The History Of Catcalling: Meaning, Motivation, And Intentions

By Sparklle Rainne (They/Them)|Updated March 28, 2022

Catcalling is unfortunately familiar to most adults today. Whether the catcall is a wolf-whistle sung by a group of men or words supposedly complimenting a woman’s body, most people have been or know someone who has been catcalled. Reactions to catcalling are multifaceted and diverse, but it is not a positive habit to participate in or take up. When you catcall someone, it may make them incredibly uncomfortable, and it is a form of harassment regardless of intent or response.

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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 the target of the catcalling and the people 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 shouted 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 person’s wit, intelligence, presence of mind, or innate goodness, but as a means of demonstrating that a person’s - often, 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 frequently physical or sexual and is more often employed when men are in pairs or groups, rather than when they are alone. That said, solitary individuals are certainly also capable of the practice, as are women.

People of all genders can catcall, but the practice is typically and historically associated with men. As is often the case with sexual harassment, some women are guilty of demeaning and objectifying men. Still, statistically, men often engage in the majority of objectification. One of the most common ways men objectify women is indeed through 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 and how the term itself came about. 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

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 can be 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 own 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 that can feel demeaning.

Why Catcalling Is Problematic

Despite initially being seen as innocent by some, catcalling is problematic because it is harassment. True 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. People deserve to move through the world safely, but many people are not afforded this liberty. Remember that it is not necessarily reflective of other people’s experiences if you have not felt this lack of safety and that these scenarios are serious. They can even have legal implications.

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 person walks by, they are simply that: an attractive person walking by. Calling out to them is neither necessary nor useful. Be aware that, even if you have had a seemingly approving reaction in the past - perhaps, you catcalled someone, and they said “thank you” - the positive response may have been a mode of self-protection. The person may actually have felt unsafe. Also consider that every individual is different and will likely feel and respond differently to this type of interaction.

What’s an alternative, then? It depends on the context. First and foremost, be aware that the person you want to approach may not share the same sexual or romantic orientation as you. They could also be monogamous and partnered. A lack of interest on the other side is possible for anyone who finds another person attractive, and it’s not necessarily personal. It is something you must have full respect for, however, and something that you must be ready to take. If you want to garner an individual’s attention, often a better approach is to simply try to talk with them or give a simple, respectful greeting rather than a whistle.

If you’re in an appropriate environment, strike up a conversation. Ask a question or provide a non-sexual compliment. Don’t cross into someone’s physical space (especially with the pandemic in mind) and keep it respectful. For example, “You don’t have to answer if you want, but I noticed your Pink Floyd shirt. What other bands are you into?” or, “Hopefully, this is alright to say - I couldn’t help but notice how well your hair compliments your eyes!”

Seeking Help

In some situations, seeking help may be necessary whether you are someone who has been catcalled or you are a person who has used catcalling as a way to approach others. Again, this is a form of harassment, which can have negative psychological impacts. Seeing a therapist can be advantageous for anyone who wishes to address self-esteem, nervousness, the reality of moving through the world and how to cope, relationships, social interactions, and more.

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 these actions. Although not every person who catcalls sees the person they catcall as an inferior being, few would argue that catcalling is a sign of deference or respect, and at the end of the day, it can hurt other people, which is problematic. All people 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, clinic, or a low-cost community or church program. Therapy can also be completed online through sites such as ReGain, which allows you to receive therapy from the comfort of your home. A mental health professional can help create healthier thought patterns, communication habits, and interactions with others. They are here to provide a space for you to speak on any life concerns you have, whether those relate to catcalling or not.

Sign up for ReGain today or locate someone to work with in your area to get the support and empowerment you need.

Catcalling: History, Motivation, And Meaning

To recap, while some still consider catcalling harmless, many people 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 an illegal 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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