Opinion

Catcalling isn't flirting, it's sexual harassment. Here's why

Any man who is confused about the difference between flattery and abuse needs to ask themselves this one simple question, says Andrea Nagel

05 August 2018 - 00:00 By Andrea Nagel
We don't mind a little male attention, just don't force it down our throats.
We don't mind a little male attention, just don't force it down our throats.
Image: Supplied

Last week a woman in Paris who told a catcalling man to shut up had an ashtray thrown at her and, when she didn't back down, was smacked in the face by the man.

Since then she has been lauded by women in France and around the world for standing up to him. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, wrote in response to a tweet by the victim of the attack, 22-year-old architecture student Marie Laguerre: "Total solidarity! Thank you Marie Laguerre for your courage! Stop harassment!"

But, as an article in the Daily Telegraph said this week, "those who report street harassment are regularly ridiculed in the press and depicted as over-reacting. In fact, even Laguerre's description of her assault has been described in some media reports as an 'outburst'."

There's also an argument I've been hearing lately that goes like this: "What? Don't women want to be admired and appreciated? Should the sexual dynamics giving rise to flirtatiousness be suppressed altogether? Do we want to live in a world in which there's no chemistry between the sexes, in which no man can tell a woman how great she looks?"

Anyone who thinks catcalling and wolf whistling should be considered just the tiniest bit flattering should reconsider their position. Catcalling is not flirtation, nor can it be equated with giving a compliment, and should never be confused with either.

There's still a good chunk of people who, unfortunately and surprisingly, don't see the distinction between a compliment and harassment.

Flirting is about playfulness, catcalling is intended to demean; flirting assumes equality between the parties, catcalling is about dominance and manipulating the power dynamics of patriarchy; flirting is humanising, catcalling is objectifying; flirting is fun, catcalling is scary; flirting is consensual, catcalling is about power and control; flirting is one-on-one, catcalling is about group dynamics; flirting is respectful and catcalling is just plain f**king rude.

As a mental exercise, let's turn the tables. If a group of women were sitting around in a public space and a man walking past elicited lewd comments or whistles from them, how would he feel? My guess is uncomfortable, perhaps flattered (who knows?) but not threatened.

Commenting on my breasts or legs is not flattery and you know it

But if a pack of flamboyantly gay men hypothetically catcalled the catcaller, calling out in a public place to a burly, straight masculine man: "Ohhh, nice pecs hunny. Damn boy, that hard hat makes me hard," chances are he would feel angry or threatened or abused and probably all of the above by being "complimented" by someone he's not interested in, reduced to nothing more than a sexual object and told so in public by a man.

It goes without saying that if you truly want to compliment someone, you should do so respectfully and politely. Commenting on my breasts or legs is not flattery and you know it.

A catcall, an unsolicited dick pic, unwanted attention in a bar or touching me in any way that I have not endorsed is a form of violence. It's plain abusive.

And if you still don't know the difference between flattery and abuse, put yourself through the asshole test. Ask yourself the simple question: "Am I being an asshole?" The answer should be clear. And if it's not, you are.


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