienced the scene as street harassment.
Who calls and gets called?
The stereotypical catcaller is someone with traditional masculine traits, say, a construction worker or a truck driver, while women are the stereotypical recipients of catcalls.
But people of color, and LGBTQIA+ individuals, and people with disabilities are also subjected to discriminatory language in public.
In Flagstaff, Brand says she has heard reports of people of color being shouted at from moving vehicles, women being followed around by people asking for their phone numbers, and lesbian/gay couples being publicly shamed for showing affection toward one another.
Men can be catcalled by women or by other men, as these responses to the Facebook post reveal:
I was catcalled in the Castro many times when I lived in SF in the 80’s. The extent of my own catcalling was to follow my well-meaning Dad’s advice two or three times and suggest a woman smile.
Never been one to do that myself but I’ve gotten it a lot while biking, and actually I used to get them while surveying on construction sites from women in passing cars. How’s that for irony?! It never bothered me personally.
Only two people admitted to catcalling:
I catcalled a girl once. I shouted “You are a goddess!” From a car window. We ended up dating. But that was it. That type of behavior strikes me as weird.
I too have “cat called” while working on construction site. All the ugly stinky guys all day. Beautiful, clean, looking gal walks by. Brightens one’s day. We were on roof top looking down on 8th street. I was just saying, Hey, hey, wait for me. I ran down by the time I got to the ground floor I was out of breath. Just to get a smile was worth it.
That last comment was from Melo Dominguez, a transgender Tucson artist. Dominguez passed as male in his 20s when he worked construction jobs in downtown Los Angeles.
“I was working day in and day out, from five in the morning to three in the afternoon with all these stinky men. We were always filthy and dirty,” Dominguez said.
Catcalling was something he and the men on the job site did together. “It broke up our day from the monotony,” he said.
Dominquez also knows what it’s like to be harassed. He was once touched by an elderly man on an L.A. bus and said he was bullied growing up for being gay and transgender.
“All through elementary school, I got bullied. I would get bullied by the girls. It was kind of tough. I’d have to go use the same bathroom. No counselors or teachers are there to protect you,” he said.
Dominguez, now 39 and wiser, said his actions towards women were never about dominance, only appreciation. “Now when I think about it and the issues that are arising and that so many women feeling terrible, I feel really ashamed that I really did that,” he said.
Is there a regional catcall?
Brand says street harassment and catcalling may look and sound different across cities and regions, but that the behaviors are fairly consistent nationally.
When it came to “appreciating” women with language, Dominguez learned terms from his grandfather and uncle in Los Angeles.
“Tenderoni was one of them. ‘Ooh, she’s a tenderoni.’ Like the Michael Jackson song,” he said. “Also chulada, which means, ‘Wow, she’s hot,’ or gonzo, which is Italian for hot or gorgeous.”
Ernesto Portillo, Jr., a columnist and cultural commentator for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, has heard the chiflado, a whistle, in Mexican songs, not on the street.
“In our region generally we’re seen as Mexican and Mexican American, living in a rough hewn border region, very macho. There’s got to be this habit of catcalls, right?” Portillo says.
But the closest thing he’s seen is “just leering, not verbal, the checking out, up and down, sideways,” he says. “I haven’t heard the word mamacita or mamasota thrown out. But maybe I’m just not listening.”
Performing culture and gender
Amalia Mora, a folklorist at the University of Arizona, says catcalling and street harassment do manifest differently in different places. This recreation of the New York City Hollaback! video in Aukland, New Zealand, revealed significantly less harassment, for example.
Mora says she began to understand the importance of cultural context for harassment when conducting research in India, where she was grabbed by a man in public. “In India, it is very common for men to grab women, particularly in crowds. It’s not excusable, but I also understood it as a performance.”
In many cultures, boys telling stories among boys is a way of posturing and showing power, Mora says, as in “Look at what I can do,” or “I did this to this girl.”
“The act of catcalling itself is part of this oral tradition that men use to create rumors or stories about themselves for each other,” she says.
Street harassment is something men have learned to enact. “It’s not necessarily something they enjoy doing. It’s often a way of asserting their own masculinity to themselves or those around them. It is this kind of performance that boys in big adult bodies enact,” she says.
