The History Of Catcalling: Meaning, Motivation, And Intentions

By: Lindsay Hamilton

Updated August 26, 2021

Catcalling is familiar to most adults today. Whether the catcall is a wolf-whistle sung by a group of men or is a call-out, supposedly complimenting a woman's body, most women have been or know someone who has been catcalled. Reactions to catcalling are multifaceted and diverse; some men and women believe that calling catcalling a form of harassment is excessive. Others firmly believe that catcalling is a harmful practice that should be treated as harassment.

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Despite the different reactions to catcalling currently circulating throughout the internet and daily interactions, some research bodies have developed concrete notions concerning catcalling and the harm that it can create-both for women and for the men who catcall.

What Is Catcalling?

There are different types of catcalling, but the two most common forms are wolf-whistling (a two-note whistle containing an initial high note, followed by a low note) and shout compliments. Catcalling can be done up close, when two people share a small space, but is more often done when there is a distance between people, such as when a woman is walking by a man or group of men or someone drives by.

By its very nature, catcalling is a form of objectification; catcalling is not used as an indicator of a woman's wit, intelligence, presence of mind, or innate goodness, but as a means of demonstrating that a woman's physical appearance is in some way alluring or appealing. Catcalling does not have to use callous or crude language to be considered obscene or offensive. It is physical or sexual and is more often employed when men are in pairs or groups, rather than when they are alone solitary men are certainly also capable of the practice.

Women can also catcall, but the practice is typically associated with men. As is often the case with sexual harassment, some women are guilty of demeaning and objectifying men. Still, men do the vast majority of objectification. One of the most common ways men objectify women is by catcalling, a behavior that women report having experienced in childhood and adulthood.

Catcalling: A History

The exact origin of catcalling remains somewhat ambiguous, but there are some theories about where the practice began to gain traction. Most attribute the popularity of catcalling to the work of Tex Avery, a man known for his groundbreaking cartoons. The most prominent origin of catcalling in media (and, consequently, in American culture) is a piece created by Avery, in which a wolf emphatically whistles and drools over a performing woman, seemingly so overwhelmed by the attraction that he resorts to beating himself over the head to stem the flow of desire.

As these cartoons gained in popularity, the advent of catcalling continued to gain traction. Young men and adults alike began to adopt the practice. For some, catcalling was seen as an innocent diversion and expression of attraction, while for others, catcalling had far more horrifying consequences, as was the case for Emmett Till, who was lynched for the practice at the age of 14.

Catcalling's history is far from innocent, and despite the persistent suggestion that a wolf-whistle or shouted comment about a woman's body is actually a compliment that should be taken and accepted graciously, plenty of women had historical precedent for being less-than-pleased with having a man shout at her, comment on her body outside of a relationship, or employ a whistle originally designed to herald the arrival of a wolf among sheep and their shepherds.

The Purpose Of Catcalling

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In Avery's cartoons, the wolf-whistle was used as a way to express the wolf's overwhelming attraction. The wolf in question used a whistle as a means of getting the attention of the object of his attraction, and miraculously, it worked; in the cartoon, the woman on the receiving end of the whistle does, indeed, wind up sitting beside the wolf. In actual human interactions, however, the purpose of catcalling is less sincere. One study asserted that men used catcalling and street harassment as a way of "putting women in their place" in an attempt to assert dominance and improve their self-esteem.

Some men report catcalling as something far less suspect. However, it is still self-focused, rather than being considerate of women: some men reported simply wanting to capture a woman's attention and elicit a reaction. The goal of such an exchange, arguably, is to interact with a woman the man considers attractive or worthy of his attention. Although this motivation is far more innocuous than demeaning a woman, it still has some problems, as some women continue to feel harassed, overwhelmed, and uncomfortable with this type of exchange and see catcalling as a form of harassment-or, at least, a source of discomfort and intimidation.

Why Catcalling Is Problematic

Despite initially being seen as innocent by some, catcalling is problematic because it is harassment. Compliments are offered, not inflicted, and involve some amount of polite behavior and respect. Catcalling defies these definitions, instead opting for objectification and disrespect. Catcalling is problematic because:

1) Catcalling May Make Women Feel Unsafe

Women have reported feeling unsafe when they are being catcalled. The severity of this feeling varies; some women feel they need to get away to avoid scrutiny, while others fear for their physical safety and health. Although certainly not every single woman who has ever been catcalled feels she is in mortal peril, an overwhelming majority felt uncomfortable, unsafe, and displeased with the interaction and worked hard to get away.

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As a result of the fearsome women feel after being catcalled, some women reported engaging in avoidant behavior and refusing to go places alone or at certain times of the day, to decrease the likelihood of being catcalled or harassed.

2) Catcalling Can Be Psychologically Damaging

Some studies have found that women report negative psychological effects after being catcalled, the most prominent being a distinct and sudden drop in self-esteem and an increase in self-objectification. Despite the defensive argument that catcalling is a compliment and should lift self-esteem, many women feel unseen, unheard, and objectified by being yelled at, whistled at, or commented on when only their body is up for evaluation and consideration. Far from being innocuous or harmless, catcalling can inflict mental and emotional harm on the women involved.

Alternatives To Catcalling

The most notable alternative to catcalling is simply staying silent; there is no reason that men should feel entitled to calling out to a woman and letting her know whether or not she appears attractive. If an attractive woman walks by, she is simply that: an attractive woman walking by. She is not a temptation or a source of your destructive libido. Calling out to her is neither necessary nor useful. If you wish to let a woman know you find her attractive, there are certainly kinder and more effective ways to do this: calmly approaching her to let her know you found her attractive or even simply striking up a conversation are preferable alternatives to catcalling.

In closer settings, where wolf-whistling might be more common, letting a woman know you find the whole of her attractive is far more pleasant and considerate than dissembling her into individual parts. Saying, "I saw you when you walked by and was struck by how beautiful you are," is far kinder and impressive than a glib, "I like your rack." Tasteful and considerate will always be taken and understood better than demeaning and reductive.

Seeking Help

In some situations, seeking help may be necessary whether you are a woman who has been catcalled or you are a man who has used catcalling as a way to approach women. Women who have experienced this form of harassment might struggle with self-esteem and self-objectification, which can have negative psychological impacts. Seeking a therapist can help you improve self-esteem and limit or eliminate self-objectification, increasing your courage and ability to stand up for yourself and engage in healthy and effective self-care.

Conversely, if you are someone who has used catcalling, you may benefit from the intervention of a therapist who can help you uncover possible reasons for your behavior and feelings toward women. Although not every man who catcalls sees women as inferior beings, few would argue that catcalling is a sign of deference or respect, which is problematic; women should be viewed as deserving of basic respect, regardless of how attractive or unattractive they are.

Meeting with a therapist can be done through a local therapy office or clinic or begun as a part of a community or church program. Therapy can also be completed online through sites such as ReGain.us, which allows you to receive therapy from the comfort of your home. Feeling disrespected, yourself, or feeling disrespect toward others does not have to indicate the presence of a personality or mood disorder but can nevertheless be useful to talk through with a mental health professional to help create healthier thought patterns, communication habits, and interactions with others.

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Catcalling: History, Motivation, And Meaning

While some still consider catcalling harmless, many women are deeply uncomfortable and unsettled by being whistled at, called after, or sexualized. Far from being relegated to a single part of the world or an indicator of a single culture, catcalling is demonstrably problematic worldwide and has even been banned in some parts of the world, citing its use as a form of harassment. Whether you believe that catcalling is harmless or seen as painful and inappropriate, evidence suggests that it is not a simple compliment or an entirely benign practice.


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