Mora, the program coordinator for the University of Arizona Consortium on Gender-based violence, acknowledges that this view doesn’t necessarily erase the emotional pain street harassment might cause. But she says it might ultimately help victims free themselves from a dangerous power dynamic.
“As soon as you can see the perpetrator as weak you realize how much more power you have. They can’t even take their own initiative to define their own masculinity,” she says. “They are almost puppets, being performed.”
Culture of worth
Gabriel Ayala, a professional musician from the Pascua Yaqui tribe, grew up in a culture of respect. Raised by his grandmother, two aunts, and a female cousin, he viewed women as powerful from a very young age.
“I was raised to see that women are sacred, women are givers of life, the closest to a creator we can be,” he said.
While he saw catcalling happen when he was younger, he said it was something he could never understand. “I’m a reflection of those that raised me. To do something like catcall would tarnish who my grandmother was. That would be the worst thing I could do.”
Ayala sees catcalling as something that happens under peer pressure. “You have a group of guys where everyone’s trying to outdo each other, trying to be the alpha. Stupid things happen when you’re trying to compete with that. The women are the ones who have to pay the price.”
In his work mentoring young people, Ayala offers messages to young women about their own sacredness. “Young girls they must now command and demand that respect,” he said.
Ayala has also used his professional platform to raise awareness around harassment and sexual assault, particularly around the issue of murdered and missing indigenous women (MMIW).
Creating a new culture
Victims of street harassment often share common experiences both during and after being harassed. Many report feeling resentful of being seen sexually by strangers in public and some continue to feel unsafe afterwards.
Part of what organizations like Stop Street Harassment and Hollaback! do is help to create a culture that counters the culture of dominance.
One of the greatest coping mechanisms for those who’ve been harassed is sharing stories with others on online platforms, said Brand. “It brings about a feeling of catharsis. After sharing these stories, victims offer their support of one another by clicking a button (similar to the “Like” button on Facebook) that declares, ‘I’ve got your back!’”
Others find creative ways to deal with catcalls on the spot, like this Facebook respondent:
Two sketchy dudes were sitting in a doorway downtown. One starts in on me as I passed, “Hey baby hey! I’m single.” I stopped, turned around. Looked him up and down, and then said, “I’m not surprised.” His friend burst out laughing. He turned beet red. I walked calmly away without saying another word.
Musical artists have also responded to street harassment. Riot Grrrl Berlin compiled music from 95 bands from around the world in various genres to create “Cats Against Catcalling,” which BitchMedia reviewed it here in 2013.
Since street harassment and sexual violence are complex issues, Abril believes art offers an important way to address them. He coordinates HeyBaby! Art Against Sexual Violence, an online art archive and periodic public exhibit that gives people a chance to express their experiences creatively.
Art is very much about trial and error, so it fits the issue well, he said, “You’re using a kind of inquiry, you’re testing, you’re trying out, you’re searching, you’re never settling for one message because there is no one message.”
HeyBaby!’s current exhibit, “Unmarked Evidence”: An Art Exhibit on Gender-Based Violence” is on display through the end of March at the Health Sciences Library at the University Medical Center. It is a collaboration between HeyBaby! Art Against Sexual Violence, PSA Art Awakenings, and the University of Arizona Consortium on Gender-based Violence.
In addition to art, Abril says current social movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp are bringing street harassment and larger issues of sexual harassment and assault into the public arena. “Maybe things are changing,” he said.
Stop Street Harassment is an international organization dedicated to documenting and ending gender-based street harassment worldwide. New research they commissioned reveal the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault: 81% of women and 43% of men report experiencing some form of it in their lifetime. A New York Times story about the research is here.
Hollaback! works to end harassment through innovative strategies that ensure equal access to public spaces, both on the street and online.
University of Arizona’s Consortium on Gender-based Violence brings together research, pedagogy, outreach, service, and student engagement both on and off campus to eradicate social and cultural attitudes that recreate cycles of violence.
Here’s a great This American Life story about the time reporter Eleanor Gordon Smith confronted her catcallers.